Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering Interview – 22 May, 2018


1. Why is the Queen Elizabeth Prize (QE Prize) so important? How can it inspire the future generations?

Dr. Mashelkar: Nobel prizes in chemistry, physics, economics, literature, peace and physiology or medicine over the years have acknowledged the path breaking human achievements in these fields.

There was no such equivalent of Nobel prize in engineering. And that is surprising, since engineering has played such a transformative role over centuries. QE prize, for the first time, has set up an equivalent of a Nobel prize in engineering to recognise the ground breaking work of engineers that brings global benefit to humanity.

The life & work of QE prize winners will be an inspiration for young aspiring engineers. I experienced this myself. In my Sir Louis Matheson Distinguished Lecture Series in Monash University last month I gave a lecture on `Future of Engineering and Engineering our Future’ (https://echo360.org.au/media/5af3dc53-dc27-4d2b-91bc-be44d40e4985/public). There, I displayed the work and achievements of the last three years’ QE prize winners. I said that as NextGen engineers they must aspire to win this Nobel Prize equivalent in engineering. The excitement amongst the young students was palpable! I am sure the inspiration experienced in that lecture hall in Monash will start reverberating through the global young engineering community, as it sees more and more iconic QE prize winners in future.

2. Can you tell me about your initial interests in engineering – what inspired you to pursue the career?
Dr. Mashelkar: My science teacher Narhari Bhave in Union High School in Mumbai was in a way responsible for creating a trigger for my becoming an engineer.

One simple experiment in physics that he did, when I was just 13 year old, stands out in my memory. He took us out into the sun. He wanted to show us as to how to find the focal length of a convex lens. He held a convex lens in one hand, a piece of paper in other hand, and moved the lens up and down. When the brightest spot appeared on the paper, he said that the distance between the convex lens and the paper was the focal length. He held the paper for a while and the paper burnt. He said to me `If you focus like this, you can burn anything, you can achieve anything in the world’. That was an inspiring message for me- “Focus and you will achieve”.

But that simple experiment was followed by a challenge he gave us. Why should we use kerosene to do cooking? Can we not use sun’s energy for that purpose? I kept on thinking on how one could do it on a large scale. After all, you can’t have thousands of convex lenses to concentrate solar energy.

But more clarity emerged when my teacher demonstrated the process to make soap in our lab and followed it up by our visit to a Hindustan Lever factory in Mumbai. There we saw the manufacturing of thousands of soaps in an assembly line. I understood the power of engineering, making goods on a large scale for society, and also doing good for society. Engineering appeared as a noble profession to me. That inspired me. So at a very early age, I decided to become an engineer. The credit really goes to my high school teacher, Narhari Bhave!

3. The UK and India have recently set out a number of initiatives designed to help with the progression of technology and science, by sharing expertise. (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-and-india-agree-ambitious-new-tech-partnership) Why do you think it is important to share knowledge across borders?

Dr. Mashelkar: India & UK always had vibrant links in research but now these are getting extended to innovation also. Research converts money into knowledge. Innovation converts knowledge into money. And the way to do it is increasingly by innovative co-creation in a borderless world through partnership.

UK has been the second biggest science partner with India. UK has been always amongst the top few nations in science, whereas India is the fastest rising nation in term of science. UK is already a start-up nation, the Cambridge phenomenon took place 30 years ago. India is a ‘starting up’ nation. The Bangalore phenomenon has taken place only in the past 10 years. So the partnership between UK and India can be a win-win, not only for them both, but for the whole world.

I have a few suggestions on what can be done to make these links more inspiring and impactful.

First, we should create a Indo-UK young scientists network by picking up the brightest scientists in their early thirties from India and UK and funding joint projects. These early bonds will persevere for next five-six decades. And who knows they might jointly win a Nobel Prize or QE prize one day!

