The Role of Indian Science and Technology in Current Trying Times of COVID-19 pandemic, and beyond

This scholarly article is a discussion between Prof. Ashutosh Sharma (Secretary, Department of Science and Technology, Govt. of India) and Mr. Ravi Gupta (Founder and CEO, Elets Technomedia Pvt. Ltd) on occasion of celebrating 49th DST foundation day, 2020. The Virtual Talk session was hosted by Mr. Ravi Gupta. Prof. Ashutosh Sharma is serving as a Secretary to the Government of India since Jan 2015 and heading the key chair of Department of Science and Technology (DST). He helped to initiate several new and ambitious policies/programs related to infrastructure and human capacity building, innovation and startups, R&D in advanced manufacturing, waste processing, clean energy and cyber-physical systems, industry-academia cooperation, science communication, promote opportunities for women scientists, and major international collaborations in the areas of priority to the nation’s technological and industrial growth. In 2002, Prof. Sharma was awarded the prestigious S. S. Bhatnagar Prize for his pragmatic vision and excellence in Engineering Sciences. Prof. Sharma received his Bachelor degree B.Tech in Chemical Engineering from Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur (IIT Kanpur), he was graduated with master’s degree from Pennsylvania State University and got his Doctorate PhD degree in Chemical Engineering from the State University of New York at Buffalo, USA.

Prof. Sharma has received numerous honors and awards including the inaugural Infosys Prize in Engineering and Computer Science, TWAS Science Prize of the World Academy of Sciences, Bessel Research Award of the Humboldt Foundation, J. C. Bose Fellowship, Homi J. Bhabha Award of UGC, The Syed Husain Zaheer Medal and the Meghnad Saha Medal of INSA. He is also recipient of Distinguished Alumni Awards of IIT Kanpur and SUNY Buffalo, Firodia Award, the Life-time Achievement Award of the Indian Science Congress and several Doctor of Science honorary degree, including from SUNY Buffalo, and Jadavpur University.

The key viewpoints of Prof. Sharma’s video talk are collected by Yogesh RG Singh (Researcher at Center for Nanoscienecs, IIT Kanpur) and penned down for publication. The aim of this article is to reach maximum people, to drive mass awareness on science and technology, and make people more centric towards science. Yogesh expresses his profound sense of gratitude to Prof. Sharma and Mr. Ravi for such comprehensive and enlightening conversation covering various achievements of Indian science and technology amidst COVID-19 outbreak. Prof. Sharma has addressed the wide range of issues relevant to Science and Technology in current perspective and how DST is immensely contributing to the country, economy and society.

Questionnaire: Introduction about DST?

Prof Sharma: DST is not only the Govt. organization, it’s highly distributed system, a friendly rapport which is associated with all stakeholders. These stakeholders are the amalgamation of students, PhD researchers, postdoctoral researchers, scientists, industries, R&D labs, IITs and including several NGOs. The functioning of DST permeates through these aforementioned networks of relations. DST participate in making policies for science and technology in the country. Also, DST is a part of reviewing scientific committees in order to enhance the scientific and technological capabilities. DST also provides platforms for Govt. to Govt. partnership, helps signing MOUs at international/national level fostering cooperation and collaboration through swift and safe sharing of information and evidence-based research between the various organizations. DST also envisages and approves funding opportunities to basic and applied sciences, various scientific organizations, academics, industries, incubators and start-up companies. DST is an organization with holistic approach which empowers our science and technology, scientists, institutions and provides them multiple platform to flourish and grow. In the last 50 years, DST also got evolved with the rapid revolution and advancement of science and technology, and always committed to serve society and scientific fraternities in all possible way.

