‘Expanding the footprint of science’ on PSA’s agenda

Princpal Science Advisor K VijayRaghavan feels that partnerships and ecosystem creation is required between scientists, science administrators and industry. Part One of an interview

Those who have worked with Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan know him as the man who quietly goes about his way, getting work done. A chemical engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur, VijayRaghavan was among the early scientists to study genetics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). The neurobiologist was a key member of the late Obaid Siddiqi's team that set up the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore. He served as its director before joining the government of India's Department of Biotechnology (DBT) in 2013. Five years on, the 64-year-old took over from R Chidambaram as the the country's second Principal Science Advisor (PSA) earlier this month (April 3).

The Padma Shri awardee tells SouthWord. what he hopes to achieve in the new role, the need to democratise science, especially by eliminating the clutches of the English language, the role that scientists can play in partnering on national missions and why increased funding alone won't solve any of science's problems.
Excerpts from Part one of the interview:

You will be stepping into the shoes of R Chidambaram who has served under three prime minister since the PSA’s position was created. Have the two of you interacted and did he have any advice for you?

K VijayRaghavan (KV): We've been meeting regularly for the last two years, and have been in discussions through the taking over period. He has a lot of good advice – it's (integrating science and society) a huge canvas, and getting things done is very complex. So we've been talking about how one deals with that. The interesting question now is how do we scale new directions, both in terms of quality and in expanding the footprint of science. Those are big challenges and there are ways to deal with them.

How do you view the role of the Principal Scientific Advisor, being the topmost advisor to the government on all matters related to scientific policy?

KV: The Principal Science Advisor's role so far has been an advisory role, but I think it's changing now into something very new, and therefore is uncharted territory...it'll require three things: an advisory role to the government, a feedback from the ecosystem and to hold on this in a way by which we can work with the science agencies, with the state government, with industries, with rural areas to make sure that there is delivery to it.

You’re familiar with the governance aspects given that you’ve held several positions in the administration. What is the role that the administration must play in supporting science and the scientific community?

KV: It's important to keep in mind that the government's role, anywhere in the world, is an enabling role. It's to do the right thing and allow these institutional structures to grow. But what you are asking is if the growth of such institutional framework is the right thing or not in the current scenario. Now there are two aspects here – one is, if you look at the large number of youths we have, and you look at the changing demands on employment, which are increasingly anchored on science and technology and being trained in such a manner, there is no question that an institutional effort in trained people in the ITIs, at skilling at every level, in engineering, not just in the IITs, but all sorts of engineering colleges, in science and technology, in design, in the interface of art and design – all these are very important. All the State can do is help create these institutional structures. But what is the quality of these structures? The quality of these structures depends on quality faculty and quality students.

I won't be so despondent about the quality faculty or the difficulty in getting them. If you look at, for example, IIT Mandi, it's a relatively young IIT and it's majestically well-organised and its got really good faculty. IISER Tirupati is taking off really well. IIT Gandhinagar is taking off really well. So all these places are taking off principally because of the quality of leadership. And by the way, these are not all known people who go to all these places as leaders, sometimes relatively, moderately-known or even unknown people have done a great job. Focussing on getting quality people there, women leadership to ensure broader inclusivity, will transform these places.

In your tweets on March 27, you’ve stated that science and technology can be the ‘fulcrum of change’ in agriculture, health, environment and development. Will these be your main focus areas?

KV: Yes, these specific areas are very, very important but the issue is not about these areas alone. There are fantastic opportunities both in basic science and in application, which come from engaging in these areas. Let's take agriculture. Many scientists (will) view (this) as (saying to the farmer) here is a new plant variety. Now, while that's critical, agriculture also requires an embedding of science in the daily life of the farmer so that he gets a feedback about what's the original seed. This requires some input of chemistry, physics, mathematics, weather, astronomy and so on. So is there a chance of an integrated approach? Every scientist will tell you how it can be done, and the farmers will say they have the need but this integration doesn't take place. That's where the office of the PSA is very important. To herd all these together to address a composite, integrated, complex problem and nudge towards a solution, so that from the user end, from the farmers' end, the farmer gets the value in what they get.

