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Editorial Articles


Issue no 24,11-17 September 2021

India's Scientific Ecosystem

Past, Present & Future

 

S. Rangabashiam

 

As India celebrates 75 years of Independence with Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav, let us take a look at the progress made by the country in the field of Science and Technology through an interview with Dr. Shekhar C Mande, Director General, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

How much has our country progressed in the field of science and technology since independence? India has progressed substantially in the field of science and technology in its last 75 years. We are amongst the global powers in the field of science and technology. Going by any of the standard indexes to measure science and technology, be it the number of papers published, or the quality of papers published, we rank among the top 5 globally. Apart from the metrics of publications, S&T has catalysed the socioeconomic development of the country and we have been able to achieve selfsufficiency in many sectors that includes vital agriculture sector.

What are the major thrust areas CSIR is focusing on now?CSIR's mandate has been to do industrial R&D, develop technologies and also benefit the society. Such technology developments are on the strong foundations of scientific research, and consequently, some of the finest and cutting-edge research, are being carried out in the CSIR laboratories. Our research and technology development also focuses on the needs of Indian society at large. Looking at the present and future requirements of the country, we have identified several thrust areas. The research at CSIR is broadly under 8 themes: Aerospace, Electronics, Instrumentation & Strategic Sector; Agri, Nutrition & Biotechnology; Chemicals (including leather) & Petro-chemicals; Civil Infrastructure & Engineering; Ecology, Environment, Earth & Ocean Sciences and Water, Energy & Energy devices; Healthcare and Mining, Minerals, Metals and Materials.

We often hear about innovative inventions and discoveries, but why are they not brought to market?Translation of discoveries and innovations made in the lab to technology/ product that reaches the market is rather long and complex. Many times the technologies may fail when they are tested in real-life situations although they may do well in lab level conditions. So in technology development parlance, Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) are used as a parameter to identify at the stage they are. By those criteria most innovations/technologies that emanate from academic labs are in TRL3-4 stage. To progress further, often-industrial collaboration would be useful. Further the recent lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic also brought into sharp focus the supply chain and logistics challenges during technology development. Further, sometimes the innovations are ahead of time and some just fail. Also many a time there is a gap in innovation and the market need and dynamics.

However, what is important is that the learning's had from each innovation. It's part and parcel of knowledge development. For example, FELUDA, the COVID-19 diagnostic kit developed by CSIR in a few months, was not created from scratch. The CSIR-IGIB team was working on the Cas9 system to detect the mutation in the gene that causes sickle cell anaemia for point-of-care CRISPR diagnostics. When COVID-19 struck, this was reoriented suitably and successfully tests COVID-19.

What is CSIR doing to carry forward applied research?The engineering laboratories of CSIR are being pursued to collaborate strongly with basic science labs to pursue applied research especially in trans-disciplinary areas. For instance during the current Covid-19 pandemic, CSIR-Central Building Research Institute (CBRI) and Central Scientific Instruments Organization collaborated with CSIRInstitute of Microbial Technology (IMTECH) to develop solutions and guidelines for mitigation of air borne SARS-CoV-2 which is now considered as the major threat of transmission. CSIRCBRI has come out with detailed ventilation guidelines for office and residential buildings. CSIR-CSIO has developed UV-C disinfection devices that have been validated by CSIR-IMTECH using SARS-CoV-2 cultures and now this device is currently installed in the central hall of parliament and two committee rooms. These are few examples and demonstrate the efforts of CSIR towards applied research.

What is the focus area for CSIR - industrial science, pure science or life sciences?In the vision laid out by the visionary and founding DG of CSIR, Dr Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, "The scope of work in each laboratory (of CSIR) could perhaps be best described to be of the form of a continuous spectrum, at end of which research work of the purest academic type is carried out and at the other, the technical development of process and equipment proceeds by stages". Hence, CSIR has always supported the basic and curiosity driven 'blue sky' research on one hand and also applied and industrial research on the other.

CSIR has a history of efficiently collaborating and partnering with industries in technology development and technology transfer. The recent years have seen this collaboration growing, not just with a partnership with more industries but also with other arms of the Government.

