India is in a unique position not only to help itself but also help save the planet
All life on our planet has common origins. Charles Darwin put it brilliantly: “Thus, from the war of nature… from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved”. What has this grandeur of evolution got to do with science in India’s 70th year of independence?
The answer to that is provided by a contemporary scientist and aircraft engineer Paul MacCready: “Over billions of years on a unique sphere, chance has painted a thin covering of life: complex, improbable, wonderful and fragile. Suddenly we humans... have grown in population, technology, and intelligence to a position of terrible power. We now wield the paintbrush.”
Wielding this paintbrush, we have, over the past few hundred years, changed our planet in dramatic ways. We are now in the Anthropocene, where human activity is the agent, the paintbrush of change on the canvas of earth. In a flash, on the timeline of our planet, we have become responsible for Earth’s future, as opposed to merely battling for survival on its surface.
India is in a very special position in this precariously poised planet. Dealing with the consequences of human-induced climate change and mitigating its effects seem an impossible task. It is almost always counterposed with the demands of growth and employment generation to lift our hundreds of millions from poverty. This is a false binary, for development without compromising sustainability is feasible.
Perhaps, more importantly, India is in a unique position not only to help itself but also help save the planet. This can be done by staying calm, setting ambitious goals and working towards them and making sure there are enough well-trained Indians to serve the world.
Let us first look at our strengths and weaknesses in science and technology.
After independence, India charted a course distinct from other post-colonial countries of the time. In addition to investing in primary health and education, we also invested in developing a robust set of universities and professional colleges. We invested significantly in scientific and industrial research and in space, defence and atomic energy.
Indian science has made tremendous achievements in the past 69 years. We have succeeded in major missions, in building great institutions and in nurturing a very large number of young scientists, many who have gone on to become globally recognised for work done here. Research is picking up. Several major national scientific initiatives and missions have made a global mark. In fundamental research, we have a significant presence in chemistry, theoretical physics, mathematics, polymer chemistry, string theory, number theory and materials science.
Our efforts in health research and application have resulted in reducing infant mortality, eradicating polio, and a new rotavirus vaccine.
In space technology, we have a steady stream of successes, with Mangalyaan being a recent landmark. We have strong capability in nuclear research. In earth and ocean sciences, our monsoon and weather prediction is among the best and we are among the few involved in sea exploration from pole to pole.
We have done well in biophysics, genetics, cell-biology, vaccines and generics. In astronomy and astrophysics, we have built and used top-quality radio telescopes, and optical telescopes.
In computer sciences, several indigenous computers were built, including massive parallel computers with high-performance computing capability. All this has been possible because of the institutions, generously supported by the government, which have created extraordinary scientists. Our best research students are comparable to the best anywhere.
Despite these creditable successes, there is palpable cynicism about Indian science. As scientists we need to ask if there is good reason for this. There are, indeed, many weaknesses. Briefly put, the whole is less than the sum of the parts, our connect with our society and our youth is poor and we have not taken the lead often enough, in articulating and taking forward big challenges in basic and applied sciences.
As is with every enterprise, some reasons for the weaknesses are intrinsic, some have external causes and yet others have global causes. Nevertheless, blaming the ‘system’ for the ills of Indian science is an intellectual cop-out. There is no doubt that if there was more money and our science agencies were perfect, all would be well.
If we are to look to the future and make daring leaps, if science is to help make India and the planet a better and safer place, we need to chart an immediate and new course ahead that can succeed despite our weaknesses. We need to move beyond stating the problem towering over a solution amid all our weaknesses.
There are many areas where ambitious ideas can find traction today and whose implementation can start in the 70th year of our independence.
Listed are some programmes, some already started, that should be under way by our 71st year:
* Put in place a national communication programme which inspires the young in schools and colleges towards science and research. The reach has to be beyond big cities. This is a very major challenge and unless this is firmly grasped, all else will flounder. If this works, all else can succeed.
* Scale training at all levels. For schools, skilled technicians, young researchers, basic scientists, clinician-researchers and agri-researchers, quality training can create talent, which in turn will find employment and create jobs in India and all over the world.
* Ambitious programmes that connect our researchers and their institutions to farmers and rural areas through frugal innovation and entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurship will address solutions to complex problems, in a decentralised manner, by partnering with municipalities, villages, cities and states.
* India should also aim to be among the best in waste-energy technologies and in biofuels.
* India should be a major research player in vaccines, drug discovery and biologics.
* Developing major genome sequencing and data analysis capacity should have an impact on agriculture, livestock, human health and environmental and conservation bioscience.
* Reach from the Andamans to Lakshadweep to develop exploration of the biology of the oceans. In five years, India should be a major presence in this area of research.
* Indian biotech industry should aim to double its size in the coming 5-10 years.
* By 75 years of independence, India should try to get its average life-expectancy as close to 75 as possible. This will require implementing programmes in sanitation, nutrition, water and health care among others. Science and technology have a major role to play here, though the lead will be taken by others.
By taking on new challenges on our strong foundation, we can aim to go ahead in an environmentally and ecologically sensible manner. Our youth can lead and participate, not only in India, but all over the world.
Success with speed can come only from six pillars of partnership: with our people, with our states, inter-ministerially, with philanthropy, with industry and internationally.
Author is secretary, department of biotechnology, ministry of science and technology