Role of DST in last 5 years

Basically, DST is responsible for conceptualization and implementation of innovative ecosystem through different scientific programmes. We are involved on minutiae scale research starting from atom to vast universe research of astrophysics. We are focusing more over quality, relevant competition and multidisciplinary research and its implications in future technology. DST is also supporting the research needed for basic science which is our educational need and foundation for practical applications. DST is involved in fostering more creativity in scientific pursuit and always committed for quality research. DST is working relentlessly for impactful science and supports stakeholders to take calculated risk to maximize the chances of success. In last couple of years, we have nearly doubled the innovation ecosystem, start up and incubators with exacting opportunities and our motivation is to buttress every chain of networking. There is a scheme called “NIDHI” which incorporates all the commitments to ensure each chain in the ecosystem is strong.

DST is more concentrating over brain power development & reservoirs of knowledge that encourage the young leadership in entrepreneurship, science and technology. All school needs to develop a foundation of building skills, leadership, and prepare young minds for the self-dependent future. DST keeps organizing different scientific competitions timely in order to seek the participation and engagement of young minds in science. Children’s Science Congress, under a scheme called “Rashtriya Kishore Vignana Sammelana”, supported by DST; in which approximately 8 lakhs school children (between age group of 10-17 years) participated at various levels competition held at districts, states & union territories. DST received many creative and innovative ideas from schools. Schools were felicitated with the inspire awards and prize money, and were asked to assist the children with innovative ideas and projects related to waste conversion, energy, environment and rural developments. Developing scientific attitude and scientific literacy among budding scientists provide pipeline of future research. To stop the exodus of talented young researchers after PhD completion, DST initiated the “National Post-Doctoral Fellowship (NPDF)” scheme and many research scholars got benefited with this scheme exploring appropriate platform for academic and industry based jobs. We are generating science, but always we have to push it where it needs to go in apropos manner. Industry has to be in equal partnership with academics. They have to work synergistically for better profitability.

Questionnaire: How DST is working in sustainable development?

Prof Sharma: We are working more for sustainable development. Since Technology is playing a huge role in shaping the global economy as well as Indian economy. We have initiated many new programs dealing with clean energy, electric mobility, energy storage, renewable energy and agricultural reforms. We are also fostering the nexus between different sectors building a prolific society for all.

DST is also paying key attention to artificial intelligence on meteoric scale. We are associated in developing cyber physical system, currently 25 hubs across the country are working in computational communication. DST leaves no stone unturned to empower these hubs financially or administratively. Subsequently we are working in Quantum technology for future innovation, exploring more ideas about “Way of the future ready” and how on the map they can be accommodated together with many technologies, assembled with Super computer, other than chip, with manufacturing designed facility.

Questionnaire: How DST is working on implementing new policies for Science and Technology?

Most of the people in academics do not participate much in social activities. We don’t have much journalists and media reporter in the country to communicate the scientific activities, so indeed we lack scientific communications. This is high time to be extrovert. We need to communicate with various stakeholders as much as possible in terms of good infrastructure, knowledge, information and human resources. Academia people should make themselves more engaged with stakeholders in view of problem-solving approach and research activities. All possible communication means should be adopted in terms of interacting people in the society and making them more enthusiastic for science and technology. School kids should be given more chance to attend scientific lectures, and arrangement should be made for them to visit different scientific labs. Academia scholars can provide great platform to school children to understand the pivotal role of science and technology. This should be the real motivation behind empowering people who will engage more with science tomorrow. There is more interesting aspect to connecting science, technology and society through effective write-up of scientific stories and organizing several competitions under Govt. initiative called “AVSAR program”. Ultimately, it is aimed that students will be largely benefitted by writing such inspiring scientific stories.

Questionnaire: How DST is combating COVID19 crisis?

Prof Sharma: Many organizations including DST are working tenaciously to fight COVID-19. Be it scientific institutions, scientists and supply chain from industries, all are responding to the crisis adequately and sincerely. Their enthusiasm is wonderful. DST is working on many fronts covering multiple dimensional approaches to fight the pandemic. We have 11 different strategic action plans which includes funding, basic resources, bio markers for disease, understanding the disease and causes, basic research, product scale up of testing kits, connecting people to ample resources, NGOs are being empowered, mask production and distributions, disinfecting people along with public places, and scientific communications with several stakeholders. Many initiatives are being taken by the DST and Vigyan Prasar collectively to share more updates, information and ideas about COVID-19. We are not only disseminating the information to society but also seeking more information and plausible solutions to the underlying problem.