Similarly, if you look at the lake in Bangalore (Bellandur), everyone knows what the problem is and everyone knows what the kind of solution is. But can we get together as a people, link our best institutions in Bangalore, with the city in a manner where the solution can come? There's health, agriculture, water, you know the Brahmaputra flood plains, the Ganges river cleaning – these are huge projects. And as scientists, we should get to do this as a team.

Scientists form the DNA of the country as it were, and we (science administrators) are messenger RNA and for that to be translated into application, we need what is the equivalent of a tRNA, which takes the message and translates it into deliverables. That is the missing component everywhere. That's where NGOs, society, companies have a role to interface. We have been, for too long, blaming each other for the missing intermediate, transformational structure.

Is that a complicated problem – to bring people together on one platform?

KV: We shouldn't be daunted by the scale of the task. We've done that in the way we've dealt with polio, small pox, maternal tetanus infections... we've done some terrific stuff there. Some of these have happened because of very careful organisations and others because of preventing unnecessary controls. So both these things have to be unleashed - one in some big social sector efforts which need coordination and the others require a mere lack of interference.

You also stated in your March 27 tweets that science must be democratised and language shouldn’t be a barrier in access. Can you expand on this?

KV: Sure. What I meant was that language, or knowledge of your native language, should be an advantage as opposed to a disadvantage. That lack of English cannot be a disadvantage. The argument given typically is linked unfortunately to a very elitist argument that is, you know, saying, 'Oh, it’s a very difficult task to teach science in different native languages in our country and it's simpler to teach it in English'. Now that's all very well if you speak English and come from a middle class or a rich family. But you are excluding 80% of the country then from scientific study except for a few people who have the courage to jump this barrier and learn English amidst all odds to come into science. So, as a population, you can't exclude a country.

A Swedish scientist studies science in Swedish and in English also. This opens up science to a kid anywhere. A carpenter's kid can study carpentry and suddenly decide she wants to do science and do it. That route is pretty much not there in India except for exceptional, talented, driven people. So there's no question that we must have English in science, but like leading, innovative countries anywhere in the world, if we are not to be intellectually enslaved, we should have the ability to deal with the abstraction in our language because that allows us to connect with society on one side and do wonderful things on the other. If your power of abstraction is limited to a language that you've learnt after you are an adult, then you will be destined to be an intellectual slave to others' ideas.

How does one deal with this?

KV: Technology is only one part of a solution. And secondly, it'll take time. But like all complex problems, we have to start. When India became independent, there were strong arguments made by people against democracy, saying that we are a country of illiterates and only those who are literate and who've passed a certain degree, should have the right to vote. But we were very daring in giving the right to vote to everyone. In a similar manner, we should now grasp the language issues and make sure that everything is accessible in science, and the best material (is available) to school teaching in different languages. That'll require us to put in place a huge investment in training translators who are creative, who are not merely transliterate, who will not merely Google translate. As we do that, as we amplify that, people have context, then people will seamlessly move to their native languages, they will think in Bengali or Malayalam and Marathi and will convey in English to people who only know English, talk in Hindi with those who speak Hindi and so on. Then you'll have ideas and innovation coming in, in a manner that you've never seen before.

Getting funding for research is widely considered to be a prickly issue. The 2018 Economic Survey stated that India underspends on R&D (0.6% of GDP, compared to 4.3% of GDP in Israel; 2.3% of GDP in the US and 2.1% of GDP in China). Is this a concern at the administration level?

KV: These are wrongly posed questions, because it says that should magically the amount of funding go up, then science's problems would be solved. Or that this is the key impediment. There's no question that there's a co-relation between increased R&D funding and innovation in many economies. South Korea is a striking example about how high-tech R&D has resulted in transformation in their industries….Have we analysed, bottom-up, what Korea's spending goes into and what we can learn from that and do afresh? Have we analysed our context and learnt? This is the job of our scientific academies and institutions, and they need to be much more energised than they are on this.
Now interestingly, top-down this analysis has been done long ago. We as scientists, and we as individuals, as journalists, need to see that. The DST (Department of Science and Technology), and the DBT (Department of Biotechnology), the CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research), the ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) all have their plans should they get more resources. You can't have a top-down articulation of how the resources can come and be used, unless that is also dynamically connected bottom-up.
....When I look at 100 cases of why fund-flow is gridlocked, in about 70 cases, it's poor institutional processes. We cannot live in India and assume that the government of India is living on another planet, and can be 100% efficient.

Read Part Two of the interview here

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