Prof Ashutosh Sharma, Secretary, Department of Science and Technology (DST), Government of India in an exclusive interview with Sanghamitra Mohanty and Sreetama Datta of Elets News Network (ENN) talks about different ways in which scientists and scientific and technology institutions can participate directly in empowering different stakeholders in society at large, and a series of actions that can be undertaken to constitute Scientific Social Responsibility (SSR) that will establish and broaden the direct interfaces between science and society.
How is DST ensuring in building an ecosystem of Science and Technology in India?
Let me begin by recalling a phrase from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech during the 104th Indian Science Congress on January 4, 2017, at Tirupati, “On the lines of Corporate Social Responsibility, the concept of Scientific Social Responsibility needs to be inculcated to connect our leading institutions to all stakeholders, including schools and colleges. We must create an environment for sharing of ideas and resources.”
This defines with clarity the concept of Scientific Social Responsibility (SSR). While SSR certainly should embody the twin important concepts of ethics and solution-science that addresses societal problems, we may also formulate a third holistic component of SSR as follows:
To reach the widest-spectrum of stakeholders of S&T&I with scientific knowledge, human resources and infrastructure to make an effective use of mostly existing assets for empowerment of less endowed sections to activate or enhance their latent interests, capability, capacity and potential for their fuller participation in the growth of science and technology and socio-economic ecosystems and a more equitable sharing of its fruits.
There is a plethora of institutions and scientists who receive government grants. It is expected that they contribute to at least one or two actions that they have the expertise and willingness to undertake. These could be very simple things like getting a bunch of school kids to a lab to inspire and excite them about science and scientific research or going to a school or a college and giving interactive lectures there. It excites people’s imagination about the cutting-edge of science and technology. It could be more; consulting an MSME or a start-up, mentor a start-up, and participate in science communication and popularisation, or bring interns in your lab for summer training or train people on the infrastructure that we have, for them to enhance their skills and get a job. There are many different ways in which scientists and institutions can participate directly in societal activities because we have information, knowledge, infrastructure, and people to do it. So, that is essentially the meaning of scientific social responsibility. It may also involve scientists who are doing the socially relevant research and by aiding of NGOs to deliver some aspects of solutions science relevant to society. The idea is to broaden the interface between science and society. SSR draft policy gives many different options about how this bridge or interface is made and used. When it becomes a policy, any ministry can use it. Even corporations can use the framework of SSR with CSR voluntarily to contribute to taking the fruits of science, technology and innovation to society.
A lot of our scientific research is published in journals; journals are mostly run by academicians, they are not accessible or there is not much awareness about it in other ministries, government organisations, private sector and things like that. Hence there is a gap sometimes between scientific research and how it can reach the people. What is your vision regarding this?
Scientific R&D reaches people by professional journal publications, by adaptation of scientific knowledge by industry, government, NGOs and also by the popular media like newspapers, TV, etc. Scientists contributing to the popular media are one aspect of the scientific social responsibility.
As per the National Science Council, India is the third highest country in terms of the number of science and engineering articles published in peer-reviewed journals in 2018. The number is 1,35,788 and has a global share of 5.31 percent.
Scientific papers are the primary means of disseminating knowledge generated to peers and they are also robust indicators of the basic research strengths of an institution and a country. However, the primary purpose of research is not merely generation of papers. Regarding the research published in technical scientific journals, other scientists and industries benefit from it. If you look at R&D centres around Bengaluru, etc. there are thousands of engineers who work there and they are directly plugged into knowledge economy. Now there are other industries that need to be more globally competitive by acquiring knowledge. How do we help that kind of industries and MSMEs? We may remember that the government research support produces not only journal papers, but also infrastructure, patents and trained human resources for problem-solving.
It produces people who are trained in scientific methodology, reasoning and information, who help our industry and start-ups to be competitive. For example, through these projects, we support tens of thousands of Masters and PhD students and basically, they are the ones who contribute to the knowledge economy. These human resources are also vital for our strategic programmes such as ISRO, Atomic Energy and DRDO. So, the Human Resource Development is an important part of supporting research in higher educational institutions. It’s not necessary that if you did a PhD in one area, then the rest of your life you will contribute only to that area. Research training gives you a life-long capacity to figure out things on your own. And that is the most important aspect because no knowledge economy or hi-tech industry or any tech industry can do without this trained manpower.