Scientific and industrial research is the focus area of CSIR. That said, today, we cannot compartmentalise the branches of sciences or areas of research. We are witnessing the coming together of not just scientific disciplines but also many science and non-science disciplines. Today, there are many liberal arts students doing courses in science and vice versa. This intermingling of disciplines paves the way for crossfertilisation of ideas, solving problems in a new light, and adopting innovative methods. Yet again, the pandemic saw beneficial collaborations in CSIR labs. Engineering labs collaborated with life sciences labs.

Is the country benefiting, costbenefit wise, by spending crores of rupees on research in science and technology?

It is well known that India's spending on R&D as a percentage of GDP is quite low, less than 1%. Despite that, the benefits that S&T technology has brought to the country are phenomenal. Some of the impacts or effects of scientific research are not immediate. But it is extremely important that we invest in scientific research and consolidate our R&D workforce and infrastructure, as it will stand the nation in good stead, as exemplified during the pandemic and eras of technology denials.

The socio-economic impact analysis carried out on multiple technologies of CSIR has shown that many of them have not only yielded economic growth in certain sectors but also made India import independent or reduced dependence in those. Moreover, these have led to job creations too. For example the wax deoiling technology developed by CSIR Indian Institute of Petroleum (IIP) and deployed at Numaligarh Refinery in Assam is an example of import substitution of paraffin wax and job creation. Similarly, the recent success of Aroma Mission has been empowering the farmers and entrepreneurs that include women too.

 

Let us talk about specifics - Aerospace - are you aiming to bring about economical aircraft, navigation systems etc.?

The CSIR-National Aerospace Laboratories, CSIR-Central Scientific Instruments Organization and CSIRCentral Electronics Engineering Research Institute are some CSIR laboratories working in the strategic aerospace sector. The CSIR-NAL is recognised as a leader in aerospace research in India. Training schools in India are widely using our Hansa aircraft. Recently, NAL has sought permission to design 90-seater aircraft, and by 2026, these flights are expected to connect hilly, small towns and give a fillip to tourism. There are other innovations such as the heads-up display developed by CSIRCSIO and Drishti, an indigenous, innovative and cost-effective visibility measuring system developed by CSIRNAL that is useful for airport operations and gives information to pilots on the visibility at the runway. Several airports in the country are using the system today.

 

Urban housing probably needs renewed focus. Is CSIR looking at cost-effective construction material and technology?

Affordable and hazard resistant resistance housing is a priority for the country and to CSIR. The CSIR-Central Building Research Institute has been at the forefront of developing affordable and hazard resistance houses. In early May 2019, cyclone Fani ravaged the coast of Odisha that destroyed and damaged, among other things, lakhs of dwellings, the houses designed and built by the CSIR's Central Building Research Institute (CSIR-CBRI) stood strong without any damage. During the recent pandemic, CSIR-CBRI and CSIRStructural Engineering Research Centre (SERC) constructed several makeshift hospitals in different parts of the country. A house to live in is a basic need of every human. The Government of India has affirmed its commitment to provide "Housing for All" by 2022. In pursuance of this goal, Pradhan Mantri Avas YojnaGramin (PMAY-G) scheme was approved to assist in constructing pucca houses in rural areas. The CSIR-CBRI has been entrusted with the responsibility for architectural and structural validation of the rural housing designs by the United National Develop Programme (UNDP) under the Ministry of Rural Development of the Government of India. The CSIRCentral Building Research Institute (CSIR-CBRI) has reviewed the designs by UNDP and has suggested appropriate S&T interventions to make the houses more durable, resistant to natural disasters and comfortable to live in.

 

What efforts is CSIR making to bring gender parity in Science and Technology?

Like in many walks of life, the ratio of men vis-a-vis women in science have been disproportionate. There have been historical socio-cultural reasons for that. We are doing our best to bridge the gender gap. I am happy to inform you that for the first time, we are witnessing a larger presence of women in leadership positions in CSIR. For the first time, we have five women Directors in CSIR. Our efforts shall continue to bring gender parity.

