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Govt’s science adviser VijayRaghavan has a New Year message for ‘stewards of the planet’

K. VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Adviser to Govt of India, talks about the issues his office tried to address in 2019, and the paths taken.

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Bengaluru: Principal Scientific Adviser to Government of India K. VijayRaghavan Thursday outlined a list of issues in the scientific world that his office has attempted to address in 2019. He also spoke about some projected paths these issues are likely to take in the future.

In a Twitter thread of 31 posts, VijayRaghavan spoke about the “essence of science”, the “task” of scientists, and the “challenges” before them, inviting people to “join as expert advisers” and asking them how the PSA office can “help you in your role as a planetary steward”.

Here is the full text compiled from his tweets:

A very happy 2020 to all. Here is a recounting of the issues that the PSA’s office has been trying to address the past year and the directions we are taking now. Rather than just list, I attempt to set the context and then the paths that are taken.

Past years have seen discoveries, new knowledge, testimony to the perseverance and talent of researchers. We debate, question, experiment in our quest to understand the universe. We celebrate this quest—our insurance against the unknown— and must always nurture it. This is the essence of science: insatiable curiosity and exploration, anchored only by facts and evidence. While we celebrate the successes of science and the efforts of all involved we must reaffirm, in the decade ahead, our responsibilities as stewards of the planet.

There are many things that envelop our day. Friends, family, the pursuit of our scientific passions; they make every travail seem handle-able. There are also burdensome—some perhaps avoidable—chores that take up the rest. And then, we need time for Chintan, not just Chinta.

Now, we scientists have an additional ‘minor’ task— the stewardship of our entire planet—for which we need additional quality- time and much effort. We cannot only be in shock at unseasonal weather and fires. We must each do our bit.

Over 10,000 years of collective human activity, we have moved from trying to merely survive, to becoming script-writers of the future of the earth. Science and technology have made and driven the engines of commerce and of economies—over the past few centuries—to make this happen.

After multiple industrial revolutions humans now rule over the planet’s fate through machines and computation.

The domestication of plants and animals, the Haber-Bosch process, air- travel, antibiotics, vaccines, the transistor, the internet; are but a few examples. Our planet’s history, from its birth to the present needs careful study, scientists not exempt. Understanding our past growth can help our future.

Four challenges are upon us. 1. The consequences of climate change. 2. The pressures on biodiversity. 3. Renewing our air, water, and land. 4. Sustainable development with the democratization of opportunity.

These challenges are global and— if not addressed speedily—can have catastrophic effects on all life. Governments and civil society groups, world-over, have taken on these tasks, over past decades. But, more is needed by scientists. We cannot simply state problems and analyze them. We, each need to be part of the solution, in significant ways. Scientists have risen to such tasks in the past, during crises, such as in wars or national reconstruction. Today, when the planet needs reconstruction, how can we, as scientists in India, contribute.

First, all the world’s strengths and woes are well-represented in India. We have the talent to understand every problem and we have every problem that needs talent. Our talent is the pepper and our people the salt. Our national institutions that house our best talent as isolated peppercorns also now need to make them into pepper—which can reach out nationally to mentor and partner—and can mix uniformly with the salt.

Two major efforts have been started that will roll out soon. City science-clusters, starting with Pune, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and the NCR, will serve as hubs to that connect bi-directionally with State Universities and less-resourced locations. The Clusters will also collaborate intensely within, nationally, and internationally. They will also compete to be S&T nodes for major national missions of the government and also develop science-missions/projects of their own.

The Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s budget speech of 2019 announced a National Research Foundation (NRF). This will inject more support for research across the spectrum, including the humanities, and scale. It will spread excellence, rejuvenate state-universities.

Inspired by the continuing foldscope successes, school-level programmes for computing and coding, and astronomy are being rolled out. The Department of Electronics and Information Technology expects to roll out the language-mission to make science teaching resources available in all our languages. Meanwhile, the PSA’s office has funded a pre-mission unit that has already started.

The above three should help to recharge our intellectual ‘groundwater’.

Draft documents for the Biodiversity led by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, and Deep Ocean Mission led by the Ministry of Earth Sciences are ready and will now go through the financial approval system. The ‘Artificial Intelligence’ mission approvals are the final stages and will allow a major thrust in this area. India will take the applications of data-sciences and AI to address key societal challenges. The Department of Science and Technology is in advanced stages with the Quantum Matters and Electric Vehicle R&D mission roll-out.

The ‘Waste’ Mission has been broadened to address air, water, and solid waste and has taken off. We are now working with National programs to address air pollution and also the Jal Jeevan mission.

The National Technology Commercialization Program’s (AGNIi) efforts to help commercialisation of innovation has made much headway partnering across the country. AGNIi is now working to enable our researchers to connect to national and global ‘problems’ and be the solution- providers.

The ‘Biosciences for Human Health’ mission aims to combine genomics with delivery to human health. Many important pilots have been started while the mission itself is expected to fully start in the next financial year. The Department of Biotechnology, CSIR, ICMR Delhi, and the Ministry of Health are partners in driving this mission.

All these and more are developed and executed by our ministries, scientific agencies, institutions, and state governments and most of all by the scientists on the ground. Kudos to all of them for their efforts. There are many things they have done well and done so sometimes in very trying circumstances. Our efforts are also to make them less trying, we know there is much to do, and for this, we always welcome criticism, feedback, and suggestions.

We have, in addition to our internal and external advisory mechanisms, a several hundred strong consultative group on Slack. We have only discussed water in 2019. We will have more discussions now. As we expand to other areas this year do let us know if you want to join as expert advisers and how we can help you in your role as a planetary steward.

Again, all best wishes for a productive year and decade.

Also read: Strengthening foundations of science key to human survival, says govt’s scientific adviser


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