PhD is not like education at school and college levels. It is not passive. It is about generating your knowledge to solve unknown problems. That is what keeps our knowledge ecosystem vibrant. Today we take pride in our IITs and so on, the base of all of that is research. Therefore, one has to create that base that is fully geared to generate new and relevant knowledge to address ever new challenges. The so called developed countries have industries and societies which harness knowledge for growth. It is clear that the Indian industry has to become more proactive in creating more R&D structures and interfaces. While many PhDs and post-doctoral fellows are hired in IITs, Universities, and R&D labs like CSIR, they often need two to three years of independent research experience after PhD as post-docs. This is a global phenomenon and not just existent here. Hence, if you train somebody up-to PhD level by spending a lot of resources and time, there also has to be strong pipelines for careers beyond it leading to industry, academia, start-ups, and government. Thus, DST started a couple of years ago, a National Post-Doctoral fellowship scheme, so that the best of people, who don’t want to go away necessarily, have an opportunity here. In just two years, we have about 2,500 national post-docs. The other thing we keep encouraging is, we want this trained resource and knowledge to get into the industry by strengthening the interface between academia and industry. One of these interfaces becoming popular in the last five years is through tech start-ups. So we have been strengthening this movement of Start-up India. To give you some numbers, DST had created about 60 incubators in the country prior to 2014. In the last five years, we have doubled that number. We are creating about 15 new incubators every year. Not only that, innovation is unlike invention. It’s not a single event, but a chain, a pyramid, an entire ecosystem. The weakest link in the chain determines the strength of the chain. So what are the different links? We start from scouting, mentoring, training, motivating, networking, fellowships, pre-incubation grants to tseed funding, business plans, scale-up plans, exit plans and connecting start-ups to established industries. These links make the full chain. Earlier the process was to make an incubator and forget about it, like fire and forget! However, what is needed is an end-to-end ecosystem of innovation.
What are the initiatives or schemes undertaken by DST to address these issues?
DST now has specific schemes at each of these stages of intervention. An overall umbrella programme started about four years ago is called the National Initiative on Developing and Harnessing Innovation (NIDHI). All our acronyms mean something. We want to bring in a culture wherein Saraswati and Lakshmi fully understand their interdependence. People often say that if it succeeds in Stanford, why doesn’t it succeed here? The reason it succeeds in MIT and Stanford is that often, it is the Lakshmi (resources) chasing the Saraswati (knowledge), not the other way round.
People have this huge misconception that somehow we can push Saraswati to chase Lakshmi. Either way, it starts with a culture of mutual respect. Respect comes from understanding. The industry needs to understand that to be globally competitive; they are few options but to chase relevant knowledge that brings value. DST in partnership with CII and FICCI has a scheme called PM’s industrial fellowship, in which the industry can nominate a person to do PhD on a subject relevant to the industry. These fellows get twice the fellowship; one fellowship given by DST and the other given by the partnering industry. Through this, we have already produced 100 plus PhDs with industry participation. Our goal is to have 1,000 PhD students at any given year working from the industry with co-advising. Through this, academia would gain by connecting to industry and getting real problems to work on and industry will clearly be the major gainer.
We started a programme called TETRA. The idea is, if the industry brings X amount of money to R&D lab or academia, then we will match it after due diligence. Now when this matching happens, it has a purpose. The government money is more purposefully used for creating infrastructure which is of longer term use. The industry usually is not greatly interested in that. They want to solve an immediate problem, but not create an electron microscope here or something, so government money is useful for that. The industry support is useful for hiring, say at the market rates and to have more flexibility in the use of that money. By having this PPP, one brings the strengths of both, which is having a longer term vision and combined with the shorter term problem solving approach but with greater insights and flexible plans.
Often industries, especially smaller industries, MSMEs, start-ups or even other industries, in general, don’t have ease of access to high-value scientific infrastructure in our academic and R&D institutions. So realising this problem, we are creating professionally managed centres called Sophisticated Analytical and Technical Help Institutes (SATHI). Three are being created this year, each at a cost of Rs125 crore. This is just the beginning and we will create three to four such institutes every year until we have 15-20 across the country.
