Scientist Subramani, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw question Govt’s reported move to set ”national priorities” for basic science research

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From Left : NITI Ayog member Dr VK Saraswat, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw and Dr Vijay K Raghavan at the symposium.

By Naz Asghar

April 4, 2019

New Delhi: Eminent molecular biologist  Dr Suresh Subramani and biotechnology industry leader  Kiran Mazumdar Shaw today strongly dismissed NITI Ayog Member Dr. V.K. Saraswat’s contention that India should focus on” relevant”  basic science research as per ”national priorities”, saying that basic science research cannot be done on pre-set goals.

They contested Dr Saraswat’s views during a symposium on ‘Science and Society’ jointly organised by Laxmi Mittal School of South Asian Studies(LMSAI), Harvard University,  the NITI Ayog and Office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India at the Vigyan Bhawan here.

The partcipants’ expression of caution against shackling research by any pre-set priority came in the back drop of the recent controversy triggered by a media report that the Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry had issued a directive asking all departments to prepare “a shelf of projects” in line with “national priorities” for Ph.D scholars.

According to the report, the directive came on March 13 at the behest of the HRD Ministry, which, at a meeting of Vice Chancellors (VCs) of Central universities in December, had asked the VCs to “discourage research in irrelevant subjects.” Meena T. Pillai, a member of the Board of Studies of English and Comparative Literature at the Central University of Kerala, had also resigned in protest against the directive. The issue was also picked by Congress President Rahul Gandhi.

When Dr Saraswat spoke of setting national priorities for basic science research, Ms Shaw said she did not agree with him as one could not determine in advance whether the basic science research would turn out to be relevant in a particular context or not. What happens that one starts research on some subject but later its result become relevant and applicable to so many other areas.

”There is a danger in focusing only on applied research,” she said.

Later, molecular biologist Suresh Subramaniam, who teaches at the University of Californis, while talking to India News Stream also endorsed the view held by Ms Shaw. He said he would rather uses a term discovery science instead of basic science research and this kind of research could not be done on a given topic.”You cannot tell a researcher at the start to explain what kind of application it would have,” he said adding that basic research unfolds its possibilities as it progresses.

Earlier, Dr Saraswat replying to Ms Shaw’s caution explained that one should acknowledge the fact that the basic research done in India had been repetitive and additive, and it was not a great research so what the Government wanted was that it should lead to some result.

Scientific adviser to the Government of India Dr K Vijay Raghavan in his intervention said both Mr Saraswat’s and Ms Shaw’s views have a merit and one could neither neglect basic research nor applied research. He called for a large scale educational programme to prepare people for undertaking science research.

Prof. Tarun Khanna, Director- the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute and Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor, Harvard Business School, earlier welcoming the guests said pointed out that there was lack of proper collaboration between scientists and the industry. We should make a bridge between science and the people, science and the industry and science and the government, he said.

“The Mittal Institute has been active in India for over a decade, serving as a platform to facilitate a two-way exchange of ideas between Harvard and Indian universities, government agencies and civil society. LMSAI is an original source of thinking that advances our understanding of the key issues of our day – from STEM to technology in agriculture to the age of biology,” the director of the institute said.

NITI Ayog Vice Chairman Rajiv Kumar, CEO Amitabh Kant besides scientists from leading universities in the US and India participated in the Symposium.

India News Stream