Second, inclusive innovation with `affordable excellence’ is what the world needs. While Indian scientists and engineers have an uncanny ability to think and design for extreme affordability, UK scientists dazzle in excellence. Joining hands for such affordable excellence projects, say in health, education, energy, food security and communication, could be a win-win.

Third, UK is already digital. India is on its way to becoming digital. For example, in mobile data transmission, India jumped from the 155th position two years ago to the first position six months ago. Therefore, there is a great scope for creating joint virtual centres of excellence and innovation, which can create enormous impact.

Fourth, India and UK should work on grand challenges that will not only be mutually beneficial, but bring benefits to the world. Take the specific challenge in our war on climate change. Who knows, a grand challenge set up to convert carbon dioxide by a disruptive photocatalytic technology at atmospheric temperature and pressure to synthetic fuels may lead to a great breakthrough! The Newton-Bhaba Fund is a great idea. We can now raise the bar by tuning it to really ambitious grand challenges.

4. Engineering is one of the most common career choices in India (studies indicate that India produces 1.5 million engineers every year from 4000 institutes). Why do you think this is and can it be problematic?

Ans. In the India of the fifties, the career choice was largely made by the parents. In a poverty-stricken India, parents would naturally choose a profession that provided the family with the highest income. And that profession used to be engineering back then.

In later generations, the choice was made by the young students themselves, who looked for big career opportunities. As Indian manufacturing industry grew in all sectors, demands for engineering graduates increased. As India grew as a software power, with offshoring growing exponentially, Y2K challenge appearing at the turn of the century, very large job opportunities came up and software engineering became the most sought after.

I remember that a couple of decades ago, one third of the Indian export was created by young IT and IT service engineers (who constituted only 0.06% of Indian population) with an average age of 26 years! That demand remains unabated. Now, every year, 300,000 engineers are hired by IT and IT services industry.

Something or someone catches the imagination of the young and makes them want to emulate. In early eighties, when engineers like Narayana Murthy and Nandan Nilekani created Infosys as an IT start-up and went on to become billionaires, young people wanted to follow them by getting into engineering profession. When Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) created a world record by making India the first ever nation to successfully launch the Mars Orbiter Mission in its very first attempt, and that too at one tenth of the US costs for their Mars Mission, young people got inspired by this engineering feat and everyone wanted to join ISRO! When Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, an engineer, became India’s president, respect for the profession shot sky high!

What is the downside? Engineering schools have mushroomed. India is producing an extraordinary number of engineers. But does the quantity match the quality? The answer is no. In fact only a fraction of engineers turn out to be job worthy or job ready. Many companies, therefore, make the graduates go through `finishing schools’. So number without a consistent all-round quality is a big challenge!

5. Can you tell me about your approach to engineering and how to most effectively use resources to benefit the maximum amount of people?

Ans. What engineering would be most crucial for the 21st century? According to me, it will be ‘Gandhian engineering’. I remember two of Gandhi’s tenets: “I would prize every invention of science made for the benefit of all” and “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not every man’s greed”. The first tenet refers to equity. The second tenet refers to sustainability.

Serving the needs of billions of `have nots’ means making products and services available not just at `low cost’ but at `ultra-low cost’. But the `have nots’ do have aspiration for the highest quality and performance. This means doing what looks impossible at first sight. Despite income inequality, create access equality. But what does that mean?

Let us ask some challenging questions:

– Can we make high speed 4G internet available at 10 cents per GB, and make all voice calls free of cost – that too in a large and diverse country like India?
– Can we make high-quality but simple breast cancer screening available to every woman, that too at the extremely affordable cost of $1 per scan?

– Can we make a portable, high-tech ECG machine which can provide extremely accurate reports immediately and that too at the cost of 8 cents a test?

– Can we make highest quality eye imaging device that is portable, non-invasive and costs 3 times less than conventional devices?

Amazingly, all this has been achieved in India, not only by using technological innovation but also non-technological innovation.