Idea is to have this plethora of scientific instruments which are useful for the prototyping, fabrication, standardisation, etc., as well as sector-specific facilities for the industries such as textile, water, energy, transport, health, etc. Today many of these small industries may have to go abroad for prototyping. In addition to these services, SATHI will also provide information and knowledge to help the industry; not simply readouts from the machines! Often, casual users from the industry may not know what it means. So you have to provide not just machine readouts but what does it mean for the business, that kind of help. That is why we put the word ‘help’ in this acronym for the institute. Hence, it is not just a mechanical job. What this will also do is create another interface between the academia and the industry. So industry people coming here with their samples, they get to know about this institute as well. The first three centres are in IIT-BHU, IIT-Kharagpur, and IIT-Delhi. So our agreement is that for 20 percent of the time, resources of the centres will be available for use to the parent institute, but 80 percent of the time would be available to the industry, MSMEs, start-ups with transparency and ease. For example, through a portal that tells about what is available where, and the times available for booking and contact person, to the processes involved. Similarly, other initiatives are being taken to have access to the huge scientific infrastructure which is there in the country and every year, well over Rs 5,000 crore worth of new research infrastructure is created through the support of government agencies. But again, some of the problems have been lack of information and ease of accessing this infrastructure by academia and industry at large. So Principal Science Advisor’s office has created a portal called iSTEM. With this portal, we map all what we have in the country, in different labs, institutions, and how to approach that, and how to access it, and so on. So these are all efforts in the direction of having greater synergy between the availability and use of resources. In fact, I would put it like this:
the mechanisms of knowledge generation and mechanisms of knowledge consumption should match. Unless there is a balance between the two, you keep generating something and it accumulates like a flood. So the point is to constantly create appropriate structures and mechanisms to bring harmony of knowledge generation and knowledge consumption.
Now if you look at hi-tech areas, there will be a huge impact on the society in areas like Artificial Intelligence (AI), intelligent machines, Quantum Technologies, Clean Tech and so on. We need to be competitive, not only in terms of developing these technologies but also in terms of its usage, in terms of its connect with the industry, and with other user ministries as well.
To be future ready, DST has launched a new mission called the National Mission on Interdisciplinary Cyber Physical Systems (NM-ICPS). Now, Cyber Physical Systems (CPS) include convergence of so many technologies such as AI, Machine Learning (ML), Robotics, Industry fora, sensors, actuators, Internet of Things (IoT), next generation communication and computing. The future is all about convergence of technologies by being highly interdisciplinary. This mission is worth Rs 3,660 crore for the next five years. It would make us ready to create the foundational layer, whether it is in terms of human resource generation, in terms of generating knowledge, in terms of developing technology, in terms of incubation and start ups and in terms of commercialisation.
The way this mission is set up, it is actually an end-to-end knowledge ecosystem. Traditionally, what we do is compartmentalise like basic research, applied research, technology development, human resource and intellectual property generation, incubation and start-ups and commercialisation. In the ICPS Mission, we have seamlessly integrated all these activities in the concepts of networked Hubs. There will be 20 different hubs in this mission of which the first six foundational hubs are being seeded this year. To understand the concept, take the example of the hub on Machine Learning. It has all of these ingredients, which means knowledge generation, basic research, technology development, and an incubator attached to it and a research park to interface with the industry. The Hub can be thought of as a mini ministry of Machine Learning responsible for the generation, aggregation, custody and use of knowledge in ML. At the same time, the Hubs are kept autonomous with delegated powers for greater flexibility and speed. The Board of each Hub has equal participation from Industry, Academia and relevant Ministries. Hubs have been designed to work with industry, start-ups, R&D labs, academia and international experts. It is about the processes of doing the science and technology in the future, so the architecture of the mission itself empowers its stakeholders to work together with the required flexibility. The Mission Board is chaired by an eminent technology leader, in this case, by Chris Gopalkrishnan.
What are some of the projects that are being envisaged for a sustainable future?
