Interviews |

High Risk-High Gain Changing Facets of Indian Research

New Delhi, 12 August (G’nY News service): Prof. Ashutosh Sharma, Secretary, Department of Science and Technology, in a fresh new take, shares his views about risk taking in science with the editor G’nY.

 

Do you think that the trajectory of scientific research in India has been satisfactory or is there a need to change the approach for result oriented and need based research?

One cannot generalise in extremes. It is like asking if the people of our nation are rich or poor. India is a big country and owing to its size and diversity, there are all kinds of people in our country. There can be no single answer to it. Similarly, there exists certain sections/departments in the nation that are more result oriented than others. There are good scientists and mediocre scientists, there are departments that are more aggressive towards results, and there are departments that focus more on the research than the goal.

An adage that it’s more important to participate than win a prize is a cultural disposition that is strongly tied to the core of India’s ideologies. It thus depends upon the perspective of an individual, which is as diverse as the country itself. Some people are goal oriented while others just believe that the means are as important as the goal.

You see, Indian science is beset by a plethora of issues. In fact the number of scientists in India is pretty low—presently there are below 200 scientists per million population. Most developed countries like South Korea, US, Japan, etc., have 6000-8000 scientists per million population. Compare that to 200—now that’s a challenge. Thus, scientists do not have enough people to interact with, which actually limits the exchange of scientific ideas. In addition, we rarely demand for the top bracket of technology; we care more for cost effectiveness and functionality.

As you are heading India’s Department of Science and Technology, do you want your people to be result oriented?

They have to be result oriented, but by utilising the right processes. There is a profusion of processes involved in every endeavour to reach a goal. It is highly important that these processes are structurally tuned so that the goals are achieved more effectively and in a shorter time.

In India, scientists have to wait a long time to even know whether their projects are going to be funded; sometimes this wait can be long and tedious. And, changes seep by the time the project gets a green flag—technology changes, science changes and even the focus may change. In my opinion, it is not fair for an aspiring researcher to wait this long for his project to be sanctioned. I think the entire process needs to be reconfigured, so that a scientist can start his research within three to four months of his submission. In fact the submission to funding process should not last more than four months.

We also have to keep in mind that everyone involved in the process should have enough professional reason to accelerate the part they play and thereby help sharpen our system.

How is streamlining these processes coming along?

No, these processes have not been implemented yet. They are just being introduced. Our objective is to get there effectively within the shortest time possible and in conformation to global benchmarks. There is also another aspect that I am excited to introduce into DST—the high risk high gain projects. This is perhaps the first time that such projects are being introduced in India. Mostly, a scientist is expected to succeed—we value success very highly. But, science by nature is an uncertain pursuit. We want to encourage scientists to take risks. Of course not absurd risks; but logical, well calculated risks. This would, in fact, help us in identifying the causes of any failure and also come up with contingency plans.

So, we are encouraging scientists to go ahead without hesitancy to opt for high risk high gain projects. I believe that this approach will result in inspiring discoveries.

Your dream project is about an application based smart phone? Can you please elaborate?

I am looking forward to steer such a programme in the recent future. This would go miles in empowering people to be self-dependent, especially rural India. What I envision would be the easiest way in utilising a platform that has sound penetration like say smartphones, with advanced technology including integrated optical sensors, computational powers and high speed RAM. Let’s say we come up with some testing tools in the form of an external sensor or chip that could be connected to a smartphone’s interface. So, you connect the chip to your smartphone and put a drop of water on it and it effectively measures the quality of the water droplet for you. It would be wondrous—cheap, reliable, user friendly and accessible for everyone. People would be able to do a plethora of necessary things themselves like monitoring the quality of food, water, drugs, and more.

What is your vision for DST?

We lack scientists in India. I feel an urgent need to increase this; our nation needs more scientists. I also feel that there is a dearth of research infrastructure in the country.
We (DST) are in the process of introducing a special fellowship programme for research scholars who have proven research credentials, but are unable to complete their work. Along with fellowship, we will also provide necessary funds so that they can go to a neighbouring university or research institutes to complete their research. They will be monitored constantly for evaluation. Also, we would expect them to publish at least one paper a year. The aim behind this would be to armour ourselves with a bigger workforce. We will induce R&D institutes and universities to accept them and sweeten the deal with financial aid.

I think this is going to go well with these institutes and universities as well because not only are they going to get a workforce and be paid for it but also enjoy widespread exposure with their names on each research paper. It is a win-win situation for both.

Secondly, we aim to ameliorate the quality of research in India. The high risk – high gain idea is significantly going to aid this and steer scientists in the direction of quality rather than quantity. We also have thought of a few other programmes specially tailored to address the issue of quality.

Thirdly, within our resources and mandates, we are trying to encourage the industry to connect with academia, so they could work together for precise deliverables of the industrial sector. The ultimate aim is to produce results for industrial R&D which in turn is expected to generate new economic opportunities for the nation.

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