It’s an enslavement that our Internet is in English: PSA

The second part of an interview with K VijayRaghavan who took charge as India’s second Principal Science Advisor on April 3 2018

In the first part of this interview, Principal Science Advisor K VijayRaghavan spoke to SouthWord. about a range of issues, including his aim to expand the footprint of science in the county by creating an enabling environment and an ecosystem where the state, scientists and stakeholders are all partners; the need to democratise access to science and why funding alone cannot be a fix to science's problems.

In the second part, the 64-year-old dwells on why India hasn't yet leveraged its strength in creating tech-based products, on what awards mean to him and what's currently on his bookshelf and Kindle. Excerpts:

India is known for its technology-based services, not for its technology products. Yet offices of global tech giants are led and populated by Indian engineers and computer scientists where such products are created. Do you view this as a modern-world brain drain?

KV: There are many many answers for this, but again I worry that these are unreasonable demands given the kind of investment in R&D which our ecosystem makes, by which I mean the industry themselves. Google's R&D investments exceed by a few fold the entire US National Science Foundation investments. Amazon similarly, and several of the other companies. So keep in mind that they are on an innovation spend. Having said that, why can't we start equivalently with small budgets in our context. After all, China has got IT giants internally and globally. And again there are two aspects – one is the kind of economic growth and funding.

Still, I think both the American example and the Chinese example are sort of escape clauses that we use. There's one other fundamental reason that's related to us as a country in terms of science and technology, and that's related to language. China is an Internet giant internally because of its connect to its language, which we've completely not unleashed at all. It's a bizarre situation because our Internet and entrepreneurship is in English. And I would say it's an enslavement. No other country this size has divided its population into the haves and the have-nots on the basis of the language they speak to such an extent (as India has). We've enshrined it in a horrible manner and we take pride in it. We take pride in being translators – that we can communicate with a company in Germany because they speak in English and we can speak in English and that gets us good business. That language advantage has long gone. They (The Germans) communicate quite well with a company in China. They (the Germans) speak German at home, and communicate in English with us and in Mandarin in China.

Microsoft in Israel speaks in Hebrew, their website is in Hebrew, everything is in Hebrew, and they communicate very well in English with Seattle (Microsoft's headquarters). So we've locked ourselves into this comfortable zone of subjugation. Speaking one's language allows you to be innovative, but having English as a main language can push innovation only to a small set of people. And that small set of people, even if they are born and brought up in English and are experts, see (themselves and) opportunities and livelihood as part of a global machinery and not part of a national agenda naturally. And they naturally do really well elsewhere.

Secondly, we must also not look at these as ideological issues and not throw the baby away with the bath water. There are huge advantages to structures they've (international tech giants) built while we need to build completely bigger, different structures. One of the great things they have is an extraordinary talent pool, of really high-quality people. Or rather than look upon them as a brain loss, we should look on them as brain gain because they connect us continually, dynamically with the best in the world. Some of them may come back, some of them may not. Some of them may settle there, it's not a prize. We have a lot of Indians, enough for the rest of the world and for us, it's not a problem. So it's good to have this churning and excitement. It should be done in a manner where the reach of science and technology goes to every corner of our country also, and that is happening.

You have a three-year term as PSA. What are the three main things you’ll like to achieve/changes you’d like to see in this time?

KV: I'm not saying that am here to do this or to do that. I'm getting together all the information on the landscape and the second month onward, we'll start working specifically, on the presence of science on scale. The other is to use the extraordinary strength of science in specific locations, such as Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune and Ahmedabad, to work together. The third is to work to rejuvenate our older universities as well as to get science into the many new centers that we've started like the IITs and IISERs. The fourth would be to take on missions in science. Articulating all these well and putting in the directions would be something that we'll do in the first 3-6 months and evaluate how successful we are. That's the tight agenda for the first year.

Is it correct that you left Switzerland midway through a course to pursue genetics along with the late Obaid Siddiqi at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). What were some of the most important lessons you learnt from him?

Yeah, that's correct in one way. I was about to leave, when I read an article by Obaid, which inspired me to join TIFR. Well, (there were) lots of valuable lessons from Obaid and the TIFR environment in general, but also earlier from IIT-Kanpur on what is the purpose of learning. And we all make the mistake of thinking that learning is for something useful, and indeed of course, it gives you the skill to get a job and so on. But the principal purpose of learning is that it prepares you for the unknown, because what you learn, in terms of the facts and ideas, are irrelevant in a few weeks, months, in a year or a decade and so on depending on what your subject is. And that doesn't last you any period of time. What lasts you is the ability to solve problems and the courage you have to solve problems and that courage comes from keeping the company of people better than you always. And for some people it's easy – people like me aren't very smart, so it's easier to find better people – but that is the thing which I learnt, both in Kanpur and with Obaid: to make sure that the people you interact with are far, far better than you. Then you can solve any problem. The moment you interact with people who are worse than you, then nothing is solvable.