Industrial enterprises strive for getting `more from less for more’. That meant getting more (performance) from less (resource) for more (profit). But Gandhian Engineering has a different message. It means getting more (performance) from less (resource) for more (people), not just for more (profit).

MLM philosophy of Gandhian Engineering is spreading worldwide now.
The emerging economies like India are going for it, since they see that the rising income inequality will create social disharmony. They find that Gandhian Engineering is the only way to solve the problem.

But the MLM strategy is spreading worldwide. It began with C.K. Prahalad and I writing a paper `Innovation’s Holy Grail: More from Less for More’ in Harvard Business Review (July-August 2010). This was followed by World Economic Forum holding a special session on More from Less from More’ on 16 November 2010. The message continues to spread, as Fraunhofer, Germany had a special colloquium on `More from Less for More’ in Munich on 29 October 2016.

But there is more serious interest. I was invited by the European Commission to do a strategy paper titled “Organising Inclusive Innovation for Accelerated Inclusive Growth” and later I was invited to give a talk on ‘Innovation under Adversity’ in Innovation 2014 conference organised by European Union in Brussels. Gandhian Engineering figured prominently here. Several discussions later, EU is beginning to realise that quality, sustainability and affordability together are going to be the key to EU’s competitive advantage, not just the first two on which EU had focused so far. So EU is bringing in policy changes to see how frugal innovation based on Gandhian Engineering principles can be used to create a strategic advantage.

Big enterprises like GE, Siemens, Unilever, etc. are changing their strategies to create products belonging to the `affordable excellence’ category by using MLM strategies. A classical case is GE’s affordable $ 600 portable ECG machine (MACTM i).

Top academics of the world are getting involved too. For instance, Harvard University researchers have created an inexpensive detector, just costing US$ 25 that can be used by health care workers in the world’s poorest areas to monitor diabetes, detect malaria, discover environmental pollutants, and perform tests that are done by machines that cost thousands of dollars.

Gandhian Engineering is all about creating a more equitable society. It is all about designing a sustainable future for the mankind. Therefore, I feel personally happy that Gandhian Engineering has caught the fancy of the world.

6. Can you divulge details on the current global skills gap in engineering (we have global data which shows a clear undersupply) and what this means for economic development

Dr. Mashelkar: Yes, indeed. A skills gap exists both in terms of quantity & quality, although the distribution is very uneven. For instance, the shortage in terms of numbers for advanced economies is larger than that for emerging economies, like India or China. Why this skill gap? Besides the obvious reasons of inability to attract students for the engineering stream, in the developed world, there are others too.

First, the rate of change itself is accelerating! Engineers created exponential technologies (IOT, Robotics, AI, AR, VR, Blockchain ….). But exponential technologies themselves are rapidly changing the nature of work and jobs for engineers, thereby creating a skill gap.

Second, the context itself is changing. Today we talk about Science 2.0, Education 3.0, Society 3.0 and Industry 4.0. The next generation of engineers have to be skilled to get fully aligned with these changes.

Third is the issue of dramatic paradigm shifts. Data is new oil now. AI is new electricity now. Business model innovations (like Uber) are leading to Transport as a Service (TAAS) disruption, which is affecting traditional industries in which engineers worked (e.g. auto industry, auto value chains (from repair and maintenance shops to car financing), trucking, shipping, etc.).

In my own profession, chemical engineering, we have moved our engineering from micro to meso to macro. Thus the range of length scales that we deal with range from nanometres (nano materials) to micron (microfluidics) to millimetres (granular materials) to meters (chemical reactors) to kilometres (atmosphere, oil resources).

To deal with all this we need to create next-gen engineers. They have to be solution engineers (who use trans-disciplinary thinking, since the distinction between engineering disciplines is vanishing), whole-brain engineers (will require both left and right brain, since human empathy will be as important as engineering) and holistic engineers (moving from simple to complicated to complex problems, which involve environment, economics, regulations, society ….).

