Dornadula Chandrasekharam
Former Chair Professor I I T Bombay, India

Science, the endless frontier

Vannevar Bush, President of the Carnegie Institution of Washington (CIW) and head of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development released the most influential science policy report in 1945. He experienced difficulties in applying new knowledge and new technologies to the country’s needs.  After becoming the Head of CIW, Bush worked closely with the advisers of President Roosevelt and implemented his knowledge for the sake of the country. Thus, emerged radar, penicillin, anti-submarine weapons, and the atom bomb. This has demonstrated that science is the single most important force for driving the economic, technological, and societal change of any country.  According to Bush, “A nation which depends on others for its new basic scientific knowledge will be slow in its industrial progress and weak in its competitive position regardless of its mechanical skill.” Bush is right!!

Vannevar Bush’s science policy report is the main driver for the National Academy of Sciences (USA) to hold a symposium, entitled “ Science, the endless frontier”  in partnership with The Kavli Foundation (The Kavli Foundation is dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of humanity, promoting public understanding of scientific research, and supporting scientists and their work) and The Alfred P Solan Foundation (Founder in 1934 by industrialist Alfred P. Sloan Jr., the  Foundation is a not-for-profit, grant-making institution that supports high-quality research, fosters a robust, diverse scientific workforce; strengthens public understanding and engagement with science and promotes the health of the institution of scientific endeavor) to envision the future of the scientific enterprise in February 2020. Top scientists and accomplished experts attended this symposium to discuss whether modern research architecture needs to be restructured to meet future challenges.  This is the time when COVID 19 pandemic entered the world. The symposium is mainly to take a look at the current research trends in the USA compared to other countries, especially China. The world scientific community can learn a lot from the deliberations that transpired during the symposium between top scientists of the USA…. from institutions like the NAS, NSF, directors from top academic institutes and laboratories, and government officials (senators).

“ We must ask”, said Marcia McNutt, President of NSF,  “if we are doing enough to inspire nurture, and cultivate our young people.  We have to encourage diversity and inclusion and create an informed citizenry that values decision making and policies based on science and evidence.” In his report, Bush argued that “new products and processes are not born full-grown. They are founded on new principles and new conceptions that result from basic scientific research.” This basic research is best conducted in colleges, universities, and research institutes “that devote most of their research efforts to expanding the frontiers of knowledge,” Bush wrote. There, scientists can pursue a broad research agenda without the pressure to produce immediate, tangible results. Well-trained and innovative graduates can both continue to generate new scientific ideas and apply those ideas to the practical problems of industry, government, and society. “Science can be effective in the national welfare only when it is a member of a team,” Bush wrote. “But without scientific progress, no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.”

The current research focus should be multidisciplinary, cutting across all the fields of science and engineering, collaborative and international. Gone are the days where individual scientists struggle for years to get meaningful results.  “Present research trend is the integration of all sciences, engineering into “convergence science” Excelling in today’s research environment requires a broader set of skills than needed in the past. Researchers need to be versatile learners who can collaborate and share relevant knowledge and expertise across disciplinary and national boundaries. The research community itself needs to be much more diverse, both to attract a greater range and number of people into science and to spur scientific creativity. These changes in the research community, which are still in their early stages, call for a careful reconsideration of the reward system of science, which has traditionally emphasized individual investigators working on narrowly focused topics says the scientists participating in the symposium.

Those senators who participated in the deliberations are more concerned about China’s progress in science and technology. Alexander, one of the Senators said “ Between 2005 and 2020, China invested in a 15-year innovation plan, boosted its investments in research and technology to 4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), and substantially improved its standard of living. China is building more nuclear reactors than any other country, has the most supercomputers on the top 500 list, and has made many biomedical discoveries, including the most effective treatment for malaria,” he said. Borrowing an analogy from Colorado Senator Cory Gardner, Alexander said that the United States is like a very good football team playing in a league where all of the other teams have improved. “We should be very proud of what has happened in 75 years,” he said. “But it’s also important for Americans to know that we’re playing in a much better league over the next 75 years”.

