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An atom bomb, a GSLV going up, is no science at all. Science is being done in small labs: Bharat Ratna Prof CNR Rao

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Govts say they’ve given so much money for science. Actually it’s for big projects, space and atomic and not science. IT has also sucked out talent from science.

There is much debate for and against my argument, Inspired by the Prime Minister’s Independence Day promise to put an Indian in space by 2022 that’s in India we err gravely by confusing technology, engineering or even jugaad with science.who better than Prof CNR Rao, Bharat Ratna and among India’s greatest living scientist, to explains this distinction. As he did in this Walk The Talk interview for NDTV

SG: If science was cricket, Professor C N R Rao would be Sachin Tendulkar, Kapil Dev, Rahul Dravid, the Nawab of Pataudi together. You could add Jacques Kallis too.

Dr Rao: But they have a very short life; I have been working for the last 60 years, doing research. Our lifespans are very different. If you have worked in science, it’s a way of life.

SG: You have shelves full of your books, and then there are the PhD theses of your students. You are even more proud of the latter than former. How many PhD students have studied under you?

Around 160 people who have worked directly with me and a number of post-doctorates and others, maybe 200 by now.

SG: It’s not for no reason that you are a Bharat Ratna. Many people do not realise that the science you are doing is of a very high level.

Dr Rao: I do spectroscopy as well. The entire world has been very nice to me, that has given me real recognition. And then in India, of course, they have always been with me. As nice as they can be. Even this poor country, when it had nothing, it supported us. Slowly we have graduated to this level… very good labs.

SG: I saw an interview of yours in Current Science 12 years back where you said that, despite being such a poor country, India still has done a lot for science.

Well, they could do more. Because when we are doing well, others are doing better. We are sub-critical in everything.

SG: You famously called our political discussions idiotic. I know you didn’t call politicians idiots. It was a very unscientific word, but it was apt.

Dr Rao: Idiotic is parliamentary language.

SG: You have been an advisor to five prime ministers after Indira Gandhi.

Dr Rao: All the prime ministers have been good, particularly some have been enthusiastic, but what bothers me is whether we have really understood the role of science and its importance for India. Do we realise that today’s science becomes tomorrow’s technology? Unless we are leaders in science, we won’t be leaders in technology. I don’t know if that is fully appreciated by the people concerned in India.

SG: In fact, we confuse day before’s engineering for tomorrow’s science.

Dr Rao: That is one thing. Another mistake is that something like a rocket goes off, we think it’s science. There is not much science in that. Real science is that which is done in small laboratories, chemistry, biology, physics, whatever. It’s small science that takes science forward.

SG: Basic science, science which comes out of curiosity.

Yes, small science, basic science takes us forward, gives you progress. All your recognition in science comes from that.

SG: Do you think Indians lack the joy of curiosity?

Dr Rao: Well, that is in our system. And also in our reward system. Suppose you are only rewarding bankers and people doing things other than scholarly activities, the value system immediately affects your mind. People are not interested in being creative.

SG: The country has confused making atom bombs and missiles with science. Science has suffered in India.

Dr Rao: Oh, it has. Eventually, it is the creative urge that drives man to do things independent of money, grants. I don’t want anything, no money will satisfy me. But the pleasure of discovering something, making something worthwhile, keeps me happy.

SG: Has Indian science suffered because of this confusion of science with strategic assets, as we call them?

Absolutely. When people say they have given so much money for science, actually what they are giving is for big projects, say in atomic energy or space. That is not enough. They have to support people in universities, in educational institutions, and young people to come up. Young people don’t find it attractive to work here because they don’t get enough to go on working in a competitive fashion. Last five to 10 years, there is a slight improvement, but we have a long way to go.

SG: Now you have an autonomous organisation to fund science.

Dr Rao: The National Science and Engineering Research Board was created based on our Scientific Advisory Council’s recommendations, with a lot of money. They can create institutions, recognise groups, individuals, they can create missions, they have a lot of freedom. They don’t face financial or bureaucratic control. Otherwise, you might get a big grant, but you will never be able to use it, there are so many rules and regulations, audits… Many young scientists tell me, ‘Prof Rao, I get a three-year grant. By the time I finish and send them the report for the second year, the third year is over’. So they never end up getting the third-year grant, because (the authorities) have to approve the second-year report before they give you the third-year grant. By that time, the third year is over.

SG: My retired father couldn’t go and collect his pension for a couple of years. When he went eventually, they said, ‘Give us survival certificates for the previous two years too’. He said, ‘Look I haven’t come back from the dead’. But they said this is procedure. 

Dr Rao: The same thing happened to my father (laughing).

Today’s chemistry is highly inter-disciplinary. If you want to do something in chemistry, you have to know biology, mathematics and computation. Good research today is inter-disciplinary.