 

Significantly, CSIR provides age relaxation of 5 years to women candidates in upper age limit for award of Fellowships/Associateships to pursue doctoral and postdoctoral with the aim to encourage women candidates to opt science and technology as career. As a result of the steps taken by CSIR to encourage women in the field of Science and Technology, the women participation has witnessed an upward trend in their overall strength in the doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships awarded by CSIR. During 2017-18, out of total doctoral and postdoctoral fellows supported by CSIR, the women representation was 36% which increased to 42% in 2018-19, whereas during the year 2019-20 and 2020-21, the women representation was about 44% of about 9000 doctoral and postdoctoral research fellows being supported by CSIR across.

How do you propose to acquire technology from other countries?

We endeavour to develop our technologies rather than importing technologies to the extent possible. CSIR has time and again shown that when technologies were denied, we developed them on our own. Be it the development of the Flosolver supercomputer or formulation of milk food. We are very much aligned to the Atmanirbhar Bharat or Self Sufficient and Self-Reliant India. Our technological innovations and developments are aimed at avoiding imports and drive exports.

 

Earthquake is a big threat - are you focusing on it for prediction solutions?

The CSIR-National Geophysical Research Institute is involved in efforts in this direction. The Institute has a rather strong earthquake hazards studies programme. The CSIR-NGRI studies have resulted in a US patent for a method of short-term forecasting of moderate size reservoir-triggered earthquakes. CSIRNGRI is in the process of setting up many magnetic observatories in the country towards this.

 

How could science and technology help the poorest of the poor to lead a life of dignity and relative comfort? Tell us about this CSIR - 800 initiatives.

CSIR's vision is that S&T should benefit the common man and lead to socioeconomic development of the country. Towards that we are implementing many missions that can impact rural livelihood. For example, Aroma mission was launched to catalyze rural empowerment and industrial growth through cultivation, processing, value addition and marketing of aromatic plants. In the highly successful Phase I of the mission, farmers income, have been enhanced due to the efforts of CSIR. It has brought extensive socio-economic impact e.g. boost in farmer's income from aroma crop produce, livelihood generation among tribes, hike in the sales section of aromatic products and able to meet the demand of the market with much improved quality of essential oils, successful entrepreneurs generation and women empowerment etc. The phase 2 of aroma mission and also floriculture mission has recently been launched.

CSIR-800 initiative is another such attempt aimed at ensuring that the fruits of S&T can help the poor of the country. It is now called as CSIR-HARIT and under this mission several projects have been taken up to disseminate technologies developed at CSIR to the needy and rural population. For instance popularizing sustainable and alternative livelihood options for low-income coastal communities through imparting training on cultivation of economically important seaweeds has been taken up by CSIRCSMCRI. Similarly, installation of highly compact UF/NF/RO membrane-based systems to provide safe and healthy drinking water to the common population, development of Improved Energy Saving Cooking Utensil and its Wide Dissemination for Societal Benefit and empowerment of Rural Women in Food Processing Sector are some of the other activities.

 

Recently, CSIR has entered into a MoU with Unnat Bharat Abhiyan and Vijnana Bharti in order to take those technologies to rural areas. It is hoped that with this agreement a large-scale deployment of these useful technologies will reach the society.

Where do you see science and technology headed in India in the next 25 years?

With the kind of policies, plans and infrastructure that we are evolving, the next 25 years will be an exciting period for Indian science. More and more students should take science as a career. The nation needs bright minds getting into science. I am sure that with the right scientific ecosystem, India can emerge as a global leader in science and technology. I think the focus will be on sustainable development as we are faced with an imminent threat of climate change and it is only through S&T we can achieve this goal.

 

The Pharma sector has thrown up new challenges ever since the advent of Covid-19. Can we expect CSIR to give durable and economical solutions?

CSIR has had a long history supporting Indian pharmaceutical industry by developing economical process technology. We are proud of the fact the technologies developed by CSIR were instrumental in development of affordable anti-HIV drugs throughout the world by CIPLA. Recently, even during Covid-19 CSIR labs have developed process technologies for Remdesivir, Favipiravir and 2-Deoxy Glucose and transferred to several industries to make the drugs affordable. Towards 'Aatmanirbhar Bharat' CSIR has also launched an active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) mission. In addition, to make India future ready CSIR is also launching an antiviral mission which is focused on innovation in drug discovery.

 

(The interviewer is a New Delhibased freelance journalist with All India Radio)

 Views expressed are personal