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Interview with Dr. R.A. Mashelkar

Manthan Interviews the Chairman of the Board of Governors of IISER Mohali – Dr. Raghunath Anant Mashelkar.

Dr. Raghunath Anant Mashelkar(FRS), He served for over eleven years as the Director General of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, world’s largest chain of publicly funded industrial R&D institutions, with thirty-eight laboratories and about 20,000 employees. Dr. Mashelkar is the former President of the Indian National Science Academy and the UK Institution of Chemical Engineers (2007-8). He is the third Indian engineer to have been elected as Fellow of Royal Society (FRS), London. He was elected foreign associate of the United States National Academy of Sciences in 2005. He was elected as the foreign associate of Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering. He is the first Indian to have received this honour. He was elected foreign fellow of US National Academy of Engineering (2003), Fellow of Royal Academy of Engineering, UK (1996), Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, Fellow of American Associatoin of Arts and Sciences, and Fellow of World Academy of Art & Science, USA (2000). Twenty-six universities have honoured him with honorary doctorates, which include University of London, University of Salford, University of Pretoria, University of Wisconsinand Delhi University.  Dr. Mashelkar was honoured with the Padmashri (1991) and Padmabhushan (2000) by the President of India. Dr. Mashelkar is presently the president of Global Research Alliance, a network of publicly funded research and development institutes from Asia-Pacific, South Africa, Europe and USA with over 60,000 scientists. He is also the President of India’s National Innovation Foundation.

Q. From Mashel to Raghunath Mashelkar tell us something about your journey, any particular incidents that you would like everybody to know.
A: I was born in Mashel, that is how I draw my name Mashelkar.  I was born into a very poor family. My father died when I was six and my mother moved to Girgaon, Prarthanasamaj, in south Bombay.  I went to a municipal school where I studied in Marathi, until the 11th standard,  which used to be the SSC, . Getting two meals a day was a big challenge for me. I couldn’t get admission to a good school because I could not pay the admission fees on time. So I had to go to an ordinary school; but it had really great teachers, very enlightened teachers. One of them changed my life, Principal Bhave, who taught us physics.
In my SSC, I stood 11th among 35000 students, but I was about to leave school because my mother could not afford it, but I got  Rs. 60 per month, for 6 yrs from Sir Dorabji Tata’s trust. That was how I could study. I used to go to that Bombay House in Bombay, Tatas had all their offices there. Today, I go there as a member of Board of Directors of Tata Motors, so the wheel has turned a full circle. But that happened because of the Rs. 60 they gave me at that time. I think there is a lesson there, that there are hundreds of thousands of Mashelkars; if they are given the support, then they can definitely do something. Later on I went to Jai Hind College, and then went for  Chemical Engineering in UDCT. I did my PhD with Dr. M. M.  Sharma, who became the first Indian Engineering Scientist to become the fellow of the Royal Society, which as you know is one of the highest honours in science.
Q. You have been DG of CSIR for about 11 years;  that too during a period widely regarded as transformation phase of CSIR. How challenging was it?
A: The challenge with CSIR is that there were forty laboratories scattered all over  India. There was
diversity not only in the geography but in culture, languages they speak and so on. It was a big challenge to bring unity in this diversity.In my first year  as CSIR DG, I visited all the 40 laborato-ries, went  to the work floors, and interacted with the staff. In order to bring entire CSIR together we created CSIR  vision strategy, to be achieved by 2003.  Dr. A.P.J Abdul Kalam  asked me ” Mashelkar why 2003 why not 2020”. I replied ”I won’t be DG in 2020 and  I would like to be judged when I am in the position”. The vision of creating the TEAM CSIR became possible because of vision document.  This transformation of CSIR in the 90’s is listed among the top 10 scientific achievements of India in Jayant Narlikar’s book.

Q. India before independence saw a lot of individual achievement but after
independence it was more of collective effort by organisations like CSIR, CSIO etc. Is  this because of changes in policy?
A: I think there are a number of factors responsible  for it. When people like  Sir C V Raman, J C Bose, S N Bose were involved in scientific research, the world was different. Then it started to change, technologies, access to knowledge everything changed. Today a great man like Prof. C N R Rao has to send samples abroad. We don’t have a level playing field.  As we moved along, struggling with poverty, our ability to interact became very poor. To stay cutting edge you not only require tools and techniques but access; access to knowledge, information, events,  I would say we failed to get a Nobel prize, but how many Nobel laureates have been produced by developing world so far? 3 – 3 as in I am counting C V Raman for the work done in India not Chandrashekhar for his work in US, in which our contribution is not bad. With more funding and establishment of new brand institutes like IISERs we can expect to have path breaking individual efforts in near future.