Continuing this issue of the list of new skills requirement at the top of the list we will have complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, co-working, cognitive flexibility, and all these coupled with emotional intelligence.

What we have considered so far is the `why’ and `what’ part of the skill deficit. The `how’ part of creating the skills and competencies of it is equally important.

The engineering educational institutions will have to move from compliance to innovation and from collecting dots to connecting dots. The students’ paradigm shifts will involve moving from memorising to processing, from completing to creating, from answering to asking, from isolation to collaboration and from marching to reflecting.

The teachers will have to shift from being teacher-centred to student-driven, from telling to listening, from presenting to facilitating, from being content experts to process experts and from mass production to mass customisation.

7. What are your views for those considering a career in engineering?

Dr. Mashelkar: First and foremost, they must understand that engineering is a great bridge between science & society. So they should consider themselves as not the conventional brick and mortar bridge builders, but builders of a science-society bridge that will decide the future of humanity.

Why the future of humanity? Take just one example. The threat of climate change is real, and does not discriminate – it will affect all of us severely. It threatens the very continuity of life on our planet. We need innovation that will save the world, and engineers will have the gigantic task of doing it. So they can be the leaders in saving the world.

Finally, what should be their motivation? The inspiring inscription on the Lamme Medal of The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, USA says it all. It says “The engineer views hopefully the hitherto unattainable”. So they, as young engineers will not only be able to `view’ the unattainable but also `achieve’ the seemingly unattainable. What can be more exciting than that?

8. What are your career highlights to date?

Dr. Mashelkar: First, I broke convention by setting a small personal example of reversal of brain drain. I left attractive academic positions in US and UK and returned to India at an early age of 33 in response to the clarion call given by the then Prime Minister to reverse brain drain. Then, under very adverse and resource-starved conditions, I established India’s first ever polymer science and engineering department in National Chemical Laboratory, which later attained international acclaim.

Second, despite severe resource constraints, I was able to do quality research, mainly in engineering analysis of rheologically complex fluids, polymer reaction engineering and analysis, synthesis and novel applications of stimuli responsive polymers. This research earned me high accolades such as FRS, Fellowships of US National Academy of Science as well as Engineering, and even honorary doctorate from 39 Universities around the world. So I showed that it was not the `power of budgets’ but the `power of ideas’ that matter.

Third, I am proud to say that the idea of Gandhian Engineering in terms of `More from Less for More’ that I proposed ten years ago has spread around globally.

Fourth is about not only my doing science, but leading science, and making transformative changes. When I took over as Director of India’s National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) in 1989 I took up the challenge of converting it into an `International Chemical Laboratory’. We moved from import substitution to creating globally competitive technologies and international patenting. NCL began licensing its patents even to leading companies in Europe & U.S., becoming the first Indian laboratory to do such a `reverse transfer of technology’.

This leadership continued with my being appointed as the youngest Director General of Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR), which is one of world’s largest research & technology organisation with 40 National laboratories. I conceived & successfully led the process of transformation of CSIR. This has been heralded by some as being one of the ten most significant achievements of Indian science and technology in the twentieth century.

The fifth highlight makes me particularly proud as an engineer. I was just 39 years old when one of the toughest responsibilities was given to me by Government of India. I was appointed the Technical Assessor for the One Man Inquiry Commission that investigated world’s worst industrial disaster, the Bhopal Gas Tragedy that killed 3,787 people on 2 December 1982 and maimed thousands for life. Although there was a pressure to get foreign consultancy/advice, I said there was no need for that. Using our own strong indigenous capacity of complex engineering analysis, advanced modelling and simulation, I led the entire team that unravelled the cause of the accident.

Finally, the proudest moment of my career so far.

The day was 17 July 1998. On that day, a boy, who struggled to get his education due to extreme poverty, who studied under street lights and who walked kilometres on barefoot to his school, got inducted as Fellow of Royal Society and had the honour of signing in the same book in which Newton and Einstein had signed. That boy was me! That was the proudest moment of my life.