It is not every day that scientists are lauded in our country. In the long history of Bharat Ratna only three scientists have been awarded this honour so far.
YourStory met eminent scientist Prof. CNR Rao, who was conferred the highest civilian award recently, and spoke to him about his life, trends in science and ways science can be made appealing to the masses.
YourStory: How did you get interested in science and particularly in chemistry? Was choosing a career in science more of a chance or a choice?
Prof Rao: I got interested in science when I was young after listening to Prof. C.V. Raman’s lecture in my school. However, the idea got crystallized by the time I finished my bachelor’s degree and proceeded to Banaras Hindu University to do a master’s degree. At that time, I read a famous book of Linus Pauling on the ‘Nature of the Chemical Bond’ that really excited me. I felt that I must do research in the kind of areas described in that book. I must say that taking up science was deliberate rather than accidental.
YS: Most of the top research institutes in the country are run by the government and there has been little breakthrough by private companies to promote scientific thinking and research in recent past. What steps according to you can be taken to encourage the entry of private sector companies to establish world class research labs in the country?
Prof Rao: Science in India is essentially government supported. No wonder, we are finding it difficult to get support, which is just about one per cent of the GDP. If we want more, I believe that the industry will also have to contribute. In countries like the United States, Japan and South Korea, 40-50% of science is supported by industry. I do hope that science will get more support from industry in the near future in India.
YS: Almost all the startups and companies which are emerging focus on either software/consumer products which are applications of existing principles but very few of them are helping towards research and new ideas. How do you think more people can be attracted to a career in core sciences?
Prof Rao: I believe that attracting young talent to science should occur by the way we teach science even at school level. Science can become attractive if students find the subject exciting. In fact, that is what happened to me when I was in school. The school teachers made science interesting for me. The same kind of exciting teachers were not there in the university. I believe that we should concentrate on teaching teachers at school level more.
YS: What is the biggest misconception in the minds of people about scientists? Do you think people are stereotyping them in some way or the other?
Prof Rao: Some people are in awe of scientists and there are some who think that they are a bunch of technical people who talk of things which nobody understands. But the real thing is, good scientists work on important problems. They innovate and try to climb the limitless ladder of excellence. It is like a great musician who is trying to improve himself all through his life. In a way, doing science to me is like a spiritual experience. Science is so much connected with the well-being of mankind and this need not be over stressed by me. The problems facing us today like in energy, water and environment can only be solved by science. Similarly, our problems with health can only be solved with the application of modern science.
YS: As we grow we keep narrowing down towards the field we study until we reach a high level of expertise in a particular topic in a subject. What do you think is the better being a specialist or a generalist?
Prof Rao: I believe that at the undergraduate level or even a bit later, people should take a number of courses in sciences and other areas, in what one might call a core curriculum, which is broad based. It is important that most scientists know physics, chemistry, mathematics, computer science etc., so that they are able to use this expertise later in their work. Narrow specialization is not very helpful. In fact, today the best biology is often done by chemists or physicists just as advanced materials research is often done by engineers, chemists or biologists. It is important that we have a broad understanding of a number of areas.
YS: Premier institutions like IITs, IISc, TIFR have excellent facilities and research labs, but a major portion of the students join these institutions to include the brand name in their CV, while a very few of them actively pursue a career in the field after completion of their studies. How can we make sure that these institutions stand for creating eminent scientists rather than being known as a gateway for corporate placements?
Prof Rao: I agree with you that we have a few good institutions like the TIFR, IISc and so on. But even they are not comparable to the very best in the advanced countries. We need a few institutions which are as good as the best in terms of facilities, and such institutions should provide the environment required for high class education and research. Young people would then be attracted to go to these institutions. It is only such institutions that can make young people take up science and education as their career. I see this happening to some extent in the new Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs). For example, IISER, Pune is doing a very good job. It seems to have the best undergraduate science program today in India.
YS: The first time a Bharat Ratna was awarded to a scientist was in 1954 when Dr. CV Raman was honoured with it, and the second award went to Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam in 1997 after almost 43 years. Dr. Kalam went on to become the President of India. Do you think with all these actions the government is opening up and recognizing the efforts of scientists in the country?
Prof Rao: I am most grateful to receive the Bharat Ratna. As a working scientist, I feel that this is a great recognition for science. I do hope that this encourages young scientists. I also feel that in a way this recognition is also for the large number of young people who have worked with me.