An Expert Explains: ‘Need ease of doing science, wider distribution of grants’

What is the job of the Principal Scientific Advisor (PSA); what will be your focus?

The role of the PSA is to coordinate across various science ministries and to advise the right things, not just about what is happening but also about what is futuristic, so that the country is tech ready. We need to interface with many stakeholders. Our job is to make an ecosystem which is inclusive. This is a very challenging job and the PSA’s office has been doing a really great job. My predecessors have been iconic. I hope we can take it forward.

In the last four years, I have been a member of the Prime Minister’s Science, Technology, and Innovation Advisory Council (PM-STIAC). Our group had very, very extensive discussions. The outcome was that we identified nine missions, four of which have been started. The other five are in various stages; we have to see that they are taken forward.

We will also have to look at other challenges of the future.

One of the areas is future vaccinations. We have learned from Covid-19 but that was in a very reactive mode. We reacted to the pandemic very successfully. Now the question is can we have a policy in place for future vaccines? We have to brainstorm with various stakeholders such as the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Health, etc.

How will semiconductor mission help?

We have launched a big program on semiconductor technology; the country has set aside Rs 75,000 crore. There are many verticals under the program, which will include innovations from academia too. It is a very comprehensive, graded roadmap – first manufacturing, then innovations. I wish we had got into it earlier, but now we are in it.

How will the opening of the space sector to private players change space science?

You can imagine that there will be big synergy with the private sector, which was more or less absent. Earlier, we were designing the satellites, we were launching them, we were managing them, we were doing everything. All that will change and it will amplify; it can’t take away anything from the program.

My feeling is that it is a very good thing which is going to trigger many more innovations. I hope one day we may have some people in India who are the equivalent of SpaceX. We have billionaires in the country, we already have launch vehicle developers… Why shouldn’t we dream of that?

What needs to be done to improve the quality of science in India?

First we have to make sure that there is ease of doing science. The Prime Minister speaks of the ease of doing business, ease of living, similarly we need ease of doing science. It is very important. You have to make sure that the scientists are really well supported. At the same time, we have to be responsible and do the science at the front end, fundamental science; publish in the best journals.

Also, we have to be sensitive towards translational research. Translational research is not only about copying others, but based on your fundamental research. This is where nations make big technology and huge money. We need to make patented technology; that doesn’t come from second-hand knowledge. And that the country has to generate enough of it.

If you see the curve of science growth in India, it is positive all the time, it has accelerated to some extent over the last few years. But we have to increase it further. It means that businesses and industry should have confidence in our science, and not go and buy technology from elsewhere… Industry already has increasing confidence in our science; it should be such that they come to us first to solve their problems.

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This needs to happen widely, and not just in a few pockets of excellence. Can we increase their number to hundred? That should be our target.

How would we achieve this?

Funding is a big part of the solution, but it is not the only component. The funding should also be absorbed correctly. If somebody gives me money and I don’t know what to do with it, I will buy junk.

Now, there is sensitivity among various funding agencies to go out of their way to state universities and colleges that don’t compete with say, IISc and IITs. That is happening already, and we will amplify.

(Edited excerpts)

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