doi:10.1038/nindia.2009.365 Published online 11 January 2010

Need young scientists to lead: C N R Rao

Chintamani Nagesa Ramachandra Rao, honored with Germany's August-Wilhelm-von-Hofmann Medal for chemistry last month, has been reappointed chairman of Science Advisory Council to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (SAC-PM). Author of over 40 books and 1500 research papers Rao, 76, says reading, publishing and doing original research –- not repetitive work -- keeps his mind, and therefore body, fit. "My hero is Nobel Laureate Neville Mott who published four papers at the age of 92 when he died," he told Nature India in a characteristically candid interview. Rao is professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Science in Bangalore, which he founded.

K. S. Jayaraman

C N R Rao
© K. S. Jayaraman

Q. What is your priority as second-time chairman of SAC-PM?

A. Upgrading quality of Indian science through various strategies is top priority. If we do not act immediately, India will sink. At our very first meeting I have asked SAC members to come with suggestions.

Q. What is wrong with science in India?

A. Quality is declining despite funding increase. Most of our research is neither in frontier areas nor relevant. This cannot go on for long. We lack young leaders to take up senior positions.

Q. But a recent Thomson-Reuters study predicted India could overtake G8 nations in research productivity in five to 10 years?

A. Predictions based solely on growth rate of papers published are misleading. We do publish a lot in chemistry but look at their quality. This is true of all science. In terms of H-index (that is based on the scientist's publications and the number of citations they receive) Indian scientists are not doing well. Simply put, there are very few outstanding Indians in science who are respected world-wide and have made an impact on their subjects. In five years, China will have many high H-index scientists given the large number of papers from its scientists. For instance, in 2009 the highest number of papers in nanotechnology globally and largest in citation were from China. In India, there is neither number nor quality.

Q. What does China have that India lacks?

A. China has created institutions with big political backing for specified goals. Chinese have national pride. How many of us are proud to be Indians? Second, I do not see enough dedicated scientists like in early days. Old timers are working hard but the value system of today's youngsters has changed. A boy of 18 wants to be a millionaire before the age of 25. He does not think of becoming the best scientist or engineer.

Q. Is brain-drain a reason for lack of quality research output?

A. Brain-drain today is not because of people going abroad. The main loss is internal — well-trained engineering or science graduates going into management or business or joining R&D centres of multinational companies. In this process, the cream of the country is lost. In last 15 years, information technology, offering high salaries, has sucked away all talent producing a whole bunch middle class Indians. Bangalore alone has added 300,000 of them. That is why Bangalore is such a mess.

Q. Aren't the foreign R&D centres contributing to Indian science?

A. They create jobs but do not help Indian science. They do not interact with us. Six of my PhDs joined General Electric research centre in Bangalore. Internal brain drain is most serious and is one reason why we have to educate and train more people to balance the loss.

Q. The new IITs and research institutions will take care of that?

A. Yes. But what worries me is that most of them are being set up without much planning, campus, or faculty. We recommended three IITs and I do not know how three became eight. There is a move to ask foreign universities to open campuses in India. We should not allow all foreign universities. Only the best should come here, if possible in collaboration with Indian universities. Hiring foreign scientists as faculty is fine but not as heads of institutions.

Q. Are you considering any plan to get back Indian scientists from abroad?

A. Pakistan now has a scheme wherein it supports the education of its citizens abroad and brings them back. We are planning to initiate some scheme of this sort very shortly. Lot of non-resident Indians want to come on part-time basis and we will facilitate this.

Q. What is going to be your strategy to promote quality science?

A. I am thinking of new ways of funding research. We will go out of the way to recognise and fund good work. Second, we will identify a few areas for focused research, invite proposals through advertisement and fund competent people from anywhere in India. Indians have a tendency to give more importance to mega projects in atomic energy and space agencies because they are the ones that guzzle money. Small science in relevant areas is what we require.

Q. What structural reforms do you intend to introduce?

A. Presently each science organisation is insular having no basic links or interaction with each other. Major projects involving huge funds — such as nuclear power expansion or missions to the Moon and Mars — are proposed by concerned agencies and approved by planning commission. I am going to propose the creation of a high-powered group from broader segments that will examine every major science project objectively before approving funding. I also want to bring in realism and real targets for science. For instance the DAE's target of 60 gigawatt nuclear power capacity by 2035 from the existing 4.7 gigawatt seems highly unrealistic.

Q. Any other proposal that will affect working scientists?

A. Rather than a permanent or secure job, I believe in contract system for scientists. Based on our suggestion, a system for performance-based rewards for all scientists is being worked out by the Department of Science and Technology. In principle it has been accepted by finance people. I also believe that cost benefit analysis of our science agencies is needed. Till now that made no sense as our investment was small. Now that we are putting a lot of money in science we should demand quality. I would like major research projects to be reviewed properly if necessary by international teams.

Q. What are the research priorities for India?

A. With so many diseases prevalent in India, biomedical research requires major strengthening. Energy and climate research are extremely important and my third priority is advanced materials technology — an area in which our research and industry contribution is very poor.

Q. What is your forecast about Indian science?

A. Frankly I am a worried man. I wonder if, in my lifetime, I will see a different India that is number one in science. May be the new generation of scientists from our new research institutes will make that happen.