Science in the time of
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Is there as much focus on basic science as there is on technology and inventions? Srabanti Chakrabarti poses for this question to renowned names in the field of science and technology
IN 2004, 39.2 million students became graduates and 9.3 million students qualified as postgraduates in India. Out of them 8.6 and 1.8 million, respectively, were science students, says the India Science Report, 2005.
In the budget outlay for 2005-06, the Finance Minister announced an unprecedented grant of Rs 100 crore for modernisation of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. In the next annual close to the same amount was kept aside for modernisation of IITs.
— In 2005, no less than 57 per cent of the students at the plus-two level expressed their desire to pursue science for higher studies.
The Government of India spends around 4 per cent of the country’s GDP on education.
These figures, from official documents, suggest an increasing interest amongst students in science and the government supporting and facilitating it with special grants to different institutions and through budget outlays.
This trend is not without any reason. The government today acknowledges the fact that the best way to transform a developing country to a developed one is to ride piggyback on science and technology.
But are the scientists doing justice to the faith reposed in them by the nation? Are they making good use of the funds? Are they coming up with inventions and discoveries that will help the country turn into a developed country? The answers are both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. While the technologists have been more than successful in creating a happy story post-Independence, it doesn’t look like everything is hunky-dory when it comes to basic science.
Be it space technology, telecom, software, pharmacology or nuclear technology, we have crossed new barriers in the last few decades and made it possible for the overall development of the nation to take place. But the same cannot be said about basic science.
Agrees Dr Ashok Jhunjhunwala, professor of electrical engineering and Head, Telecommunications and Computer Network group, IIT, Chennai, "This has happened because there has been more work done by the industry. The collaboration between academia and industry has worked very well in the last few decades and thus the resultant success stories in the fields of communication technology, bio-technology, drug discovery and auto and auto components technology."
Dr Jhunjhunwala, who received the Padma Shri in 2002 and is on the Prime Minister’s Scientific Advisory Committee, adds, "The other reason behind the success is the fact that technology involves more of team and interdisciplinary work. In India, we have always achieved success in fields where we have been able to get teamwork going and bring in inter-disciplinary work."
Dr Jhunjhunwala’s revolutionary CORDECT technology for rural telephony is a perfect example. Using completely indigenously developed technology, Dr Jhunjhunwala and his team of engineers could bring down the cost of implementing telecom solutions in rural areas by 75 per cent. His visionary approach of partnering with the industry also worked wonders and today his technology and implementation model is being replicated in a number of developing countries.
Dr B. K. Mathur, Head of the Department of Physics, IIT, Kharagpur, disagrees with the opinion that technology has progressed more than basic science in India, "This is not entirely true. Technological progress becomes visible immediately because of its commercial value." This, he feels, is the reason behind the thinking that there has been more happening on the technology front.
Dr Sugata Sanyal from the School of Technology and Computer Science, however, has a different opinion and feels that we have still not made much progress in basic technology. He argues, "Fundamental progress in technology is still happening abroad. We are just applying those concepts. Though we are capable of making path-breaking discoveries, we are still using copies of technology developed abroad and mostly customising it."
Dr Sanyal maintains that countries in the West are using Indian brain and developing fundamental technology much better. "We have a huge IT force but they are mostly busy doing outsourced jobs as the return on investment is high. Have you ever thought about how much new technology development is happening in India? Not much, if you ask me. We can do much more. We are lacking in utilisation and proper coordination," he explains.
Explains Dr Mathur, "Based on indigenous technological developments or adaptation of foreign technology, the progress in our country is phenomenal. But, let me also confirm that development in fundamental scientific research is not lagging behind either. Unfortunately, scientific progress becomes visible only when it glows in technological terms or development of commercially viable applications."
This, Dr Mathur admits, gives rise to the thought that there is not much happening in basic science.
Dr Sanyal asserts the possible reason behind this could be our education system. He says, "Our education system allows very little focus for the student to try out new things and invent something. The approach is self-limiting and doesn’t encourage any experiments whatsoever."
There was the occasional shade of brilliance though in the last few decades. The Ray Chaudhuri equation, developed by physicist Amal K. Raychaudhuri helped stalwarts like Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose in their work and the same is well-acknowledged all over the world.
Jayant Narlikar’s work on cosmology also deserves mention as one of the major achievements in Indian science post-Independence. The director of the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Narlikar worked with legendary physicist Fred Hoyle to come up with the famed Hoyle-Narlikar theory.
And, of course, there is physicist Ashoke Sen’s work on string theory (a concept in modern physics according to which everything in the universe is made up of one-dimensional objects like strings and not particles as is believed).
