National Science Day: Investment in blue skies research will pay rich dividends

Published on Feb 28, 2018 11:08 AM IST

What is urgently needed is institutional science leadership that is ambitious, nurtures creativity and protects it

Students at Institute of Nano Science and Technology, Sector 64, Mohali, Punjab(Anil Dayal/HT)
Students at Institute of Nano Science and Technology, Sector 64, Mohali, Punjab(Anil Dayal/HT)
ByK VijayRaghavan

National Science Day, commemorating the discovery of the Raman effect, is a good time to discuss ‘science-for-the-future’. A strong intellectual foundation in school and college, where creativity in encouraged, is essential for quality science. From such a foundation, curious scientists and technologists emerge to address important problems.

How do we know that today’s science will have value? We don’t. Raman Spectroscopy has major applications today, but its scope was unimaginable then. Today’s applications came from work done decades ago. Some applications, such as those from the work by CV Raman or JC Bose are direct. Others, such as those from mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan are indirect, impacting theoretical physics.

If we cannot predict what will be useful for the future, can we at least ask if, post-Independence, our efforts of a few decades ago are paying off today? If yes, then increased investment in blue sky research, where rewards are not apparent and questions at the frontier are addressed, is worth it. If we cannot list even a few successes maybe we have a serious problem.

Fortunately, Indian research has seen many successes and we should be proud of them. When the Steve Wozniaks of the world accuse us of not being creative and a country of rote-learners, they are only half right. While we do need to unleash our creative strengths, we have not done too badly despite them being leashed. Now imagine what we can do when they are unleashed.

Shambhu Nath De’s discovery of the cholera toxin in the 1950s transformed our understanding and treatment of cholera, and was valuable in understanding how signals from the outside are read by cells. GN Ramachandran’s work on protein structure is one of the pillars of modern structural biology. MK Bhan’s discovery of an attenuated rotavirus led, decades later, to a cheap indigenous vaccine.

Today, we also have unleashed a secret weapon. Proactive leadership and the highlighting of inspiring role-models are bringing in more women into science. The public sector has also incubated for the future.

The positive lessons from the recent past are simple. Strong institutions with strong leadership allow creativity of all kinds to thrive . Could we have done better? Not likely under the shackles of the past. The vibrancy of our science is but a microcosm of the vibrancy of our society.

Post- Independence, we failed by not creating a wide, inclusive and quality school and college system. The explanations are many, but this is what needs to be addressed speedily, and recommendations of the committee on the new education policy are eagerly awaited. We have also failed by creating a false dichotomy between basic and applied science. Here too scientists are a microcosm of our society. As citizens, we have demanded that all problems of the commons be sorted. This is a valid demand, but as citizens we rarely see ourselves as part of the solution. Scientists are citizens first. We must see ourselves and our institutions as part of the solution.

Just as creativity can be nurtured by quality leadership and a connect to society, we should not underestimate the value of technology. It is difficult to have a Hariprasad Chaurasia if we restricted the availability of flutes or an Amrita Sher-Gil if paints and brushes are not available. Science needs substantially more investment and also a dynamic global connect.

Given that we cannot predict the future, in what directions should we embark?

One chapter of the latest economic survey is on Transforming Science and Technology and the chief economic advisor deserves praise for a must-read analysis of the present and what we must do for the future. Among other suggestions, the survey advocates national science missions. These include the study of dark matter, genomics, mathematics, cyber-physical systems and artificial intelligence, energy storage systems, and science and technology in agriculture. Ten years on we will appreciate this document 10 times more than we do now.

The cynic would say that these are mere recommendations and would demand that a cheque be signed before we proceed. This, paradoxically, will be putting the cart before the horse. Resources are important, and will and must be found. What is urgently needed is institutional science leadership that is ambitious, nurtures creativity and protects it. A long and essential journey of adventure and ambition is sometimes best started instead of only being discussed. Today is a good day.

K VjjayRaghavan is professor, National Centre for Biological Sciences, TIFR

The views expressed are personal

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