There are three more futuristic missions of this scale and impact that are being formulated by the DST. In few months from now, they should be ripe for roll-out. One of these missions is on is Quantum Technology. One of the mandates of DST is to be prepared for the future. So we should seed the areas now that will have enormous impact in five to 20 years and even beyond. There are certain areas in which we missed the bus. For example, microelectronics fabrication in which now the nation is greatly dependent on imports. Quantum Technology is one of those areas that is becoming very vibrant globally because of many of the next generation disruptive technologies such as Quantum Communication, Quantum Computing, Quantum Devices, etc.
A little detour here about Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law basically says that about every 18 months, you reduce the size of your electronic component by half to increase speeds. Now Moore’s Law is rapidly becoming the ‘Moor’s Last Sigh’. Some of the electronic components are already down to nine nanometre size and soon we are down to a size where quantum effects take over. So you can no longer design anything with certainty. We need new breakthroughs. Quantum Technology Mission is a hunt for those ideas and technologies.
Another technology mission being worked on is on energy storage. Energy storage becomes important for two reasons. One is our gradual switch to electric mobility. More and more of this is going to happen driven by the attractive technologies and market realities. The second reason is requirement of massive grid-wide storage as the renewal energy (solar) becomes significant. So we need batteries and even new battery chemistries beyond the current materials like Lithium, the supply of which is limited. It is expected that by around 2025, Lithium based batteries will start to become less attractive in view of alternatives.
And at the same time we are working on smart grids and also cyber security of infrastructure. A centre has been created at IIT-Kanpur, working on cyber security of infrastructure, like power grids.
Yet another mission is related to making clean fuels. Clean fuel means things like methanol and so on, but one special need of the country is that we should be able to make use of our enormous reserves of coal as a starting material, in addition to biomass and waste. If we can convert coal into cleaner fuels like methanol, that means we have a huge advantage. We are setting up a pilot plant in Pune for coal gasification rote to clean fuels. Before we start a big mission, we start several smaller scale activities to gain useful understanding, experience and to evolve an optimised holistic approach. So all of these missions, whether it is quantum, or energy storage or clean fuels, all of these activities we have seeded about one to three years ago, and now it is time to scale them up.
Another mission is now mapping all of India using the best contemporary technologies, on an unprecedented resolution, which is required for development, planning and governance in every sphere. One of the arms of DST is Survey of India, which has started to employ drones, Lidar and various other sensors for high resolution mapping. Work has started in three states of Haryana, Karnataka and Maharashtra and also in the mapping of the entire Ganga basin under the Namami Gange Mission of Jal Shakti. It is digital geospatial base map, so you can superimpose on it all other pipe and culvert that empties into Ganga will be mapped. What is the catchment area and its topography? What happens when there is a flood, where does the water go? All of that would become possible. In the next three years, our plan is to have this digital map of India in the usable form, accessible by the citizens. For the planning and developmental needs of the country, local bodies like Gram Panchayats, should be able to access and use it easily.
There must be a lot of subtle things which the general public is unaware of. How do you ensure that this gap is bridged?
If I really explained what all things DST did, it would take a whole day. It took me six months to figure out every micro detail here. Now, communication is very important. We start it by an example, which is one hour slot on DD National every day from five to six. It is called DD Science. Its quality is maturing fast. The next idea is to scale it to a dedicated 24×7 India science channel. We are already creating the framework and processes for it. There is also an internet TV channel which has been created with a library and some live content. Another thing we have done is this programme called Augmenting Writing Skills for Articulating Research (AWSAR). In this, we offer a great opportunity to scientists to write popular science stories based on their area of work. This is also a component of Scientific Social Responsibility. It would be hugely beneficial to both students and society if all PhD students write at least one popular science story based on their research.
Last year we started this programme and received around 3,500 stories. This year the aim is in excess of 5,000. Some of these stories may get published in magazines and newspapers. Even more important, each of these people who wrote the story will gain by it in terms of their communication skills. It will help them understand much better their own research and its possible impact. It is important for them to know how their narrow and deep research relates to the larger concerns of science and society. We should be able to convey why others should have interest in it. So we have to empower our researchers improve their communication, not just science journalists.