Veteran chemist and head of the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, C.N.R. Rao, who was recently conferred the Bharat Ratna, tells Divya Gandhi about why he thinks “little labs,” not “mission-oriented agencies,” are the true crucibles of Indian science; on the industry’s duty towards supporting research; and about the unlikely research problem that preoccupies him today. Excerpts:
With about 1,500 papers to your credit, you have been described as one of the most “prolific” scientists who has dealt in diverse fields as liquid nitrogen, nano materials, superconductivity, and more recently with artificial photosynthesis and carbon sequestering. How flexible is science in India in allowing scientists to research in areas unconnected with their field of specilaisation?
At one time it was difficult to get funding for diverse areas of interest that a person may have had. Today, if a scientist has clear cut ideas in any field, he can get reasonable support. Generally, grants are given by subject committees, making them highly discipline-oriented. However, there are means of getting interdisciplinary grants through the new Science and Engineering Research Board that was created recently.
What then would you say enabled you to carry out interdisciplinary research at a time when there was little systemic encouragement?
First, you have to be able to think in an interdisciplinary way, approach a problem in an interdisciplinary way. I am an interdisciplinary scientist. I am for instance working now on a major paper that deals with physics. Yes, for years disciplines were kept apart. But fortunately today most subjects are themselves becoming interdisciplinary. The frontiers of biology now deal with physics and computational science. Some of the greatest works in medical science today borrow from chemical engineering and nanotechnology. If India has to make it to the cutting edge of science, it will have to embrace an interdisciplinary approach.
Is your most recent area of research perhaps your biggest such departure from your original specialisations in solid state chemistry?
Over the last two years I have been working on something that I believed was of direct use to humankind, related to energy. I have been working on artificial photosynthesis to produce hydrogen. I didn’t initially want to work on it… I thought I was too old to start something so new.
But I have had a grand time and one major result has just come out in the Proceedings of National Academy of Science. I am right now writing about how we can produce hydrogen using very simple semiconductor hetero-structures that we make in the lab using artificial photosynthesis.
If I can find a way to make hydrogen easily using solar energy and a way to store it, it would be a phenomenal contribution. Water can eventually be decomposed to hydrogen and oxygen. But that needs extremely high temperatures. Now, if I can somehow bring that down to ordinary temperatures, that would be truly wonderful.
Science funding is nowhere near being two per cent of the GDP as you have recommended. Is the space programme getting greater prominence in terms of scientific activity in India, and a larger share of funding?
But that [space programme] has nothing to do with science. Often when we talk about the science budget, we are told about space and atomic energy. But that has nothing to with science. Most of it is about technology. There is very little new science in space technology. It is all known science. So they should not be included in science funding. Science funding is about funding required by little people like me.
Right now, our total science funding, including space and atomic energy, is still less than one per cent of the GDP. We have been promised by the Prime Minister that it will be two per cent.
But for that, the industry has to contribute and directly support research. If I were in America, half of my research money would have been granted by industrial support.
In the U.S. and in South Korea, for instance, nearly 45-50 per cent of research is industry funded. In India, their contribution towards scientific activity is less than 10 per cent.
So we really need industry support. They should support both long-term and short-term research. They will after all benefit from it in the future.
Why do you believe the space programme and atomic energy have very little “new science” to offer?
Both these mission-oriented agencies are involved in developing technology such as reactors, rockets and so on. These are important things. However, progress in real science occurs through small science done in little laboratories by individual scientists. For example, progress in biology, chemistry or physics, is not because of the work of big agencies or mission-oriented programmes.
They may support basic science in some of their institutions, but their own mission, where much expenditure is incurred, is not related to fundamental science.
If we want to be world leaders in science, it will have to be by supporting the little science of people in educational and research institutions.