Business Today

Has Scientific Research in India Kept Pace with the Country's Economic Progress?

An elite panel attempts to answer this question, and more, in this discussion on Securing India's Scientific Future.

Print Edition: January 24, 2010

To promote research in science in India, Infosys recently awarded the Infosys Prize, India's largest prize for pure and applied sciences. The annual award (this is the first year) of Rs 50 lakh each in five categories is the Bangalore-headquartered IT services giant's effort to promote research in sciences in India. For this purpose, it has set up the Infosys Science Foundation, a not-for-profit trust that has N.R. Narayana Murthy as the President of the Board of Trustees.

To raise awareness about the importance of scientific research, a discussion on Securing India's Scientific Future was hosted by Infosys and Business Today at the Infy campus. Apart from Murthy, the other panellists were P. Anandan, Managing Director, Microsoft Research India, Professor P. Balaram, Director, Indian Institute of Science, Shiraz Minwalla, a string theorist and Assistant Professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, and Professor R.S. Deshpande, Director, Institute for Social and Economic Change. BT's Managing Editor Brian Carvalho moderated the discussion. Excerpts:

BT: Thank you gentlemen and welcome to this panel discussion on Securing India's Scientific Future. Thank you, Mr Murthy, for having me in the midst of this elite panel. It would appear that the glass is kind of half-full, half-empty today in terms of scientific research. If you go back to the ‘60s and '70s, there was a lot of activity happening and we were right up there with the top countries in the world. Somehow, we seem to have lost some ground there in terms of the quality of research as well as the quantity, the number of people coming into the field.

But that is just one half of the story. The good news is that activity seems to be picking up, if the output from scientific publications, and strides taken in life and physical sciences are anything to go by. The nub of the problem, however, is finding the right talent. Mr Murthy, if I could begin with you, do you think scientific research has suffered or become a victim of economic liberalisation— in that talented people have brighter opportunities to chase elsewhere?

Murthy: In some sense yes, in some sense no. Yes, because today youngsters have opportunities in a wide variety of fields, jobs that give good disposable income, jobs that give them very good career prospects. Added to this is the fact that today we have not somehow enthused our youngsters as much as Jawaharlal Nehru did in the '60s. In spite of all of this, there are a lot of good young researchers entering institutes of learning. I think today we receive many applications every year from good PhDs to work in our software engineering and technology labs, and they are working in leading edge areas.

BT: Dr Anandan, perhaps you could give us your personal experience in terms of attracting talent. Technical manpower seems to be in plenty, but do you get the kind of quality that you desire?

Dr Anandan: We set up our lab in 2005 in India, we have five other labs around the world, so we are part of a sixlab family (in Microsoft). When we came, it was with the premise that education and research is on an upswing in India and will take off. The way I used to look at it is we were at the heel of kind of an S-curve. We have had a lot of interest from PhDs to do research in our lab; interestingly a lot of them are people of Indian origin studying abroad—those doing their PhDs abroad. We found that many Indians who are young and are finishing their PhD have a desire to come back and do something in India, which is I think somewhat different from the situation 20 years ago.

BT: Prof. Deshpande, the social science sector is probably not getting its share of investments, particularly when it comes to agriculture and rural development, and the states are notorious for being stingy with their funds. Is raising money a problem for you?

Prof. Deshpande: Certainly. I often say that as far as the social sciences are concerned, we are sitting on a time bomb; it is ticking and in the next five or seven years we would have a crisis of talent. Budgets have always been stingy in social sciences, but that may not be the problem. The problem is that the money alone does not make you a social scientist—it is the commitment to society that makes you a social scientist—and over the years we are likely to have very low commitment towards social sciences.

BT: Mr Murthy, how easy is it to raise money for research?

Murthy: There are various mechanisms. I am glad the government has decided to enhance the budget for higher education in the next and succeeding five-year plans. Second, I think private foundations in India will have to play a role in supporting researchers. Third, the industry will have to collaborate with the ecosystem to fund research projects that have value to the industry, that have value to advancing the field and to the country.

BT: Prof. Minwalla, what is your observation of the kind of students who come to your lectures; do they have that broad outlook that is needed for research?

Prof. Minwalla: I have been in India at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research for almost four years now, and prior to that I was in a good American university (Harvard). When mentally preparing myself for the move back, I had expected that I would get students who were less good just because Harvard gets to pick up the bulk of brighter students. To my surprise, the PhD students have been of the level of the better students at Harvard. This could be a statistical fluctuation, but in my experience the student quality has been way beyond my expectations.

BT: Mr Murthy, what would you say is the biggest bane of scientific research today?

Murthy: It is the lack of autonomy to our institutions of higher learning in science and technology; it is the difficulty in enabling interaction between the best researchers in the world and the researchers in India; it is the system of governance that has been put in place by successive governments in institutions of higher learning. In order to overcome all these things, we have to work double hard.

BT: Prof Minwalla, how do we make research more attractive to students?

Prof. Minwalla: We somehow need to reach out to the really young people, high school students and enthuse them. I have a colleague (string theorist Sumit Das) who can trace the moment when he decided to be a scientist—his English teacher, who was describing a Wordsworth poem, said okay this is boring, let me tell you something interesting and he tells them about activities of the world. He was just a great guy this English teacher and Sumit was very young, and he said from that moment on I knew I wanted to be a scientist.

If you have such inspirational teachers it is very good. However, it should be said that for a country of our size, our effective pool for tapping scientific talent is small; that is because a very small fraction born in India have a realistic chance to become something like a scientist 20-30 years down the line. To fix that we need to do more than just inspire the available middle-class students; we need to take opportunity to parts of India where it does not exist, essentially through solid primary and secondary education.

BT: Mr Murthy, do you think the onus would lie on successful entrepreneurs like you to take education down to the grassroots?

Murthy: This is not a task that can be borne by a smaller entity than the government. However, there will have to be individuals and organisations in the private sector that will cooperate with the government. For example, my friend Azim Premji of Wipro has a foundation whose aim is to enhance the quality of primary education in the country… Our own foundation—Infosys Foundation—is helping rural children by way of scholarships, by way of creating libraries in thousands of villages.

BT: Prof. Balaram, I wanted to put a question to you about the temperament required for research... how much of freedom is good enough for a researcher?

Prof. Balaram: A successful researcher really marches to the tune of his own drum. I don't think any administrator tells the researcher what to do; as Director of the Indian Institute of Science, I certainly don't tell any faculty member what it is that he or she should be doing. The people who are successful researchers are those who are driven by urges to work on specific kinds of problems and who have an intuitive understanding of whether a problem is important or not.

But in India I think researchers also need another quality; they need to be resilient… you should not be easily discouraged by your environment, which is not hostile but is usually indifferent. I think researchers many a times are like children: They would like to be constantly applauded and I think if they were mentally prepared to being ignored, they would do very well.

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