Dr Sanyal corroborates, "Contrary to popular belief, we are doing very well in science. People here are better in theoretical science than in practical engineering. To reiterate again, we have tremendous potential — it is a pity that we are working for others, not for our motherland."
Chips in Dr Mathur, "Guess we need to do more on marketing of our scientific progress to make it visible."
Adds Dr Jhunjhunwala, "The thought of end of science is definitely not correct. Technology thrives on basic science and today we are reaping what basic science did in the past. But for tomorrow, as well as for some pressing problems of today, basic science alone needs to work. I also feel that some more inter-disciplinary work is needed."
Dr Sanyal puts forward another example, "Have we conquered AIDS, cancer, worry, irrationality? Unfortunately, no. And it is the job of basic science to get answer to all these. The more we conquer problems, the more problems will come up, so there is no lack of problem, no limit to learning and no limit of science."
So, one feels, all that is
required to move forward is better synergy between the cause and the
effect to ensure that both science and technology in our country are
aligned and move together to transform India into a developed nation.
She gave a new lease of life to her family’s business when she took over as Managing Director of the Bangalore-based Conzerv. Jangveer Singh meets Hema Hattangady, one of the best in the energy saving business
Hema Hattangady is today Managing Director of Conzerv, a Rs 40-crore company in the Electronic city near Bangalore. But she has had to brave many odds to triumph as an entrepreneur.
What is Conzerv today was Enercon Systems earlier, a company started by Hema’s father-in-law on the first floor of his residence in Bangalore in 1986. The company however continued to run losses till 1996 when it had a sales figure of Rs 1 crore. Since October 1996, when Hema took over the reins of the company as Managing Director, it has seen sales growing at an average of 30 per cent annually and the company is expected to notch sales of over Rs 100 crore by 2008. It now even has offices in eight countries and sells its products in 22 others.
Hema has always faced life boldly. As a student, she had to leave Carmel Convent in Delhi for a school in the remote Dharwad, a quiet University town, near Bangalore. A major setback came to this student of commerce with the passing away of her father but she was able to get a position of merit in the university. Again, after an early marriage, she was unable to join her husband abroad for a couple of years but she went on to qualify for a seat at the IIM, Kolkata.
Staying with her in-laws after her marriage, Hema very much had to be a bahu. She, however, took up a job in an advertising firm. The turning point in her life came when she started taking interest in the family business. "My father-in-law entered into an understanding with a company in Chennai to market stabilisers and energy meters designed by him. In 1992, the same group came to him and urged that both companies should be merged. It was then that I told my family not to pursue what I thought was a bad deal, as we would get little for giving away our design and manufacturing prowess."
Hema says the merger fell through but now it was up to her to take up the selling. The family was also burdened with Rs 45 lakh loan and virtually had no liquid cash. At this juncture stepped in former HLL India Chairman T Thomas, who had floated Indus Venture Capital, the country’s first risk venture capital fund. Our former partners approached him for capital but when he came to know that we were behind the designs, he chose to invest in our company. For three years, till 1996, Mr Thomas invested in our company but it kept on incurring losses as it was in "investment mode" with heavy investments going in design and sales infrastructure.
Then, Hema says, Thomas requested her husband Ashok Hattangady, who was helping his father in designing energy saving devices, to take over as Managing Director from the latter. "Ashok did not like the change. Being a technical hand, he preferred to design and develop products rather than handle the administrative and marketing part of the job. Finally, he requested Mr Thomas to make me the MD, which I became in October 1996.
The company had sales of Rs 1 crore and no profits. It was then that this MBA with specialisation in marketing went all out to make the company professional and profitable.
She says she has brought in professionalism, which eventually resulted in profitability. "I also believe in recruiting giants rather than pygmies," she asserts, adding that her company is knowledge-focused with 175 engineers out of a total staff of 275. As much as 7 per cent of the revenue is ploughed back into R&D. Besides this, she claims, Conzerv is the only company in the energy saving business which offers a package, including the installation of Energy Management Systems, to its clients. It offers a three-pronged measure, detect and control model to its clients and has a range of products, including digital panel meters, energy meters, multi-function meters, intelligent power factor controller and capacitors.
How does it feel to
accomplish all this being a woman? "I was 28 when I first started
selling engineering products. The buyers thought I was being cheeky.
Now, however, I feel gender does not matter". The Conzerv MD also
finds that women are more resourceful in a tight position and can do
multi-processing. "We are also more intuitive." How does her
husband take to her being the MD? She confides, "Ashok once told an
interviewer that I had taken the headache out of his job. He is very
secure in his abilities as a designer and is happy that I let him
concentrate on what he likes doing best."