Saturday, January 10, 2009

India's top science institute must now tackle social needs

India's top science institute must now tackle social needs

T.V. Padma

23 December 2008 | EN

The Indian Institute of Science is a shining example of how a developing country can do basic science, but it needs to link its research more to social needs.

Universities in the developing world are sometimes urged to focus on research that is directly relevant to the problems facing their countries, leaving basic research to richer nations in the North. But that approach ignores the fact that basic science provides the bedrock of knowledge needed for developing practical solutions to such problems.

The Indian Institute of Science (IISc), based in Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore) and now celebrating its centenary year, demonstrates the value of committing to basic research.

Yet its report card is mixed on helping to solve development challenges. A balance needs to be struck between these two imperatives.

Applied beginnings

IISc’s history spans the period leading from British rule in the late nineteenth century through political independence to India’s emergence as a potential global economic power. Along the way, IISc spawned or helped nurture some of independent India’s fledgling new science institutes and departments, as well producing many eminent scientists and influential policymakers.

The idea of creating the IISc came when a prominent Indian industrialist, Jamshedji Nusserwanji Tata, decided to donate a part of his fortune to setting up a high-quality postgraduate science research and teaching institute. Initially, the British viceroy, George Nathaniel Curzon, opposed the idea, arguing that it was too ambitious given the limited university education available in India at that time.

Tata died in 1904 with his dream unrealised. But Curzon subsequently relented and authorised the setting up of the institute in 1908. In what was probably the country’s first public-private partnership, the institute was built with Tata’s funds on 400 acres of land donated by the then king of Mysore.

The institute opened in 1911 with two departments, (chemistry and electrical engineering) and 24 students. The institute was initially application-oriented, investigating avenues such as the generation of electrical energy from water and the extraction of oil from sandalwood.

When India became independent in 1947, IISc-trained scientists were crucial to the country’s nascent aeronautics, metallurgy and electronics programmes. For example, some made up the first faculty members of the new Indian Institute of Technology in Khargapur, while others headed India’s space and atomic energy programmes, as well the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.

Basic capacity

But as the number of departments increased, IISc gradually broadened its focus to include basic science. In the process, it became home to two of India’s greatest scientists: its only Nobel Laureate, Chandrasekhar Venkata Raman (discoverer of the physics of scattering light known as the Raman Effect and G. N. Ramachandran, who deduced the triple helix structure of collagen.

Developing countries need a critical mass of scientists in various disciplines, first to understand the fundamentals of science, and then to apply scientific results to local problems. This means that solving practical problems can't be done without adequate investment in the underlying science.

The challenge is to frame a basic research agenda that considers the eventual need to produce 'useful' knowledge, and doesn't become socially irrelevant by focusing excessively on pursuing knowledge for its own sake.

IISc has served India well in terms of contributing a critical mass of scientists. But during a four-day conference held in Bengaluru earlier this month, as part of centenary celebrations, a strong theme emerged: that IISc should now consider reorienting some of its expertise to help solve India’s pressing development problems.

In recent years, IISc’s collaboration with foreign companies and the private sector has tended to overshadow some of its efforts in applying science directly to social needs. For example, in 1974 the institute started a centre for rural technology, later expanded and renamed Centre for Sustainable Technologies.

Yet IISc could do more to link its basic research with applications, rather than let the two evolve as separate islands.

Excellence and relevance

Specific suggestions at the Bengaluru conference ranged from working on drinking water and sanitation, infectious diseases and vaccines, to crop productivity, solving the city’s traffic chaos, and tackling rising pollution and global warming.

Certainly IISc has a core competence in disciplines, ranging from computer sciences, nanotechnology, biotechnology and biology, ecology to environment and earth sciences, that could be harnessed more directly to practical applications.

For example, IISc's physicists have produced internationally recognised results in nanoscience. One research team is already working on practical engineering problems, such as how to coat plates with nanomaterials for purifying industrial waste waters and removing fluoride and arsenic from ground water.

The prospect of collaboration with global companies, and the prestige of publications and patents, can make it difficult for developing country institutes to focus on less glamorous projects that directly improve the lives of the poor. That’s particularly true when science citations continue to be the yardstick of scientific achievement.

But excellence in basic sciences needs to go hand in hand with relevance to social needs. In 1927 Mahatma Gandhi visited IISc and remarked: "Unless all the discoveries that you make have the welfare of the poor as the end in view, all your workshops will be really no better than Satan's workshops." His message should not be forgotten.

T V Padma
South Asia Regional Co-ordinator, SciDev.Net

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