Since taking charge five years ago, Ashutosh Sharma, Secretary, Department of Science and Technology, has been at the centre of the government’s major policy interventions and funding decisions in the field. Recently, his department announced 15 SATHI (Sophisticated Analytical & Technical Help Institutes) hubs with high-end infrastructure, which will not just help scientists and students but also start-ups and industries with R&D. A former student of IIT Kanpur, he was the head of the chemical engineering department and founding coordinator of the Nanosciences Centre and Advanced Imaging Centre at the institute.
ASHUTOSH SHARMA: The good news is that our budget has been doubled. So you can’t complain about a lack of resources. In terms of scientific output, India is at No. 5 position in the world. That’s a very positive story. Now, while we are doing good in terms of numbers, we also need to enhance the quality of our research, especially disruptive research… For that we have to move from incremental research to profound research. Ten per cent of our research budget has been kept aside for disruptive ideas.
The other weakness that we want to address is related to technology translation. So while we are very good at knowledge generation, we are not equally good at knowledge consumption. Most people think innovation is some great invention… Invention produces knowledge, but innovation is using this knowledge to create new economic and socio-economic opportunities. This is where our knowledge system has been a little bit weak… We need to complete this circle of knowledge, from invention to innovation. At the same time, we need to strengthen our innovation ecosystem. For that we have made about 70 new incubators in the last four years — the same number was set up in 40 years before that… We are looking at mentoring people, creating business plans for them, providing pre-incubation funding, fellowships… and connecting start-ups with established industries. We are strengthening every part of the chain with new schemes.
AMITABH SINHA: Even though the budget seems to have increased over the last five years, we hear voices from within the scientific community about fund cuts at both individual and institutional levels.
A part of the problem related to budgets and funding is perceptional. There has been an increase in fellowships, for example, varying from 15 to 35 per cent. Secondly, any increase is tagged with inflation. So if inflation is 10 per cent, then the increase (in funding) has to be more. We have to look at the indices, and there has to be a logic to it. We could obviously do with more, but this (current budget) was a reasonable raise — logical and rational.
Secondly, do we need more resources for scientific research? Certainly, and it has been growing. But, we must keep in mind the absorption capacity. If you look not just at research funding but research funding per scientist, then India would compare favourably with many countries. It’s because the number of our scientists is also much more limited. For example, we are almost six times smaller than China.
There are other factors too: one is the purchase power parity. If you look at it in terms of human resources, there is a huge differential. For example, a PhD student at MIT might cost about US $100,000 per year. So when you say that a million-dollar grant is typical in the US, the fact is that it only supports some PhD students. Here, all of that comes for free. A large number of our PhD students get fellowships from the government, different agencies, from the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Ministry of Human Resource Development, the University Grants Commission, and this is not factored in the research funding. About 80,000 PhD students in our country are supported through full fellowships. If you multiply this with $100,000 every year, you will see that the budget is actually much more than what is visible on the surface.
Having said that, we certainly do need more funding. Now that means we must define large missions which are relevant, of quality, and which would be useful in securing our future. There are three-four large-scale missions being formulated now and these will bring exciting new opportunities and more funding.
AMITABH SINHA: What are these new missions?
One of them is quantum devices and technologies. It’s for the future. We need to be ready for the future 10 years from now… The other is the clean energy mission. Clean energy in the Indian context has a somewhat different meaning than other places. We have lots of coal but the only way we are using it is for generating power, which is a ‘dirtier’ option. So we need to have a few things done immediately. One is clean coal production or clean power production using coal, which is called advanced ultra super-critical technology. We started working on it two years ago. In the next couple of years, all new power plants are going to use this technology, which increases the efficiency of power conversion and decreases the emission.
Another mission that is underway is ‘Map India’. It’s a huge technology mission. We could not have done this five years ago — to map every nook and corner of India at 10 cm accuracy, in terms of both height and lateral mapping, and then geotag all our assets, all our boundaries. It would be a game changer because something like this hasn’t happened in a hundred years.
AMITABH SINHA: Why doesn’t India have a world-class journal of its own?
It’s partly because of our cultural legacy… (We feel) that the things that we produce or have are not as good unless they are certified by somebody from outside. We need to work on this mindset. Today’s generation has much more confidence than my generation did. But there is this cultural legacy as per which we cannot be as successful in science as the so-called developed nations. For a century or more, our scientists have been going out. Now, we have introduced a new scheme under which the best global scientists can come here and work. It has been hugely successful. These scientists get integrated with our universities and IITs, spend up to three months every year in our country, and guide our PhD students. So, instead of sending a 100 students out, if one big scientist comes here, it produces a culture that influences 100 people right here. The scheme is called VAJRA (Visiting Advanced Joint Research) Faculty scheme. We had about 500 applicants and we chose only 50. The scheme has brought about a big change.
As for producing world-class journals, there is no differentiation now between international and national journals because all of them are held by multinationals. There is no country specificity. All journals are judged by the same yardstick — impact factor, citation rate etc. So, as we improve the quality of our journals, it will not be a question of who is publishing them. In fact our best journal, Indian journal if you may call it, was from the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bengaluru. It is now being published by an international conglomerate as well because it has greater reach. So what we need to strengthen — it doesn’t matter where it is published, don’t call it a national journal or international journal — is the quality and utilisation of our knowledge, and then many journals will come out.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: How does the HRD Minister asking IIT engineers to look into how Ram Setu was built impact the knowledge ecosystem?
