Indian Science in the Global Context

It is a miracle indeed that I’m able to speak this afternoon as due to my very severe throat infection, I was barely audible to myself this morning1 In spite of that I feel some new energy IN ME, because of the   four incredibly inspiring addresses that I have had the fortune to listen to since morning.

Let me begin by saying that we have to look at the Indian science in the global context, not in the Indian context alone. Or in other words, we must take an outside-in view rather than merely an inside-out view.

The whole world has become one today, otherwise the economic meltdown that began in USA would not have had such a dramatic influence on all of us. It is a world, that is intensely and intricately interconnected. What you wish to do will not be determined by only what you wish to do but also by what others are doing. Therefore, this evaluation of Indian science  in a global context becomes absolutely inevitable.

The ‘history of science’ is what we are used to talking about, but now a new terminology is emerging, namely ‘geography of science”. History of science remains unaltered, because it reflects the past, and the past cannot be altered, but “geography of science’ changes dynamically as we move on.
Let me explain what I mean.. If you look at the number of scientific publications in the peer reviewed journals in the field of material science 15 years ago, it was US that was  number one, Europe was in number two position, and Asia Pacific in number three position. Last year if you see the same data on publications in Materials science , it is exactly the other way round, with Asia Pacific jumping to the number one position, Europe as number two and USA becoming number three. In 1996, India was ahead of China in terms of the number of scientific research papers published, 10 years down the line,  China’s number is  three times higher than the Indian number.

As Edison had wisely said, one can always do things “better”. We have done well in Indian science, but we can always do things better. I will set a  five point agenda dealing with how and what we can do better.

The first is that in anything we do, we need to have speed, a scale, and sustainability.  Let us talk about our speed first, the time scale on which we convert intent into reality.

I remember  the last meeting  of the Science Advisory Committee to the Prime Minister(SAC-PM) held in late1989 at the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s residence.  I happened to be a member of that SAC (PM) and I participated in that meeting. The PM said that we must increase out science and technology  spend to 2% of our GDP. Mr Seshan was sitting  next to me. He told the PM “Sir, we do not have money!” Rajiv Gandhi, in response , simply smiled and said. “Seshan ji,  let us keep 2% of GDP for our science and technology first and then allocate the rest of the money for the other 0needs of the country”. That was the commitment made by the then Prime Minister in 1989, twenty years ago.

Then came the Indian Science Congress in the year 200 that was held in Pune.. I was then the president of Indian Science Congress Association. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the then Prime Minister of India, in his inspiring speech, again made an explicit statement about raising the S&T expenditure to 2% of GDP.

I was again very encouraged, when I heard in the science congress in Shillong early this year our current PM, Dr Man Mohan Singh, reiterating strongly that the Government will raise the S&T expenditure  to 2%. of   GDP. So we have seen this sincere desire at the highest political level of raising the S&T expenditure to 2% of GDP for the last twenty years, but we have hovered around less than 1% all these years!

And look at our Asian neighbours. I was in Taiwan two months ago to attend the Science Academy President’s meeting. I saw China, Taiwan, Singapore, Korea, and so on not only already achieving this feat of 2% , but even having an ambition to exceed this target.  20 years is a long time after we declared our intention but we have still not made it in to a realty. The concept of an NSF like structure for Science funding was proposed twenty years ago in the SAC-PM meetings. It is only now that that intent is becoming a reality with the formation of the National Science and Engineering Board! So, my friends, we need speed! Otherwise we cannot compete.

After “Speed”, the second issue is that of ‘scale.’ I remember making a presentation to the current Prime Minister during a SAC(PM) meeting three years ago, where I mentioned that in 2008 Indian Institute of Science will be celebrating 100 years. And then, paradoxically, that will be the only Institute of Science in the country  of a billion plus for over 1oo years, and that too not set up by the government of India , but by the house of Tatas!

I’m delighted to see the initiatives by the current Government of the widest expansion of our higher  education system since independence, including the creation of several new Indian Institutes of Science Education Research, new IITs, new world class universities, and so on. We are a country of a billion plus, not few millions. We require massive scales. And again, it is here that I congratulate our Secretary of Department of Science and Technology Ramasami for launching the programme INSPIRE, which will attract not just a few hundred young Indian school children to science, but hundreds of thousands of them!   We cannot be satisfied by producing 5000 PhDs in science and engineering  per year, we must produce 50,000 per year. These are the scales that we must reach.
And after speed and scale, it is “sustainability.” You take any area of specialization and you start counting the number of scientists of world class on whom you can count on. If you get 5 you are lucky, if you get 10 you are very lucky. It is the same thing with leadership. When I took over as the Director General of CSIR and met Ashok Ganguly in London  he asked me if I had found my successor.  And mind you, I had just taken over the position barely a month earlier! There was a subtle and strong message that Ashok Ganguly was giving me. A leader’s first priority is to create leaders. Are we creating enough leaders? I do not think so. I strongly believe that sustainability requires building of critical mass of world class experts, and that of  great science leaders — and we are not doing well on this count .