 Q. You were associated with the whole Intellectual Property Rights movement bringing the patent of turmeric back to India. How important is it for scientists to be aware of something like IPR in India?
A: It is very important. Knowledge should be monitisable;  since at some point of time you would want to make profit out it. It is essential that you own that knowledge legally. One should own knowledge legally; otherwise anyone can make money out of it. Society gives us the right to use that knowledge exclusively. Indian ideas should create wealth within India, not in Europe, US and Japan and in order to do that we must have ownership and in order to have ownership we must have patents. In IISER you do science and some of that science  should  potentially be convertible to technology, not all.
So wherever you find that you have a breakthrough which can create wealth you must go for patents so that  you own it. Through that ownership you can create  money for yourself, for the institute, or give it away;
”this issue had not been addressed for a long time 1898 to 1998; from Bose to Basmati”
that’s your own choice. India has lost quite a bit because we did not patent. Story goes that Sir J C Bose was the originator of the iron-mercury ion  platform technology which is used today for wireless communication. He was the one who propounded this idea not Marconi but he refused to patent it, now our textbooks say that Marconi was the inventor and not JC Bose; that was 1898. Again in 1998, Basmati rice was  patented by the US I fought in bringing that back to India. So this issue had not been addressed for a long time 1898 to 1998; from Bose to Basmati. We cannot continue like that. We have to be smart.
Knowledge – buy it or create it. IISERs are an example for recent developments in the direction of creating knowledge within our nation. What more must India do  to make it’s base stronger?
Yes. IISERs, as we all know, are Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research; it has two integral components one being  education and the  other research.
In Education,  what you do is, you look at the existing knowledge and disseminate it. Research creates new knowledge and  we have said education and  research because we expect you to not only to disseminate the existing knowledge but also in creating new knowledge. Now in creating new knowledge and by new I mean new to the world, India’s share is very small, which is actually very sad.
If you look at research papers from all over the world India’s contribution  will not even  count for 2-3 %. This cannot be. If you look at America, they are a big superpower because they are big knowledge creators but also having created that knowledge they know how to create wealth out of it; so IISERs will have to continue to elevate India’s position in the formation of novel, innovative ideas across all scientific communities.
Secondly  the world’s knowledge economy has come to stake. More than 50% of the world’s GDP  today is contributed through  knowledge economy. Production of knowledge, distribution of knowledge, privatization of knowledge, etc. When you buy a CD you buy knowledge not plastic and your paying for it. When you buy a software, you are buying knowledge and your are paying for it; and that constitutes a rich significant fraction of the economy. Partly we got into the software services, but we have not created products of our own; we have been providing services using our large manpower. More than 600000 software engineers whose average age is 26.5 years are contributing to 1/3rd of our export and this is just  the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more that  we can achieve. Here IISERs will have to play a major role in formulating this trend of generating scientific innovation.

Q. Your message to young aspiring students.
I would like IISERs to be among the top 100 institutes in the world. Sadly none of the  Indian institutes and universities figure in the world rankings today. Harvard will always be No.1. No matter what happens; there are other universities as well Princeton, Oxford, MIT, Cambridge, Cal tech, Yale, etc. Even Singapore University, other Asian universities like Tokyo University, Universities  from China, Institutes from  Korea even have started figuring among  the top listed colleges. There is nothing from  India. IISERs should come  first in the top hundred and then aim to be in the top twenty. That’s the clear message.
“IISERs should come  first in the top hundred and then aim to be in the top twenty in world”

By 2050 I will not be there but I would like to see IISERs  bringing  Nobel prizes for science and research. And in any institution  two things are important, there has to be excellence and relevance. What I talked about previously was excellence. Your brilliance should be such that you  bring the highest honour to the country. But thats not enough; your contribution to science  must have relevance to the country.

USSR was ahead of USA in the space race. SPUTNIK is a classic example. But when they were doing that, there were queues for bread on the streets, that means there was something missing. They were creating knowledge, but they were creating something that was not relevant to the society.I don’t want India to be like that. It shouldn’t be like while we are winning Nobel prizes and Olympic  medals our people go hungry.
I think we have to worry about the fact that today 800 million people  have an income less than hundred rupees a day. We have to worry about the fact that there are poor people who  do not have access to education and health. These are things that no one else is going to work on. These are our very own problems. Why should someone else worry about these things? Why can’t we do cutting edge science that would deal with such issues – cutting edge science to drive away poverty and bring about equitable distribution of wealth among the masses. India matters to us but we want to matter to India more. Something that we should never lose sight of.

(We are grateful to Prof. N. Sathyamurthy (Director IISER Mohali) and Prof. K.S Viswanathan (Faculty in Charge – Manthan) for timely advices and support.)
Prof . Mashelkar delivering 5th foundation day lecture – More from Less for Many at  IISER Mohali

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