Blue skies re­search will pay rich div­i­dends

To­day is Na­tional Sci­ence Day, and a good time to plan for a sci­ence lead­er­ship that is am­bi­tious and creative

Hindustan Times (Gurgaon) - - Comment - K VIJAYRAGHAVAN K Vj­jayRagha­van is pro­fes­sor, Na­tional Cen­tre for Bi­o­log­i­cal Sciences, TIFR The views ex­pressed are per­sonal

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 on 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 skies 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, he is 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 of how sig­nals from the out­side are read by cells. GN Ra­machan­dran’s work on pro­tein struc­ture has been one of the pil­lars of modern struc­tural bi­ol­ogy.

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 this 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. Sci­ence needs sub­stan­tially more in­vest­ment and also a dy­namic global con­nect. Given that we can­not pre­dict the fu­ture, in what direc­tions should we em­bark?

Chap­ter 8 of the lat­est eco­nomic sur­vey is on Trans­form­ing Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy and the chief eco­nomic ad­viser de­serves praise. This is 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 range from 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 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.


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