Traditional wisdom and practices

Amidst this pandemic crisis, it is important for people to monitor the health condition. It is imperative to take proper steps to strengthen immunity power which may provide support to respiratory illness. Couple of days back, some Spanish guests were greeting us by saying “Namastey”. There is no physical contact in doing Namastey and people are acknowledging it in order to maintain social distancing. We need to recognize the cultural aspects of YOGA and Meditation and how this helps to reduce the stress and in what condition it does works. In modern times, any kind of disease can be scientifically diagnosed by using modern tools. Now we have international connects and collaborations which are working together in view of developing scientific infrastructures and deep scientific knowledge. These aspects are quite helpful and making possible to combat the pandemic crisis. 

Questionnaire: What is the Lesson for future?

Prof Sharma: Role of technology sitting at home/office;
We should know the accountability of cause and creativity. Now thousands of people can virtually join a single online platform using technology sitting far away at their home/office. Earlier people travelled thousands of miles for attending conferences, meetings but now alot of things can be done from home/office. Technology is going to be more efficient with no lesser outcome.

Questionnaire: How Virus can be a BIG opportunity for India and world?

Prof Sharma: It is witnessed from the history that every time when big crisis took place, it brings equally big structural challenges and opportunities. A century ago, as the Spanish influenza brought awful devastation to the world. Now it’s a good time to study the tragic episode and to push for progressive policies to understand how it happened and what could be the learning lessons out of it to stop the spread of the contagious disease again. Due to Spanish flu, people started adopting big change in their habits. Alot of contemporary inventions took place in those time after pandemic and people started following strict hygienic measures. Many industrial revolutions happened afterwards in the interest of future of society and innovation.

New area of Research to be focussed after CORONA crisis;

This is really a high time to focus on climate change, this is not the only national problem. The viruses would come and go but we need to be extra vigilant in implementing policies which can transform our economies and societies to confront the climate change. A well-known adage is quoted “Once a frog fell in a vessel of the hot water. Instead of jumping out, frog still didn’t try to come out of the vessel, and stayed in it. The frog managed to adjust its body temperature with rising temperature of water accordingly. As soon as water reached to the level of boiling point, the frog couldn’t manage to jump off and died. Moral of the story is that frog couldn’t make it due to its own ignorance to discern when to jump out of the vessel. We all need to focus over the situations in near future and there should be right time when we need to take the appropriate action accordingly before it’s too late. 

DST is focussing more research grants for sustainable developments, artificial intelligence and machine intelligence. Many young people need to be part of the industry and machine learning program to contribute globally and they can play pivotal role in growing economy. We need to develop the deep, necessary and critical thinking of the research pattern meticulously rather than merely copying each other. We need to develop more collaborative research networking with learning ability. The profound nature of research should be more focussed over qualitative rather than incremental. We need to adopt an apropos route to train more researchers for the industrial job rather than only seeking academic jobs. All stakeholders need to work together to empower the young minds, help them banishing all the distasteful acts of weakness, bring confidence among them by creating wonderful opportunities. Ample research works have been carried out in last 50 years BUT now it’s high time to focus over the energy, enthusiasm, leadership and creativity of young minds in current research perspective. It will certainly augment the capacity building (strengthening the skills, abilities and competencies) of the youth in scientific research and empowering young aspirants to realize their research potential. 

Being a DST secretary, I do believe in 3 ways of solution, “Juggad; which can be quickly effective but can’t be scalable”, “Dhandha; a stable way of doing business with incremental changes” and “Panga” means; a disruptive change in doing business, an arduous way of changing the nature of the job. I am not advocating the revolution mechanism but certainly vouching for the camaraderie among these changes. There should be continuity and stability among these.  Our key focus is to work on problem solving approach in accordance with the dynamically evolving world. 

Questionnaire: Why Indian higher education institutions are lower in ranking?  