It’s been a long journey since then, and the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) remains a study subject at (not just) your lab at NCBS. What do you think makes the fruit fly a fascinating model?

KV: There are two things. At the time, (scientist) Thomas Hunt Morgan started working on the fruit fly as a tool to understand genetics, there were few other organisms that could have been potentially studied. What added to the success of the fruit fly, in addition to very fortuitous choices of various kinds scientifically, was the attitude of those who worked in fruit fly research. They were generous about giving away all the information, and that generosity caused the field to exponentially grow, and fed back into making the field more and more valuable, and that in turn went on and on and on. It's extraordinary how that community has grown.

The other aspect is the general aspect of model organisms in biology. Whether they (the model organisms) are bacteria, yeast, worms, flies and so on, these have a common origin, say a unicellular organism, and everything evolved from there. DNA is the thread which ties all these organisms to a shared chemistry, and because the environment and DNA interact in a manner in which one can learn about one organism more and more, is extraordinary. The more you use that, the more you learn. It's absolutely fascinating how that adventure keeps going on and on and on. People keep studying things about these organism. But that said, I'd say there are very exciting possibilities today in the study of many aspects in humans because the tools have become so powerful that one can understand many things in humans, in a non-interventional manner, (by) linking genes and environment to human conditions, behaviour, health and so on. And this again feeds back into the (study of) model organisms.

You’ve won a lot of laurels – Fellow of the Royal Society, Infosys Prize, the Padma Shri and a lot more. What do awards mean to you?

KV: You know there are some people (who) deserve awards because they are super brilliant. I am not that. Some people deserve awards because they are super brilliant team leaders. I am not that. I've been lucky to win these awards because of all the students' and post-doctorals' work in a really enabling environment like NCBS and TIFR. So you know, it’s accidental when people like me win awards serendipitously because of the environment. So we have a responsibility in acknowledging that this is an award for many persons, including the people there.
Secondly, to not take these awards seriously because there are a huge number of better people who should have or could have got or deserved these things and don't get them. Thirdly, nevertheless, they provide a responsibility in the public stage to use them responsibly for scientific exploration and communicating the value of science. So I wouldn't bother too much about them, but use them in a positive sense to convey the value of science.

How do you spend your Sundays?

KV: Over the last few years, my weekends have been spent to a modest extent with family and to a greater extent with my lab when possible. Work has taken over a lot of that time. I still run a bit, but I used to run a lot more earlier. I used to play the flute, which I haven't been able to practise at all for some time. So those are things I'd like to be disciplined about everyday, but unfortunately am not very well organised. I can't say I don't have time because I do waste a lot of time....It's just that am not organised about my time. Well, sometimes it's good to waste time because it allows you time to think. I like to read, I like to walk, I like to talk to people, but one should still be able to have more structured time to do somethings that one would like to do.

What are you reading now?

KV: A lot of my reading relates to science broadly. I'm reading a nice book called Evolution, Development and the Predictable Genome by friend, David L Stern. Geoffrey West writing about scale (Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies) in ants and how ant societies design cities. Then there's a really nice book called From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds by Daniel Dennett. He looks at how the brain evolves and how consciousness evolves.

I am a bit extravagant. Whatever book I buy, I buy a hard copy which I keep at home and a Kindle copy that I take with me. I find that I read the Kindle copy more often, faster than the hard copy. I'm not a good, relaxed reader, I tend to read fast and get to the point. It's a really bad way to appreciate literature. You can't appreciate literature in tweets.

Finally, if not a scientist, what would you have been?

KV: Science is fantastic because you can be busy doing something you love, and that's rare to find. It allows you the luxury of thinking, being lazy and then being very intense and getting things done in your own timeline. That's an attitude which I'm comfortable with. So I'd be similarly comfortable with any other calling that allowed me to dot that. So maybe art, but I'd be a very bad artist. Or a journalist with a lot of money in the bank which someone had donated, I'd have loved that. Or a writer who didn't have to worry about finding my monthly income. So all those are fine as long as your daily bread is somehow taken care of. Science is fine because it takes care of your daily bread and allows you to do all that.

I like my day job, by the way. I mean it's not science-science, but I like dealing with complexity of government and finding solutions. I don't find that unpleasant. So it's not that any given task is a boring, routine one. As long as it accomplishes an interesting goal, I like that. So am not averse to, am not looking for a profession where one doesn't have to deal with details – that you have to deal with everywhere. I like chatting with people, so I don't think I'd be unhappy with most kinds of jobs, unless I have a disciplined boss who makes me work too hard...

The prime minister is known to do that...

KV: Yeah, but I think that's the interesting part. He (Narendra Modi) does that in a very interesting, stimulating manner. He poses big questions and doesn't micro-manage the details of the job. It's really upto you to take up those questions or not. And there are so many exciting things to take up. Am comfortable with the realm of taking up ideas to action. Am lucky that I found that in science and am lucky that I find it here.

Read Part One of the interview here

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