I will not comment on what an individual has said. I think the larger issue here is that should we reject all traditional wisdom or knowledge outright. That would not be scientific. Clearly, there are issues related to sustainable growth, water conservation, traditional medicinal herbs, lifestyle choices such as yoga and meditation… we need to have a good scientific understanding and investigation into our traditional wisdom. We must not reject it simply because it is traditional wisdom. Some countries like China have monetised it. They have done a lot of research related to lifestyle choices, especially herbal treatments. In our case we have Ayurvedic treatments. It requires scientific investigation. To reject it would be unscientific.
AMITABH SINHA: What would the Chandrayaan-2 mission mean for Indian science?
(The Idea Exchange was held on September 2, before the mission failed.)
It’s a very good example of a mega project where you define the deliverables — this is the objective, this is the mission, and I have to bring all kinds of science and technology together to make it successful. India is a partner in many international mega projects. For example, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, the Thirty Meter Telescope, the largest telescope facility coming up in the world. Also in LIGO, which is detecting gravitational waves. Typically these are driven by the DST and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). We are typically 50-50 partners. And, in the future, if we were to set up this or the components of this technology, we would have the knowhow… We want that our industry should start bidding more and more for international projects based on the knowhow that is generated and passed on to them. So there are these big international tenders coming from CERN etc. Our industry must competitively participate in that process.
AMITABH SINHA: But unlike in other countries, we haven’t seen a very thriving private space industry in India. Why is technology diffusion not happening here?
There is absolutely no doubt that such a situation is very desirable because it is the muscle of the industry that drives the economy forward. But it is happening more and more. Perhaps 10-15 years ago the missions were very inwardly focused. (Now) the DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation), ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation), what you call the strategic departments dealing with science and technology, they are interfacing with the industry more and more. That is certainly a desirable direction and I am hopeful that more of it will happen.
RITIKA CHOPRA: There have been complaints from colleges of not getting enough students in pure sciences. Then, more than half the seats in engineering colleges in the country are vacant. Does that worry you as far as the future of science and technology is concerned?
We do need some very fundamental changes in our school education, in the sense that we need to become more critical, instead of just mugging up everything in the books and reproducing it in exams. What have we really learnt from school education? We have learnt to crack exams. If you ask someone, why are we actually going to school, they will say to get into IIT. And what after IIT? They will say I will get a job. The meaning of education, the capacity to learn in a changing world, has been reduced to this bottomline. It is not very conducive to either growth of knowledge or growth of the economy. The two are intertwined.
We have to produce thinking, living people — young people who have energy. It’s too late by the time you get to a PhD or get a job. That foundation starts from nursery. For example, if you want to get admission to MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), what do you do? They (the university) doesn’t just rely on a grade or a single school exam, they go ahead and conduct an interview. They look at extracurricular activities, they would look at what is the potential of this person. Can we do that? You would immediately see the problems in translating this idea in the context of the reality that we have. But it has to be addressed. There is absolutely no other option. We cannot be producing a large number of zombies. What we have is the individual brilliance of people, a desire to grow, a desire to be creative in finding solutions… How do we leverage that?
About the less interest in science, it has something to do with societal values and the industrial jobs that are available. If the industry was more knowledge-based, then you would have had more people pursuing science. It is a question of supply and demand. It’s the same for less interest in mathematics. There is a cultural aspect to it. I know that a lot of young girls are told in high school that mathematics is not for them, that their brains are wired differently. This is complete nonsense. So they opt for biology, medicine, but not mathematics. When people look at job opportunities in mathematics…they don’t realise that there are a lot of contemporary areas such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, Internet of Things, all of that is mathematics. So if we present mathematics in this way, it will be inspirational for our young people because they will then see the excitement and opportunities in the field.
What also worries me is that anybody who is bright is either doing medicine, engineering or MBA. Why are they not pursuing history, archaeology, philosophy? It is because of the societal values (attached to the) Arts. The top 10 per cent people of the country are only being drawn into certain professions and that makes for a very distorted society. So what is true of mathematics, is also true of the Arts.
RAJ KAMAL JHA: Is there an institutional way for the DST to convey some of these concerns to school boards such as the CBSC or ICSE?
There are. Under the umbrella of scientific social responsibility, there are a whole lot of things that go on. But finally, it is change within the society which leads to transformation. It does not come from the government.
AMITABH SINHA: You are a product of the IIT system. In the last 15 years, IITs have seen a huge expansion. Is it a step in the right direction?
It is true that for many decades we did not build anything. There were these five IITs… It would have been best if we had continued to build quality institutions. So if your question is do we need more (IITs), we certainly need more. Look at China. They have the same population as us. When I went to China 20 years ago, I said that they are far worse than us. We had better institutions than them. Then, they used to visit our IITs. I remember there was a delegation and they looked at what made IIT great etc. They looked very carefully into every process and then said that they would make a 100 next year.
So we certainly need more (institutions). Having said that, we have to pay attention to not just creating a brand but sustaining that brand. We need to get the right kind of faculty… The foundation should be strong. If you miss out on the right kind of human resources in the beginning, then it takes nearly a generation or two before you can bring about any change.
NANDAGOPAL RAJAN: Technology is always moving really fast, and policy seems to be lagging behind. Many companies are exploiting this, including data firms. Is there an effort to reduce this lag?
One has to be far more responsive to technology challenges today. I think there is a greater awareness of this in our bureaucratic mechanisms. Disruptive technology changes are coming at faster and faster speeds. Artificial intelligence, the rise of intelligent machines, is a very good example of it. So our scientists also have to wake up to the scale, speed and pervasiveness of the changes. These disruptive technology changes require that I be aware of not only what I do, but also all the proximal areas of technology.