What India's highest civilan award means to her science

Rubul Mout

doi:10.1038/nindia.2014.0 Published online 6 January 2014

The third week of November, 2013 was pretty significant for India, not just because Sachin Tendulkar retired from cricket but also because the government of India made an important decision towards recognising science and technology in the country. Eminent scientist Chintamani Nagesa Ramachandra Rao was honoured with the highest civilian award 'Bharat Ratna' on November 16 — the third scientist to receive the honour after Nobel laureate Sir C. V. Raman and former President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam.

Why is Bharat Ratna to Rao significant?

In the days following the receipt of the highest civilian award, 'C. N. R. Rao' became a household name. However, not much of Rao's work became famous. Few days later, a popular newspaper from the north-eastern Indian state of Assam wrote in its editorial: "Dr Rao was the Super Hero of India's Mars Mission." This was repeated in the newspaper a few days later when someone wrote a letter to the editor. Some of the more national papers also committed similar mistakes. This showed the ignorance of the newspaper editorial towards Rao's research.

A close friend wrote to me: "Why the hell does a scientist get the Bharat Ratna?" I wrote back to him in the same rude language as only a friend can: "If there were no science and technology today, you would not be writing a text to me on Facebook, neither would you be sitting luxuriously in front of a device called the 'computer'; and perhaps you would be practicing climbing a tree to learn flying from its top because there would be no vehicles to carry you to your work place."

He wasn't deterred. "Tell me man, what makes a scientist get the highest civilian honor of India?" My irritation on his ignorance showed in my reply: "Without science and technology no civilization can thrive, and C. N. R. Rao has significantly contributed to the progress of science in India."

He said: "I see."

It is true that in India, the general public is not much aware of the advancements in modern science and technology. The media seems uninterested or ignorant about science related news. Perhaps they are interested but science isn't glamorous enough. Indian scientists are publishing in internationally recognized journals such as Science, Nature and Cell but the significance of their ground breaking works is rarely reflected in the media.

Why care about recognising research?

Firstly, because good research must be brought to the knowledge of our younger generations to encourage them into taking up research as a carrier. The advances in science and technology have the potential to guide civilisations and counteract poverty in a country like India. The industrial revolution in the European countries in eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the recent progress of modern science in the West offer lessons in this.

The second reason is more evolutionary in nature – that a good deed must be rewarded. Scientists, like all humans, get inspired to work better if their good work is recognised.

It is important to take lessons from other Asian countries such as Japan and China. Japan was prompt to adopt the Western education system as early as the nineteenth century to develop science and technology in the country. During Meiji's period in 1876, Japan invited William S. Clark, the third chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, USA, to establish a university in the country. Subsequently, science and technology flourished in Japan. Needless to say, today Japan is one of the most developed countries of the world. Recently, the Chinese government invited Junying Yuan, a renowned professor of cell biology at Harvard University, USA, to establish a new world class advanced research institute in the country.

Alongside creating world class bodies for fundamental research, India needs to adopt similar strategies. In a country that needs quick development to eliminate scores of problems, it is essential to invest in science and technology.

The Bharat Ratna is expected to bring more attention to science and technology among Indian masses. Apart from recognizing Rao's excellent research, it is a significant move towards popularisation of science in the country.

Inspired by Rao, Indians will perhaps be able dream that one day in future, the country will transform into a land of opportunities, just like other Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea.

The author is a research assistant in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Massachusetts, USA.