INDIAN SCIENTISTS ARE a respected community worldwide. Indian science, however, has a patchy reputation. It throws up brilliance and success stories, and then gets mired in mumbo jumbo. Ahead of National Science Day (February 28), Minister of State for Science and Technology, Space and Atomic Energy Dr Jitendra Singh speaks about how the government approaches science. Excerpts from the interview:
Q/We are doing this interaction ahead of National Science Day, which commemorates C.V. Raman’s announcement of the Raman Effect, for which he got a Nobel Prize. Science, however, remains below the radar in India.
A/I think the Narendra Modi government has given a new impetus to science in India. The budgets for science and health ministries have been increased. In fact, Modi ji took the revolutionary step of “unlocking science”. The government no longer wishes to be the zealous custodian of the “strategic sciences” and has made these spheres accessible to people.
The Centre first released geospatial data and maps in the public domain. It then opened up the space and atomic energy sectors to private enterprise. Our thinking has shifted from safeguarding the knowledge to being a guardian of that knowledge and technology.
This government also sees science as the game changer. Science provides solutions. We earlier worked in individual spaces, now the science ministries are in regular touch with each other’s work. We also have reach-out sessions with other ministries. Back in 2015, Modi ji got space scientists to interact with every ministry to identify problems and get solutions. Thus, we began using space technology to identify objects in the path of an incoming train; the technology was used to handle unmanned crossings, too. Do you hear of so many rail accidents anymore?
From another inter-ministerial interaction, it emerged that the Jal Shakti ministry needed to map groundwater. We have developed heli-borne technology for that, which was then provided. The government is also actively engaging with the private sector, especially startups, to get practical applications of our scientific developments.
Q/Are you saying all this was not happening earlier?
A/Maybe it was, but not in the organised manner that we are doing it now.
Q/You lay great emphasis on startups. Please elaborate.
A/People believe that startups are tech firms; they do not realise the potential of agri and other startups that are associated with livelihood. Startups are the quickest way of taking technology from the labs to the fields; we have already seen so many success stories.
The Centre for Science and Industrial Research (CSIR), under the Aroma Mission, developed high essential oil-yielding strains of lavender, for instance. One of the first farmers to switch over from maize was Bharat Bhushan in Doda district (Jammu). Today, his neighbours have all become lavender farmers. The income is much higher (lavender oil sells at Rs10,000 per litre). Others have joined in with the marketing of the produce.
Similarly, CSIR has taken asafoetida cultivation to Spiti. This crop was never grown in India. In the northeast, they are experimenting with saffron, another high-income crop, which was earlier only confined to Kashmir.
We have the case of a group of young men who took to dairy farming with the help of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) in Bengaluru. Now their MBA friends have joined in for marketing.
The job of a good government is to provide livelihood to people, not provide each one with employment. The road to Atmanirbhar Bharat is through the science ministries.
Q/The pandemic shone the light on India’s scientific work, didn’t it?
A/Yes. It gave an opportunity for the world to take notice of our resilience and ability. The work by the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomic Consortium (INSACOG) in sequencing the virus genomes and monitoring the trends is among the best in the world.
Not many know it, but the DNA vaccine for Covid-19 was developed in the DBT. They are also working on the nasal vaccine.
Whether it was in scaling up activities [or] developing low-cost ventilators, India’s scientific prowess was on show. In the early days of the pandemic, even the Department of Atomic Energy chipped in with technology to radiate personal protective equipment and reuse them.
Q/Samudrayaan is the new big project. What is the idea behind it?
A/It is an initiative of the ministry of earth sciences. Is it not interesting that this ministry, about which so many remain unaware, will take India towards achieving its Blue Economy dreams that Modi ji has talked about?
We have 7,000km of shoreline, and a wealth of minerals and other riches at the bottom of the sea. The first step is to explore the seabed. Samudrayaan is part of the deep ocean mission to explore the bottom of the seas. It is a manned project. The launch is slated to be in 2024. In that year, we hope to have one set of Indians heading to outer space, another to the bottom of the sea—symbolic of the height and depth of our scientific prowess.
We have a lot to be proud of. We began our space mission when NASA was sending a man to the moon. Today, we are equal partners with the top space agencies.
Q/Yet, India’s good work gets shadowed by pseudoscience utterances. Somehow, your government has not been able to quieten the mumbo jumbo.
A/I agree that fake practices should not be encouraged. They can cause much harm. We have seen that in Covid times. The government takes this very seriously and is evolving ways to eliminate fake practices.
On the other hand, we are in an era of an integrated approach to science, when we can take ancient knowledge along with modern science. The pandemic has shown how integrated medicine can be incorporated, including yoga.
Q/Our best minds still go overseas to head the top agencies and companies in the world.
A/The government has set in place a mechanism to encourage Indian scientists to return home. There are age relaxations in government jobs for them, for instance. Covid-19 has interrupted the progress, but many scientists have shown interest in returning. The trend will change, for sure. Now they are giving a thought to returning, instead of pulling their entire department out to work with them abroad.