Happy returns to the chosen few

May 25, 2007

With science at the heart of the country's development, India's research institutes are becoming world-class but its universities are falling behind. Geoff Watts reports.

The Presidential Palace is a regular destination for New Delhi taxi drivers. An imposing Anglo-Indian pile built to celebrate the glory of the Raj, it remains one of the capital's top tourist sights. Our driver's indifference vanished, however, when we asked him not to drop us outside but to drive through the gate and across the forecourt.

I was there to interview the President, Abdul Kalam. An aeronautical engineer by training, Kalam is often described as the father of his country's missile programme. Now, in the closing months of his five-year term of office, who better to ask about the place of science in this rapidly developing nation?

The President, a small man in his mid-seventies with longish, greying hair parted in the middle, seems to cultivate the air of a guru. But although he is keener to talk of the value of science to humanity than of India's competitive position in the high-tech marketplace, he is well aware of more practical matters.

Science, Kalam says, is important for two reasons. The more it contributes to technological development, the more it adds to the country's economic development. This view has held sway in India ever since independence in 1947, he adds. "The day we got freedom we said that science had to be part and parcel of the national policy."

Its less obvious virtue is its capacity to transform peoples' way of thinking. "Science encourages you to go on questioning until you reach the correct answer. It's a good habit."

Science is certainly a key ingredient in achieving Kalam's ambition for India: that the country should become economically developed by 2020. He is confident that this is achievable with the aid of science.

The Indian Council of Scientific and Industrial Research occupies less exalted premises in a nearby suburb. The man I visited there had equally positive things to say about the future. Raghunath Mashelkar, until recently the council's director general, is president of the Indian National Science Academy.

As the US, the UK and many other developed countries know to their advantage, building an internationally recognised scientific career in India itself has long been difficult. Hence the brain drain of Indian scientists, which, Mashelkar says, "has always haunted us". But, he adds, several refreshing changes have taken place.

"During the past three years, more than 30,000 scientists and engineers have come back to this country. The Indian Institutes of Technology used to lose 70 per cent of their graduates abroad. That is down to 30 per cent.

Why? More than 200 multinational companies have set up big research and development centres in India including Microsoft, BP, IBM, Shell and so on.

These centres are offering attractive salaries. People are coming back."

Another factor, Mashelkar says, has been India's 1991 economic liberalisation, which made the country a more attractive place in which to invest and do business. Tightening the laws on intellectual property has also helped.

My last visit to India was almost 30 years ago, and many of the laboratory and other science facilities I saw then would hardly have impressed a teenage amateur, let alone a postgraduate bent on a career in research. So my visit to a working laboratory was something of a shock. India's National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore would grace any European or US campus. Surrounded by gardens, the main building is light, open, pleasing to the eye and well-equipped. In his lab - kitted out to Western standards - I met Satyajit Mayor.

He is a chemistry graduate who moved to Rockefeller University in New York to do a PhD in biology and remained in the US to work as a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University. Then as now, he was passionate about his science and well aware of his privileged position in the US. "But all the time I was in New York I felt that I was losing touch with what was happening in India. I'd been away for 11 years, and I wanted to explore what was happening back home," he says.

But Mayor wondered if back in India he would find it possible to continue with his innovative studies on the biology of cell membranes. "I'd never done any research in India, and thought it would be a very different ball game."

Ten years ago, he took the plunge. What he found was an optimism and enthusiasm that permeated the whole Bangalore Centre. "One thing I felt here was a certain sense of freedom, of new possibilities. I had no peers doing this kind of work, so I felt I could do anything I wanted, with no one to tell me it couldn't happen."

When he first returned, there were still delays for equipment and materials. But this has improved. His work prospered, and he now publishes in the top international peer-reviewed journals. He has no regrets. "If I were to have remained in the US, I'm not sure I would have had as many international collaborators as I have now. While in the US, I already had all the colleagues I needed; here I've had to look around the world for them."

Not all Indian research has undergone such a rapid, universal change in the past three decades. At the northern campus of Delhi University, I spoke to science students about their future intentions. Their teacher, plant biotechnologist Pardha Saradhi, invited me to join him in his office and laboratory in the Department of Environmental Biology. Its old wooden benches, cramped working space and less than cutting-edge equipment resembled the India I remembered.

Why was there such a contrast between the two labs? According to C. N. R.

Rao, chairman of the Prime Minister's Science Advisory Council, it comes down to resources and priorities. "We have many good institutes for research. However, our universities have very poor facilities. In fact, the universities have dried up; their contribution to original science has come to an all-time low."

This prioritisation clearly cannot continue indefinitely - if only because the students who will be needed to work in the smart new research institutes have to be trained in properly equipped and adequately staffed university departments.

For all his enthusiasm about the future of science in India, Mashelkar is fully conscious of the universities' current problems. Successive governments, he says, have promised extra cash. "For example, when our present Prime Minister opened the latest science congress in January, he committed to raising the investment in science and technology to 2 per cent of gross national product." Which is great, he says, but points out that the previous two prime ministers said the same thing. The actual budget is still hovering at about 0.8 per cent.

India is making progress - but not at the pace Mashelkar would like. "Other countries such as China are romping, whereas we are walking. The financial commitments that China has made are spectacular. This kind of commitment is unfortunately something that has not happened in India," he says.

Like many other Indian scientists, he considers China to be his country's main rival. He also thinks that, although China's centralised Government may give it a short-term strategic advantage, democracy - "which allows you to think freely and act freely" - will eventually pay off.

So in the long run, India will be the winner. "India is not a sprinter, a hundred-metre dasher," he says. "We are marathon runners."

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