What is the second point on the agenda for doing “better”? It is the present Indian university system that raises a deep concern.. I have often said that if Indian universities die, India will die. Universities have to be the fountainheads of new knowledge.  Our universities must recognize that teaching without research is sterile True autonomy, flexibility and freedom of thought and action are the bedrocks on which great universities are built. These are all sourly missing. Today  we have many crisis. Lack of teachers is one such crisis.  We have to declare the lack of number of teachers and their quality as a crisis and deal with it on an emergency basis, even by launching a national mission..

What is the third point on the agenda that will help us do  “better”? It is the recognition of the seamlessness of science, technology, and innovation. Last year, I traveled to various countries. like Malaysia ,South Africa, Australia,  UK and so on. Everywhere, I have met the minister of science, technology, and innovation, not of science , or not of science and technology. The Royal Society now would be completing 350 years and is not only looking at achievements in science and technology for electing the Fellows of Royal Society. They  have a standing committee created by the President to consider candidates having done pathbreaking innovation, going beyond the mere publication of scientific research papers. We have to understand the subtlety and the critical importance of this continuum of science, technology and innovation, just as USA, Europe and Japan have understood.
The syndrome of “ publish or perish” must give way to “patent, publish and prosper” The other nations are creating wealth on the basis of the scientific work being done in India You might ask me as to whether I have some evidence with me on this. Indeed,. I have. Let me explain.

One can do a citation analysis in the case of the patents that have been granted around the world also, just as we do citation analysis in the case of scientific research papers. Many patents give cross references to the scientific research papers on which their patents are based. I requested CSIR’s Unit on Research and Development on Information Products ( URDIP) at Pune to do such an analysis in the case of some of India’s leading scientists. And you heard, in the morning, Prof C,N.R. Rao making a reference to the evidence I had made available to him. In fact in his case, we found a particular Japanese company following his scientific research work closely in a specific area, and building a patent portfolio around it! And believe me, he is not the only one!.

It is not entirely the fault of Indian scientists. The fault lies in our not having a “national innovation eco system,” which comprises several elements , including intellectual property awareness, support systems for scientists doing bench work in terms of both specially trained IP experts, who can help them in patenting, as well as specially earmarked financing for patenting, availability of venture capital, especially the one, which provides early stage financing, and borders around “adventure capital”, a value system, that values science that can be put to use, etc. Most importantly, our scientists must understand the route from “Saraswati to Lakshmi”, the wealth creation potential of some of the Indian science, of course, not all of it.

I firmly believe that the ideas generated by an Indian scientific mind in India working in a Indian university or a laboratory must generate wealth in India and not abroad. It is Indian tax payer’s money after all that is supporting this scientific research!

I have a specific suggestion to make. In 1958, India had the science policy resolution. In 1983 we had our technology policy. In 2003, we saw the connect between science and technology and created a science and technology policy. I think we now require a science, technology, and innovation policy.

What else can we do better? The fourth point on my agenda is that it is time now that Indian science must begin to make a “difference” to the world of science. They say only two people are remembered in science, those who say the first word and those who say the last word. How many times have we said the first word? How many times have we said the last word?  We have invariably   looked through windows that others have opened up. When are we going to open up new windows ourselves through which others will start looking?  For doing this, we require a fundamental change. Richard Feynman   had said, “The challenge is not to create new ideas, the challenge is to escape the old ideas. To escape the old ideas, we need irreverence”. How do we create this culture of irreverence, where our young students will begin to challenge the established? A culture where irreverence will be tolerated and not demolished? Where there will be a tolerance for risk taking and failure?

The fifth point on my agenda  is about creating a new engineering, with new message and a purpose.  Whether it is economic meltdown or climate change or creating an equitable world, what we do require is Gandhian engineering. This is getting “more from less for more, and that means for more and people of the world. And not just a privileged few,   When  Ratan Tata creates a Nano car, a people’s car, priced at a mere$2000, he is doing Gandhian engineering, by achieving “more for less for more people’. I think India has a tremendous opportunity to not only practice but preach Gandhian engineering to the rest of the world, a world that will then be more equitable,. a word that will be sustainable ,a world that will see “inclusive growth” and not an “exclusive” one as we see today.

There are many ways, in which the impact of science that one does is measured. H index is very popular today Yes we can certainly use it as   a measure to see as to where Indian science stands in the global context. But in the end, Indian science must make a difference to India. We need to create a new index, an   I-Index, which is the Indian index, which will not only cater to the assessment of the pride that Indian science brings to India, but also the “good” that it does to the Indian population by addressing the daunting challenges that India faces, that no other scientist in the world will be bothering to invest the time and energy in. Every Indian scientist must ultimately say, “ India matters to me. I want to do that science that will prove that I want to matter to India, more.”

Finally INSA will move from Platinum Jubilee to Centenary in 2034. I certainly   would not be there, but one person who would definitely be there, would be one who gave the inaugural lecture today, Prof C.N.R.Rao. I was amazed to see his passion and commitment to science. At the age of 75, he was assuring us that last year was his best year in science! You  know what he would be saying   in 2034, when he will deliver the centenary lecture? He would be saying “ You know 2033 was my best year”.

I believe  Indian science can make the twenty first century as India’s century, if every Indian scientist commits himself to imbibing this spirit, commitment and passion.