EXCLUSIVE: We need to make heroes out of our scientists: Former Infosys Director TV Mohandas Pai

TV Mohandas Pai speaks about the deficiencies in the Indian science sector, how we can improve, the importance of more PhD programmes and more.

Financial Express Online’s Bulbul Dhawan talked to Former Director of Infosys Ltd TV Mohandas Pai, who is now in the Board of Trustees of Infosys Science Foundation. (File image)

Science and innovation in India: Science and innovation in India has been gathering pace in the past few years. Not only has India grown leaps and bounds in the space sector, but it has also been an attractive destination for investment in the fields of science and technology. According to a report on Indian Science and R&D Industry by IBEF, India is the third most attractive investment destination for technology globally. Apart from this, the report also states that India is among the top countries as far as scientific research is concerned, while being positioned in the top five nations for space exploration. In the South Asian region, India is the only country to find a place on the Bloomberg Innovation Index, 2021, in which it ranked 50th. In the Global Innovation Index for 2021 that looks at 50 countries, India was at the 46th position, an improvement from its 48th place last year.

The investment in the sector from the government’s end is increasing steadily, and many new science and technology hubs have also been established in the country. Moreover, private players are increasingly being encouraged to expand their role in this sector.

Against the backdrop of this expansion of the field of Science and Innovation in India, Financial Express Online’s Bulbul Dhawan talked to Former Director of Infosys Ltd TV Mohandas Pai, who is now in the Board of Trustees of Infosys Science Foundation, which has recently awarded its Science Prizes for the recipients’ significant contribution in various arenas of science. TV Mohandas Pai spoke about the deficiencies in the Indian science sector, how we can improve, the importance of more PhD programmes and more. Edited Excerpts:

Could you give me an overview about the progress of the Indian science and research community over the last decade?

Last decade has been pretty good because there’s some increase in funds, and then the national research labs have been more proactive. They’re connecting more with universities. We are also seeing joint projects with India and other countries. Defence has become slightly more proactive. ISRO is proactive, so I think it has been much better. But we suffer from some fundamental problems with the model that we have.

India chose the Soviet model for research after Independence, which in my opinion was not the right decision. They set up the CSIR labs, which are a black box.They never funded the universities. And they set up DRDO later, which is again a black box. The ISRO was also set up and it is only now opening up. The most important thing is public funding should be primarily with universities for research, and the private sector and other institutions should be involved where public money is being used.

There’s inadequate money going into research in our country. Research globally has to be done with a large component of public money. It cannot be private money, it has to be public money because it is a public good. However, CSIR, ISRO, etc, do not interact too much with people. It is very difficult for them to go out and sell. And then, DRDO, DoD are so secretive that no one can talk to them.

But if you look at the United States, much of the research in armaments and defence is in the private sector. The difference there is that they have the first right of use. Why is that? Because they want the technology which is created or the research that comes out to be cascaded into the private sector. It cannot remain a trade secret.

Another thing is that universities just do not have money. Only about Rs 5,000 crore to Rs 5,500 crore are spent on universities, which is not okay. So, we still have these deficiencies.

Now, though, the CSIR is talking about involving the private sector, the Government of India has a new defence policy of buying from the private sector, and ISRO is opening up, so good things are happening. But we need more. The government had committed Rs 50,000 crore for the National Science Foundation this year, but nothing has happened yet. We need it to happen.

I think it is important for the government and others to understand that the future depends on innovation. Future depends on intellectual capital. Future depends on creating a pool of people who will take India forward.

You have been speaking about opening up science and innovation to private players. Do you think the new geospatial policy that came into effect a few months ago, which opened up the data from geospatial satellites to private sectors, is a step forward towards that?

Definitely because the policy is extraordinary. The new drone policy is extraordinary, so in that sector, the government is working on it. I think that’s very good news because we have to understand one thing in this country. This country belongs to all of us. We have to build this country together. It cannot be built by some government servants sitting in a laboratory who think they’re protecting India from the private sector. It has to be built by young people who can dream and who can do research.

Our public sector has many disadvantages. They cannot decide on many things and they are not very keen on collaboration. There is no dynamism. But take a look at what China and the US are doing. I went to Tsinghua University in China and they were telling me that they have better nuclear technology than most countries. The research for that is happening in that university itself. Because in a university, the benefits are you get young, bright people who think of what doesn’t exist. And they always come with new ideas and they innovate.

There has to be younger people coming who are rebels and who think of new ideas because it comes naturally to younger people. As you grow older, you are stuck with legacy. You’re stuck with old thoughts. We need the demonic energy of young people in research. The only place where this is available is universities and so, universities have to be funded.

That brings me to my next question. Could you elaborate on how you think youth could contribute to this field of science and research and help provide solutions for a better world?

You’ll be very surprised. People say we’ve got a great IT industry but we produce only 500 PhD in computer science a year. But we need to produce 5,000 computer science PhDs every year. We have to invest more in PhD programmes. We have been advocating that the government select some, say, 20 good research universities, and divide them into consortiums of, say, five universities each, with every consortium having certain specialised fields like AI, Metaverse, robotics and humanoids, etc. We propose that the government then fund the Master’s PhD programme or the Master’s Research programme in these areas for these consortiums. Just one university is not sufficient. And once they are able to do these consortiums and the universities do something useful, they can touch base with industry, and industry will come running.

And that’s where young people can get infused. We have to challenge our youth. We have to give them opportunities. And for all of them, they’re very fresh in their mind. They are exciting, brilliant people.