So, in this organisation, you have cut that bureaucracy.I hope so. What’s nice is that every young person who comes (to the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bangalore) has his own laboratory, very good facilities.

SG: Tell us about this centre you have set up.

Dr Rao: With government money, but I’ve got funding from various sources. I was on the advisory board of the United Arab Emirates. One of the sheikhs wanted to build something in science, I was on the committee. He liked me, he gave me $4 billion, to do whatever I want. I built a small lab in his name.

SG: Tell us about the work you do. What are advanced materials? Very few people know that you have worked with Dr C V Raman.

Dr Rao: I started working on structure of molecules, then spectroscopy to look at molecules, then magnetism. Slowly, I started to think that if I want to make a name from India, anything that depends on very heavy, fancy equipment, I won’t be able to do. Americans will always have better equipment. I thought I must work in an area where I can make completely new things. So I picked material chemistry 55 years ago — very few people were working in it at the time. Now it has become mainstream science. Many people think I am the grandfather in this field. It has become so important technologically that people think of me when they think of the subject. The subject deals with designing and discovering materials with extraordinary novel properties which have direct implications on technology.

SG: What do advanced materials do for me?

Dr Rao: Whether it’s electronics or biomedical sciences, it is the material that is seeing progress. And you need the right kind of material, whether it’s replacement of your spine or skin… or electronics, magnetic material, construction material. Look at the entire area of composits. We make composits which are stronger than steel. The new carbon materials are much stronger than steel.

SG: It is also used in security, body armour, tank armour, for rockets, missiles. Somebody is working on artificial skin…

Dr Rao: One of the greatest persons in this area is in MIT, my friend Robert Langer. He has achieved targeted delivery of drugs — the drug goes directly to where your brain cancer is. He is the one who has developed artificial skin. Recently, we put two types of nano-materials in polymers, materials which are so strong. Advanced materials is an area which has no end.

SG: You are still attracting enough young people driven by curiosity.

Dr Rao: The problem is that after they get good education, we do not have a sufficient number of good institutions where they can be used… Suppose they get a job in a second-grade university, they feel they are wasting their time. Recently we have got five IISERs (Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research), these are coming up well. But we need more institutions and we have to improve our universities. There is no choice.

SG: Either we have no PhDs or we have useless PhDs, we mass produce them.

Dr Rao: We are not producing many as compared to the Chinese. They now have 23,000 PhDs per year, we are producing about 8,000. But the real problem is we need many PhDs say in computer science. We have a lot of IT workers but there are very few PhDs in computers.

SG: But you have said in the past that IT has taken away too much talent from science.

Dr Rao: Too much. In fact (Infosys Executive Chairman) Narayana Murthy feels that I am against IT, which is not true. What I am saying is you can’t have one profession like that, which is a very routine profession — it does not require high creativity — sucking away everybody. Imagine, in the city of Bangalore, I don’t have one student coming in for research. Everybody is from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, of course a lot of people from Bengal, very few from Bangalore. Because it is the IT city, making money.

SG: What happens to 20 generations of thair saadam (curd rice)? I thought that was the fuel for mathematical research.

Dr Rao: Bangalore is no longer what it used to be. But the main thing is that all this is happening because the respect for science in our society is not very high. The value system doesn’t have science at the top but somewhere at the bottom. Well, it is fashionable to support science, you give a little money, throw a few crumbs…

SG: Do you think the UPA government was a disappointment because it started with the promise of allowing foreign universities and larger institutions?

Dr Rao: Foreign universities won’t save us, eventually we have to have our own (universities), genuinely autonomous. I was one of the first professors of IIT Kanpur. I was less than 30 at the time. We had American aid, and it was wonderful, IIT Kanpur was fantastic. It is no longer the same. That type of thing won’t do unless there is excitement from within… In about 20 years, India would have a much larger student population. We have to do something about education and science. We have to do something for rural India particularly.

SG: Can you educate us a bit about nanotechnology?

Dr Rao: Science is no longer the old physics and chemistry. You won’t see bottles in my lab, smoke and smell. Bunsen burners, you don’t see anymore. Today’s chemistry is highly inter-disciplinary. If you want to do something in chemistry, you have to know biology, mathematics and computation. Good research today is inter-disciplinary. Changes have taken place in biology also. We have to understand this, we have to encourage science which is current, science that is futuristic, which has a direct implication on new technologies. Nanotechnology is one of them. You make a nano-material, you see its properties, its phenomena. Because it is small, it has new properties. For example, if you have gold, it shines. If you go on making smaller and smaller particles of it, very tiny, it will no longer shine. It will no longer be a metal. And we can exploit the properties of these small particles.

