Four Nobel laureates and a winner of the Fields medal — considered the most prestigious prize in mathematics — said Monday that efforts to make high-technology products in India, as outlined in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Make in India programme, will not benefit the country in the long term unless backed by sustained investments in basic science and the fostering of the spirit of curiosity.
The five scientists were speaking at the Science Congress in Mysuru, where they are star attractions. David Gross of the United States won the Nobel prize for physics in 2004, Israeli scientist Dan Schectman for chemistry in 2011, French scientist Serge Haroche for physics in 2012, and British biologist John Gurdon for medicine in 2012, while Indian-origin Manjul Bhargava won the Fields medal is 2014.
“New inventions, technologies, products that can compete on the world stage are in the end based on new discoveries, new understanding of the workings of nature — what we call basic science, which eventually translates into applied sciences and technologies. So my suggestion is that you replace the slogan ‘Make In India’ with the slogan ‘Discover, Invent and Make in India’,” Gross said.
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Gross said he was impressed by Modi’s ‘Make in India’ push while inaugurating the Science Congress Sunday but felt some elements for ‘Make in India’ were missing. “One should modify Modiji’s ‘Make in India’ slogan. I think it is a necessary goal for Indian society — you now buy and assemble in India at best. But in order to make in India and to be competitive in today’s world, you have to invent new products, new technologies in India, and in order to invent you will have to discover in India,” Gross said.
The share of investment in research and development in India has remained largely unchanged in the last 15 years, he said. “I gather that at the Indian Science Congress over the last 10 years every prime minister has promised to increase R&D spend from 0.8 per cent (of GDP). The numbers I am seeing are very flat. If this continues, there will only be a few centres of excellence in India. If you invest the way South Korea, China, US and Europe have done in science, you will start competing and leading,” Gross said.
Haroche said “basic science or science that is driven by curiosity is the foundation on which application and innovation can be produced”. Investments in basic science today “will take tens of years to translate into a better life and to translate into innovation and applications”, he said. The challenge for democracies, including India, is in getting politicians now focused on short-term electoral gains to invest in long-term goals like the development of basic sciences, he said.
“One of the weaknesses of science in democracies is the fact that it is difficult to look ahead in the long term. On the other hand, R&D needs freedom and the thing with science in China is that though they have the money, the freedom that exists in Europe and India is not there,” he said. Democracies like India need to invest in basic science with a long-term view while protecting the freedom of scientists, he said. “I am optimistic that if we do that then in the future democracies we will be able to sustain in comparison to China, even if China is doing more,” Haroche said.
Bhargava said India needs a cultural shift where people are oriented to pursuing science. “Right now, for several years the norm has been for talented people to go into engineering. You need to develop a culture in India where more and more young people who are talented and interested in science take up science and that will help not just making in India but also discovering in India,” Bhargava said.
Apart from a basic science foundation, a goal like Make in India also needs education to expand, Gross said. “You have to expand education by a factor of 10 because India is a huge country and education is an enormous problem. You have to increase the number of teachers by a factor of 10. You have to study other success stories,” he said, citing South Korea as an example.
For many people to think science is great, you have to teach them science at a very early age, said Shechtman. “Start teaching science in early primary school so that young people understand the world around them. It is a strategic plan. It takes years, 20 years, 30 years. But if you continue to do it year after year, the future of India will be very, very bright,’’ Shechtman said.
Gurdon said India needs to introduce financial schemes to fund young science aspirants since this can be “enormously beneficial in enabling those with real talent to get into science at an early age and become world leaders in due course”.