Prof Sharma: As far as Indian higher education ranking is concerned in comparison to other universities, some agencies who do survey are not totally transparent but biased sometimes. It would not be wise to question over rationality of these agencies but yes of course many IITs, IISc and other Indian institutions are doing good quality research. Moreover, I would say that a university in higher ranking can’t be merely compared to IITs/IISc. There can be comparison made between School of Engineering rankings. Several viewpoints can be also taken into the consideration for ranking assessment; many foreign students and faculty member involvement in the institution is also part of ranking measurement. We have to work on such notion. And if we are not getting enough foreigners through study program here at our institutions, it’s not our weakness. But certainly, we need to improve our quality research. Our research has been profound in quality, only thing that we have to be more focused about how it should be highly prioritized and compatible to the interest of the stakeholders. Other countries do their research in accordance with the interest of their stakeholders. So, we need to instill the purpose of learning and make our researchers able to think, understand, and question till objective is not accomplished. We have to be leaders not to be followers. Sometimes we don’t lack creativity but confidence. We have to be more careful and transparent about the right reward mechanism. Therefore, every mentor/scientist needs to work on this idea to bring confidence to the next generation. Adding to it, if we talk about worldwide ranking, there are so many other Indian Institutes too which are producing high quality research in terms of high ranking, one of our DST institution JNCASR-Bangalore, stands at 7th world wide ranking in quality research and Indian Association for the cultivation of Science-Kolkata comes under top 10 prestigious organization worldwide in their respective research areas.

Questionnaire: Some people say-why only funding goes to IITs?

Prof Sharma: There is no such thing about partiality, and prejudiced funding provided to only IITs. All process is highly competitive after careful consideration and no prejudiced judgments are made by DST. Nowadays maximum number of proposals are being submitted by scientists who are well expertise in the particular areas. They have better lab facilities, peer qualities of research and resources. I would like to clarify that DST funding is solely dependent to the certain resources, relevance to quality research, competitiveness, sublime performances and expected outcome. Everybody can’t be funded. State universities need to be strengthened with the policies of pervasive research culture, insightful objectives and future outcome. UGC/MHRD needs to implement the persuasive policies for state universities and still alot of changes are being incorporated in new education policy but it will take some time to be operational.  

Questionnaire: What is your view about Ganga cleaning?

Prof Sharma: If one is doing research on fundamental basic sciences, objective should be more clear that how it is benefitting the society. However, sometimes this may not have immediate relevance to the society but research approach has to be very lucid and profound. As per the dynamical evolving world, maximum research needs to be focussed over problem solving strategies combining all segments of science. It covers wide range of substantive tools in research, scientific findings but only few people are doing applied research. Academia award is very limited. We need to develop learning platform for all to grow where opportunities can pave the significant changes in the society. We need to be more sensible with fully aware of our civic responsibilities. Selfishness does not work out and directly contribute to the downfall of the habitat. We must work towards a collectivised idea of the world to serve the society. That way Ganga can be cleaned. We can train people so that skilled people can contribute to work in that particular segment of science. Therefore, when people collectively take any action in the form of dedication, efforts and creativity to do research, it would be the actual fulfilment to the science and technology. 

Questionnaire: If research article didn’t get published?

Prof Sharma: These mentality comes under force of habit and our mindset needs to be changed. While people may need it for their promotion in view of career prospective, peer recognition and awards. But we often regarded doctoral research as a paper factory during PhD studies. I have been part of academia for long time and I was also involved through the same phase of publishing the paper factory. Now we understand the damage. But let’s not speculate this is the 100% reason to do science. 

Questionnaire: In the last, Your concluding pithy remarks?

Prof Sharma: I am grateful to join all the scientific fraternities today on occasion of DST foundation day. We need not to be agreed on each conversation discussed herein. We should be critical and independent thinker. We are a part of creative world and we have to keep exploring the new arena of science and technology. We hate failure in the life and we’ve been always taught to believe in wings with flying around BUT we can’t do good science if not willing to take risks. 

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