Do you think the hackathons that are now increasingly being conducted across the country? Do you think they could help in this aspect of challenging youth to come up with new ideas?

Hackathons are just point solutions. They just come and go away. There is deep thought into hackathons. What I would suggest is holding science contests for school children across the country. These things can excite children, where they can win prizes and maybe be motivated to go ahead and become scientists. I think we should do that because we have to excite school children and young people in science and the best way is the contest and the prize.

Another idea is that we need to have a school for gifted children. We should look at the Mensa test and run them across the country. We can select, say, 100 children having an IQ level of 150 or whatever the criteria is and then take them in the school from Class 5 or Class 6 onward.

They can be given an open ecosystem where they can focus on the area they like, because if you recall, even Ramanujan – the Mathematics genius – failed in one of the other subjects. So we should create an ecosystem where these gifted children can focus on the area they like, go to all the labs, listen to professors, and sit down to listen to lectures.

And I think what we should do is just select 10 great research institutions and start such schools for gifted children in them. I think gifted children are quite an overlooked community at the moment for us. Because we are currently commoditizing and dumbing education. We’re bringing down education to the lowest common denominator. There has to be room for the brightest people to come up to levels because they take society forward. Why can’t we give them opportunities and the freedom and create those institutional frameworks where they can all come? If India has 5,000 gifted children all over India, 10 or 20 of them could come up and do something and revolutionise everything.

This need not be done by the government. The private sector can do this, or it can be done under public-private partnership.

How do you think technological innovations could drive social and economic reforms?

Technological innovation will guide reforms in a big way for a very important reason. The digital revolution is upon us, which has created the internet. Out of the 7.8 billion people on the planet, 6 billion people have a mobile connection, and 5.5 billion people are on the net. So the Internet has opened up the world to everybody. It has got very rich multimedia content.

All the computer knowledge of the world is there. You can do e-commerce. You get the global platform. You get everything that you want and you connect and there are no gatekeepers.

Now the technology can be used by the government like Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done to connect with citizens. Look at India DBT programme. Rs 19.7 lakh crore have gone to the bank accounts of people directly in the last seven years. Can you believe that Rs 2.25 lakh crore have been saved? Could this have been done without technology?

At one point, citizens had to go to government offices to get work done. In the past, citizens have been shabbily treated by government officials and have had to pay bribes for many things. Now, people can get things done directly. Prime Minister Modi has used technology to free us from the tyranny of the government servants.

Tax assessment has become faceless. Yes, there are challenges, but a lot of things are happening. The system is automated so technology can reduce the interface between government and citizens to improve productivity, deliver all the government services, monitor and do many things effectively.

Now technology can give you health care also. Now, using your mobile phone, you can make payments in 30 seconds. Everybody can do that. Earlier, you had to go to the bank. That’s technology for you.

You can be in a remote village and 98% of the Indian landmass has got WiFi and wireless connections.

So all these things are coming and creating a network where everybody will get what they want and governments will become more democratic because they open up themselves to criticism.

How do you think youth can be encouraged to pursue a career in science and research?

When we are young people, we look up to heroes to show us the way, so we have to make heroes out of a scientist. We have to make heroes out of entrepreneurs and showcase them. Recognising them is important. We should make them talk to young people and tell them what they’re doing. You must create a public persona for all of these people today.

Young people have to see something and understand what is available.

That is why Infosys Science Foundation presents Science Awards, because we want to recognise Indian Scientists for their contributions.

How do you think scientific and technological innovation could achieve sustainability?

There are only two things that can make the world sustainable. One is we have to change our habits. We are consuming 1.5 times the Earth’s ability to replenish the system. We need to consume less. We can walk to offices or use the public transport, we can switch off electricity which is being used unnecessarily at our homes. It can reduce energy consumption by 25% to 30% easily.

Apart from this, we need new technology to be created and disseminated. An example is pushing for technology for gasification of coal. You burn coal to get energy. You can convert coal into gas and then get the energy that’s more sustainable. So we need sustainable technology development, but we also need the money to disseminate such technology at a large scale, and that is something that is lacking.

What do you think is the future of science and research in India?

Very bright. Technology Research biotechnology is changing lives on a huge scale in Bangalore. It has the edge to become bigger. I’m more optimistic today than there was three years ago.

Do you think there is a need to deconcentrate the technological innovation from Bengaluru and take it across the country?

No. We have to create structures where it happens all over the country. There is no magic in this. The only magic is good policy, good thinking, investment and perseverance. Policymakers need to understand that if the ecosystem has to be created, it can be created everywhere. Other states need to follow what Karnataka did – it created a Rs 500-crore seed fund to give grants to young companies doing R&D and good technical research. This can be done in other states as well.

Why are organisations like Infosys Science Foundation important and how can they ensure that effective research takes place in the country?

Infosys Science Foundation has a small budget of Rs 10 crore. They’re doing very limited things but by a very credible methodology. They’re choosing people of high achievement and showcasing them as the real heroes of society to make sure that people look up to them as leaders so they can be role models. We hope that many people will follow and our scientists will feel they’re getting recognised in their own country and aspire to do better. That’s a very limited role, with a limited budget, but it’s become very effective.

Get live Stock Prices from BSE, NSE, US Market and latest NAV, portfolio of Mutual Funds, Check out latest IPO News, Best Performing IPOs, calculate your tax by Income Tax Calculator, know market’s Top Gainers, Top Losers & Best Equity Funds. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Financial Express Telegram Financial Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel and stay updated with the latest Biz news and updates.