‘The rest of the world realised from Chandrayaan how you do science without being wasteful’

Sunil Kumar, the 14th president of Tufts University and alumnus of IISc, talks about what the research communities in India and the US could learn from each other and how the larger science community could benefit from cross-border collaborations 

Published - February 28, 2024 07:00 am IST - Bengaluru

Sunil Kumar, the fourteenth president of Tufts University in the US and an alumnus of IISc, is one of the co-chairs of the Association of American Universities Task Force.

Sunil Kumar, the fourteenth president of Tufts University in the US and an alumnus of IISc, is one of the co-chairs of the Association of American Universities Task Force.

In 2023, the Association of American Universities (AAU) formed a task force on expanding United States-India university partnerships with the idea of exploring how research institutions in both countries can work together to expand bilateral research and partnerships in higher education. 

A report released by the task force identified five high-impact areas of collaboration, including semiconductor technology and manufacturing, sustainable agriculture and food security, sustainable energy and the environment, health equity and pandemic preparedness, and other critical and emerging technologies such as advanced materials, telecommunications, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and quantum science.

Sunil Kumar, the fourteenth president of the Tufts University in the US, is one of the co-chairs of the task force. Kumar, who grew up in Bengaluru and is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), spoke to The Hindu on the AAU task force, what the research communities in India and the US could learn from each other and how the larger science community could benefit from cross-border collaborations.

The most exciting thing for the US to learn from India is from the Chandraayan mission. The fact that they went to the south pole of the moon in itself is spectacular. But what’s more interesting is how they got there, says Sunil Kumar. 

The most exciting thing for the US to learn from India is from the Chandraayan mission. The fact that they went to the south pole of the moon in itself is spectacular. But what’s more interesting is how they got there, says Sunil Kumar.  | Photo Credit: ANI / ISRO

Sunil Kumar says, “In India, what we can try to understand better is that research and science take a long time. You cannot take your focus off every five years and put it on something else. You can’t do quantum for two years and then two years later say I want to do semiconductors.”

Sunil Kumar says, “In India, what we can try to understand better is that research and science take a long time. You cannot take your focus off every five years and put it on something else. You can’t do quantum for two years and then two years later say I want to do semiconductors.” | Photo Credit: file photo

Excerpts from the interview on National Science Day.

Tell us about your journey to become the president of Tuft university? 

I grew up in Bengaluru, although we moved around in Karnataka. 

I went to NITK for my undergraduate. It was called Regional Engineering College then.  

After that, I went to IISc. I was in a programme called System Science and Automation. And then, I fell in love with academia. I realized what research really is and the life of a faculty member.  

Then, I went to the University of Illinois for my PhD. Later I got a job at Stanford and since then I’ve never left academia. 

At Stanford, I was tasked to run a school as one of the associate teams. That convinced me that I was good at being an academic leader. So, when Chicago made me the offer to be the dean, I took it even though I was relatively inexperienced and quite young. I was 41 then. Then, the rest was linear.  

What is your PhD on? 

I study systems affected by randomness. Right now, I have a project going on which asks the following question - suppose Uber was to be run by the city of Bengaluru rather than by a private for-profit company, then how would it price and dispatch cars if the goal is to maximize people’s access to vehicles rather than to maximize profit. That’s my current project. It’s based on data from New York City. Randomness plays a significant role here because depending on congestion, load, and so on, the answer changes a lot. 

Tell us a bit about AAU’s India task force 

AAU is a collection of 70 universities. Half of them are public, and the rest are private. Their main common theme is that they are the most active in research in the U.S. The criteria to be a member of AAU is that you must have research quantity above certain levels.  

Therefore, the focus of the India task force is on research and, in particular, on genuine kind of long-lasting collaborations in key research areas between the AAU member institutions and some of the Indian institutions like IISc and IITs.  

Could you elaborate on what would be the nature of these collaborations? 

Individual professors collaborate with each other all the time. The idea here is to explore whether institutions can collaborate by providing platforms in focused areas. We would incentivise many researchers to collaborate between the two countries and work in a specific area so that you have enough talent going after difficult problems. 

If you look at many of the problems that humanity faces today, such as climate change, pandemics and so on, they do not respect borders. But they also have a country-specific component to them. Those are the kinds of problems we are interested in. 

For example, we would study metabolism in different populations for causes of diabetes. We would do it here in India, as well as simultaneously in the US, and see what we can figure out about the nature of the impact of nutrition, for example, on people.  

So, there’s a basic component there which is combating diabetes, which is common to both societies. But it’s unlikely that the solution will be the same, that it will be country-specific. So that’s the idea. 

The report identifies five areas. 

I don’t think in the beginning we would start with all five. We would probably start with one or two. And depending on how well it succeeds, more such collaborations will happen. 

As someone familiar with the research scenario in India and the US, could you tell us about the similarities and differences between both? 

Similarity is easy. There are talented people everywhere.  

In the past, funding was easier in the US, but now I think there is plenty of funding in India as well. For research, they’re trying to set up the National Research Foundation. The various ministries are funding, but even more interestingly and importantly, private philanthropy has also stepped up. 

But there are ways in which things are different and where the countries can learn from each other.  

For example, the most exciting thing for the US to learn from India is from the Chandraayan mission. The fact that they went to the south pole of the moon in itself is spectacular. But what’s more interesting is how they got there.  

If you were less conscious of the cost of doing it, you wouldn’t have done it that way. So, there’s actually a lesson to be learned here on how cleverly it was done in India. The rest of the world realised from Chandrayaan how you do science without being wasteful. 

In India, what we can try to understand better is that research and science take a long time. You cannot take your focus off every five years and put it on something else. You can’t do quantum for two years and then two years later say I want to do semiconductors. All of them take decades. You have to be careful that you don’t give up too fast. 

What are your thoughts on the funding of research and science in India?

Rather than thinking of the dollar amounts being spent, I would think about what kind of science the country wants to do and then figure out what it takes to get there. I think the ambition is high now and is only getting higher. So, the funding will follow.  

Some science is problem-solving. Some of it is just expanding the body of knowledge. I got into particle physics. It is hard to prove that there’s direct use of some of that stuff. But understanding the world is a good ambition to have.  

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in

Comments

Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.