Indian science and technology pundits have a lot to learn from the outcome of the symposium. We have to come out of the old, Archean mindset in our research thinking and funding. Indian young scientists from universities and institutes submit proposals based on the thrust areas “imposed” by the funding agencies. Selection and funding of the projects depend on the whims and fancies of a selected few members who enjoy the goodwill of the funding agencies. Some of the best research proposals have been rejected due to the poor understanding of the expert committee members. This is especially so in the case of bilateral international projects. Proposals approved by foreign institutes/universities get rejected from the Indian side. Cutting-edge research proposals, I know, have been rejected!! Once the project is approved and funds are allotted, the investigators have to submit a regular progress report with a financial expenditure statement. The duration of the project is three years.  The investigator has hardly any time to think. By the end of the third year, the project is completed and the report submitted and ……The investigator is happy to have completed the project, published one or two papers out the results, and is qualified for his promotion in the Department/Division. Then the race for awards. How many projects in India have gone on to the implementation stage for the progress of the country…..by industry, or other organization. Because of the race for awards, the project’s contribution to the development of the country is not taken into account. To quote Bush’s words “ “Science can be effective in the national welfare only when it is a member of a team, but without scientific progress, no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.” “Researchers need to be versatile learners who can collaborate and share relevant knowledge and expertise across disciplinary and national boundaries”. Where is the time for our young researchers to aim for this goal?  I have seen young scientists returning from abroad, after working in top-class research laboratories, are fish out of water. One thing is the lack of funds to establish his/her laboratory, and the second is the pressure on writing progress reports for the projects. Real achievement comes after long years of dedicated research that involves deep thinking and discussions. I am mentioning these issues because these are discussed at length in the above-said symposium by America’s top scientists. A report written by Bush in 1945 has drawn the attention of the current researchers in that country. “This basic research is best conducted in colleges, universities, and research institutes “that devote most of their research efforts to expanding the frontiers of knowledge,” Bush wrote. There, scientists can pursue a broad research agenda without the pressure to produce immediate, tangible results”. Only a handful of universities in India are involved in basic research. Hope the New Education Policy (NEP)  rectifies these setbacks in research culture in India, provided it is implemented at the earliest with young and dynamic people at the helm of affairs.

Perhaps NRF (National Research Foundation) in NEP could bring some hope to the younger generation who are keen on excelling in the research field. One of the goals of NRF is to recognize outstanding research and progress achieved via NRF funding/mentoring across subjects. NRF should be implemented at the earliest so that old weeds in the system can be removed giving way to the new and young generation. This will remove the biased attitude prevailing amongst older generation scientists. There are several issues that Indian scientists are capable of finding solutions to…..like utilizing high-level waste for power generation and reducing the risk of groundwater contamination. As IEA ( International Energy Agency) pointed out rightly that CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) is still in its infant stage. Capturing 400 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions by the 2025  year is unlikely.  But how many of us are seriously working on this topic?? Storing in geological formations has its limitations. But if CO2 can be utilized in a way that is useful like the plastic product to the public, then it is possible to achieve this goal…..say for example developing nano-tubes from CO2. In the past several proposals were submitted which did not attract the attention of the funding agencies.  Research work related to the utilization of high-level waste is confined to a few elite organizations in the country and serious researchers have no clue on the progress of research in this area except a few publications that appear without many technical details once in a blue moon. Considering the volume of waste that will be generated in the future, it will be a herculean task to store in underground granite formations. The main issue here is heat generated by the waste. If this could be constantly removed then storage will not be an issue. Methods to utilize the waste have already been proposed by Indian researchers but it did not draw the attention of our scientific elite. No doubt it is essential to spend crores of rupees to support research related to space, but this same yardstick should apply to extracting heat from the interior of the Earth for power generation. Although funding agencies’ thrust area is to develop storage batteries, this technological research can be done by university scientists and elite institutes should focus on the extraction of metals like Li from seawater and geothermal brines.  Similar issues are there in other countries as well and international funding agencies are no better in judging the thrust areas. However, a few countries are focused on specific issues…..like Israel. Although this country is small and water-stressed, look at their agricultural output! And freshwater output too.  What we should realize is, there are specific thrust areas in science. All research topics proposed by scientists are important. It is a question of priority. When China can surge ahead in all frontiers of Science and Technology, there is no reason why India can not! We criticize China but look at their development. Even USA senators recognizes China’s technological advancement. “new products and processes are not born full-grown. They are founded on new principles and new conceptions that result from basic scientific research..” Vannevar Bush.

Vannevar Bush was an American engineer, inventor and science administrator. During World War II he headed the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). OSRD carried out all wartime military R & D, including important developments in radar and the initiation and early administration of the Manhattan Project. Bush emphasized the importance of scientific research to national security and economic well-being. He was responsible for the creation of the National Science Foundation.

About the Author
I am a Retired chair professor from Indian Institute of Technology Bombay and currently teach at IIT Hyderabad. I have 200 publications in the above fields and have supervised 25 Ph D students.
Comments