Pandit Nehru was romantic about science, Rajiv Gandhi was really excited, personally involved in science. The person who was very easy to deal with was (I K) Gujral”

SG: Tell us about your conversations with the PMs you have worked with.

Dr Rao: In terms of excitement for science, Pandit Nehru was romantic about science, Rajiv Gandhi was really excited, personally involved in science. The person who was very easy to deal with was (I K) Gujral. He didn’t discuss much. He would say, ‘You want it, then karwa denge (will do it)’. Whatever you may say about Manmohan Singh, he has never said no to anything I have asked. But the problem is what we are doing is just not enough, and he realises that.

SG: You have an auditorium in the name of your guru, Professor Nevill Mott.

Dr Rao: All that has happened in semiconductors, superconductors, solids and materials, he was the one who gave the first ideas. He was extraordinary… He would correct his proofs at the age of 91. There is one interesting story. At the age of 67, you retire in Cambridge as a professor. For some reason, Mott had not got the Nobel prize, he richly deserved it. He got very sick of people telling him, ‘You are the first non-Nobel prize winner who is a Cavendish professor’. He quit two years in advance at 65, worked on a completely new problem, and got the Nobel prize.

SG: The other problem in India is that we lack scientific temperament.

Dr Rao: Even so-called educated people with degrees and so on… If proper scientific attitude had been there, half the decision-making in our country would be much more solid, much more rational.

SG: People in ISRO, before launching any rocket, go to the Tirupati temple and offer a coconut.

Dr Rao: My friend used to call this fear of the residue. He used to say, ‘Suppose something went wrong at the last minute with the rocket, a little bit of aarti will fix it’.

SG: But that’s not the way a scientist should look at life.

Dr Rao: Faith and religion are purely personal to me, and that should not interfere with science or anything else in life. Certainly not how society is run. For example, Linus Pauling, another guru of mine, one of the greatest chemists ever…

SG: The man who is making us all eat vitamins.

Dr Rao: Yes. The kind of courage he showed… He attended an anti-nuclear demonstration. He was called a Communist, they took away his passport in America for three years. But he wouldn’t yield, he said ‘I believe in it’. We need scientists and leaders who stand by their conviction.

SG: C V Raman was a rationalist too.

Dr Rao: No nonsense with C V Raman.

SG: And no puja?

Dr Rao: No, nothing. He was a traditionalist, wore his turban, but that had nothing to do with anything else. I will tell you about his courage. Once Pandit Nehru came to the Indian Institute of Science. There he was, C V Raman, in the front with Indira Gandhi, Pandit Nehru behind them, and us behind him, all the staff members. I heard Raman shouting, ‘You see Mrs Gandhi, your father has ruined science’. Nehru just smiled… I saw this happen many times. In 1961, there was a Science Congress in Roorkee, and the great S N Bose and I were in the front row. The first PM starts talking, and suddenly Bose with his white hair got up and started shouting, ‘All these years I have seen this nonsense’. Pandit Nehru stopped his speech for one minute, smiled and continued. You should learn something from that.

SG: But we didn’t. When Murli Manohar Joshi (of the BJP) taught us his Vedic science, nobody protested.

Dr Rao: We’ve lost courage. This is what I mean by courage of conviction.

SG: He was telling his labs to research cow’s urine.

Dr Rao: A lot of work was done on that. A lot of waste of time.

SG: Cow’s urine was put through spectrometers… Dr Raja Ramanna too did not put up with this.

Dr Rao: No.

SG: Dr Joshi even claimed that we invented the atom bomb during Vedic times.

Dr Rao: Also jet planes.

SG: We are still working on the Tejas! If you were to now write a history of Indian science, will its title be ‘Wasted Opportunities’?

Dr Rao: I have written a book, which is sort of autobiographical, called Climbing the Limitless Ladder. Really, a man’s ambition should be — doesn’t matter in what field — to climb the limitless ladder of excellence. That is what India is lacking, the spirit of climbing the ladder of excellence. In that book, I have covered the history of Indian science.

SG: But if A B Vajpayee can call the Pokharan nuclear tests a victory of Indian science, give the slogan of Jai Vigyaan, and people promise to then bring the holy ash of Pokharan around the country with radioactive…

Dr Rao: All I can say is that an atom bomb explosion has got nothing to do with science. A GSLV going up is very little science.

SG: There is nothing better than finding a scientist who does not regret being a scientist.

Dr Rao: I wouldn’t trade this life for anything else. I hope I can do this till the last day of my life… Nobody can attract me with a million dollars a day. My wife and I have given half our money away and probably will give more. What will you do with money in the end? It’s of no use.

This article was originally published on 11 February, 2014. Watch the full interview here.

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