Union Minister for science and technology and earth sciences Dr Harsh Vardhan is like a child in a museum, with regard to his ministry. He says every day is an amazement. Be it learning about the work on human genome one day, or gazing at an atomic clock on another. Excerpts from an interview:
Your ministry was spared from the recent portfolio reshuffle. Are you happy?
Why did you ask me this, were you expecting me to be reshuffled? I am very happy here, I consider my being brought here as a blessing in disguise because it has helped me understand the vast potential of science in our lives.
I have a medical background and have been associated with the field for 40 years. All my work, social work, achievements and recognition have been connected with the health sector. Health was my passion, my heart and soul. But believe me, all that passion that I put into health over four decades, I've put into science and technology in the last year and half. I now have the confidence to say that all unresolved problems of this country can be sorted with an application of science.
I took over in November 2014 and have developed a vision for this ministry, I have visited almost all the important laboratories and institutions of India and now I feel that all the leading scientists are on the same wavelength as me, we are working towards the same vision.
I've started some work here, and would like to see it through. Otherwise it doesn't matter to me what assignment I am given.
Were you shocked when you were moved out of health and given this relatively low key ministry?
Shock is too extreme a word, but it was difficult for me to believe it initially. But soon, I realised it was a godsend opportunity for me to learn something more. I have returned to by textbooks of physics and chemistry after decades and am understanding the great advances that have been made in those fields.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has projected his development agenda as one based on technology and science. So your ministry should be a high focus one. We don't hear much about it, however.
I don’t think it is essential to make too much noise about what you do. You can always be a silent worker. I have a feeling that developments in science or the work of our scientists do not attract the attention they deserve. I wish positive developments also made news.
Science in India is need based. Hunger drove the green revolution, and sanctions have shaped the development of our space programme. But what about science for the sake of science? Modi spoke about the need for blue sky research at this year's science congress. What’s happening on the ground?
We have not compromised on basic research. Our recent decision to go ahead and establish a Ligo observatory is the best example. The PM has repeatedly stressed that even research that does not immediately and directly impact on people's lives should be encouraged. I have not seen even a single project of fundamental science being set aside in any of our laboratories due to shortage of funds.
Having said that, however, this government's focus is steadily on ensuring that fruits of science are delivered as best as possible. That is our focus area.
The other focus of the ministry is to strengthen the prime minister's flagship programmes like Smart Cities, Swachh Bharat, Digital India and Make in India. We are working on providing tools for these schemes, through bio-incubation units, technology incubators, supporting youngsters with start-ups. I believe that in this age, the innovation coefficient of a person is more important than even the emotional coefficient.
Weren't such centres there in the past, too?
Something may exist as a matter of routine for years, but when it becomes dynamic and gigantic, it is visible. We have the same scientists on the team. We haven't got anyone from outer space. What we have done is we got them all in one direction, working towards one vision. We are trying to synchronise research, to begin with.
Yes, synchronising research is something you've talked about several times. Elaborate.
I repeatedly tell researchers they should not work in isolated silos. The left hand must know what the right is doing, so must the brain and the rest of the body. All the institutions in the country must be coordinated, so that people do not end up repeating research. I find very often, someone does a project for the sake of submitting a paper. Then, someone in another laboratory, thousands of miles away, does something similar and repeats the same research. If things are synchronised, researchers can share data and resources, instead of doing the same thing over and over again.
Take for instance research in tuberculosis. There are so many institutions working on different aspects of the disease. If all are versed with the ongoing work of others, doesn't it make for better research? I want a culture when even as scientists make breakthroughs, they are on the email with like researchers, sharing their discoveries.
We've made significant progress in streamlining work, making groups of biology, statistics, chemistry and other divisions in every institute which are to coordinate with other institutes. I believe that when people work in coordination, with a vision, and having an element of timeliness and accountability in their approach, the result is better.
There is always this criticism that India doesn't spend enough on science, that our science budget as a percentage of our GDP is much lower than China's and not in tune with our development aspirations. Are you happy with the science budget?
If you compare percentages, you will never be happy. But it is important to use what's given, optimally. Last year, for the first time in India, there were no cuts in the revised budget estimates. This year there is around a 20 per cent hike in the science budget. I am happy about it. Also, it is my belief that any scientist who plans a research that has potential to reap good dividends will not be hampered by paucity for funds.
Dream big, the government will back you. That is what I have been telling scientists. Develop an individual dream, a dream for your lab or institution and work towards accomplishing it.
When I embarked on the polio eradication project 20 years ago, the task seemed huge. I didn't think I'd see a polio-free India in my lifetime, but when I was the Union health minister, we achieved that certification from the World Health Organisation. So, please have a dream. Otherwise there is no meaning to what you are doing.
The only time the ministry made it to screaming headlines was when you remarked about the contributions of ancient Indian science. You've gone silent on that now.
I have no regrets about what I had said. I cited facts, which are proven and preserved. It wasn't as if I had a dream the previous night and narrated it in the morning.
We have a rich heritage. Our DNA is strong and powerful. It should inspire us to make our future more glorious than the past. Preserving the past is important. Appreciating it is important, too. But we should focus more on moving ahead at a faster pace, bettering the developments in the world. The ministry is working on a book on the lives of famous Indian scientists of the last hundred years or so.
I've asked researchers to trace relatives of these scientists, or colleagues who may have worked with them. We are compiling anecdotes from their lives, because unless we document all this, it will all be forgotten. We must compile our history. I ask any institution I visit to invite their former directors, too. These men are living histories, unless we chronicle their memories, it will all be lost.
In Kolkata, I saw a handwritten statement from Guglielmo Marconi's grandson acknowledging that J.C. Bose did breakthrough work in wireless before him. I have also read somewhere that Bose did not patent his work because he believed science was for all. Our PM also has the same attitude, he believes the fruits of science should be shared.
What holds back Indian science and its institutions from global glory?
Nothing, except ourselves. Our approach to work is routine, casual and average. Unless we get out of this complacence, become dynamic and strive for an out-of-the-box approach, we will remain this way. We need to push ourselves.