Convocation 2016

Location: NSSC Complex

Address by Dr. R. Chidambaram

Annual Convocation of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore

25th June, 2016


It is a privilege to give the Convocation Address of this famous institution, where I was a student many decades back and spent some of the happiest years of my life.

I have been very fortunate in spending all of my professional life in two of India’s greatest institutions―the Indian Institute of Science and the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. Incidentally, Homi Bhabha’s conceptualization of our nuclear energy programme happened when he was in the Physics Department of the Indian Institute of Science.

I joined the Institute in 1956, after passing out in Physics Honours from the Presidency College, Madras, from where C.V. Raman and S. Chandrasekhar had also passed out many decades earlier. At that time, metallurgy was very much in the air―new steel plants were being set up in the country. Though my interest had always been in physics, I suddenly got attracted to metallurgy and applied for admission to the D.I.I.Sc course in the Department of Metallurgy. But Prof. R.S. Krishnan, the then Head of the Department of Physics, decided that I will be joining the Department of Physics, not Metallurgy! That was an important turn in my career.

In those days, the Institute was not giving the kind of degrees it does now, after becoming part of the university system. M.I.I.Sc, instead of a Ph.D., was not a very attractive proposition and most of the research students registered themselves for their Ph.D. degrees in the universities they came from, all of which the Institute had the necessary arrangements with. This changed when I was a student here and I did get a Ph.D. degree from the Institute. The D.Sc. degree came later when Prof. C.N.R. Rao was the Director. When I joined the Institute, Prof. R.S. Krishnan told me that I will be working with Dr. G. Suryan. “He is a man full of ideas”, Prof. Krishnan added. And indeed he was! Dr. Suryan wrote his first paper on acoustics when he was thirteen years old. He was the first person in India to observe the phenomenon of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR). The flowing liquid method he developed in the Institute to bypass the saturation of NMR signals, caused by long spin-lattice relaxation times, was a brilliant idea and was widely cited internationally. My Ph.D problem involved building a wide-line NMR spectrometer. Dr. Suryan’s exceptional knowledge about materials and techniques was valuable in building this kind of spectrometer for the first time in the country and it worked very well for a couple of decades, even much after I had left the Institute in 1962 to join the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.

The seed of my continued interest in indigenizing advanced instruments can be traced back to my early years with Dr. Suryan. Earlier, for my M.Sc degree, I had worked with Dr. Suryan on the design of a magnetic storage system for the Fourier Synthesizer CHITRALEKHA he was building for use by x-ray crystallographers. In the 25th April, 2016 issue of Current Science, there is an excellent article on Dr. Suryan, entitled ‘Make in India: Lessons from G. Suryan’s NMR Research’. Unfortunately the value system of our Science Academies does not sometimes allow them to recognize such pioneering work, though INSA has very recently taken the first corrective step.

The Institute research scholarship in those days was Rs. 56 per month, and my expenses had to be supplemented by receipts from my father. From the second year onwards, I started getting the Junior Fellowship of Rs. 250 per month, a princely sum in those days, from the Department of Atomic Energy. After some time, this became a Senior Fellowship of Rs. 400 per month.

Role of the Institute

The IISc Alumni Meet in Santa Clara, USA, in 2006 was a great pioneering event. It is a surprise that it had not happened earlier because the Pan-IIT Alumni Meet had been going on for a long time. The Santa Clara meeting was a huge success and I am happy to learn that the links with the alumni are getting stronger. I also had the pleasure of participating in the Global IISc Alumini meet in Chicago in July 2013. And there, Prof. Rudra Pratap, who heads the Centre of Nano Science & Engineering here, told the alumni from US that his facilities in CENSE were better than theirs, and the NRI alumni scientists did not disagree. The self-confidence in the Institute thus remains undiminished. The IT services sector has undoubtedly created a great deal of wealth for the country and, I am sure, will continue to do so. And that is welcome. But I also want India to have IT software products which dominate the world. In the so-called C.K. Prahlad Pyramid, I want India to be at the top of the Pyramid, including in hi-tech manufacturing, and it is the responsibility of IISc to help prepare the path for India to reach there, for India to become a ‘developed country’ and a ‘knowledge economy’, apart from retaining its leadership in basic research.

More generally, I think experts in S&T should not give emphatic opinions on fields outside their own specializations, particularly if they are influential and respected leaders in their own fields. IISc is the top-ranked university in India and made an entry last year in the world’s top 100 Universities in the ‘Times Higher Education Ranking for Engineering and Technology’. CENSE is one of the many examples of centres of excellence in interdisciplinary research in the Institute, with some of the leading scientists in India guiding them. There are others like the Centre for Atmosphere Sciences and the Divecha Centre for Climate Change (led by Prof. J. Srinivasan) and the Centre for Neuroscience (led by Prof. Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath until recently), though the inter-disciplinary nature of the latter Centre is not obvious from its name! There are many others. These centres are very important because boundaries between disciplines are becoming more and more fuzzy. Of course, excellent work goes on here in departments doing pure sciences like Physics. I am also very happy that more and more IISc scientists are writing authoritative books on specialized topics―for example, the excellent book on ‘Game Theory & Mechanism Design’ by Prof. Y. Narahari; I benefited greatly by reading the book.

Ecosystem in the Institute

The purpose of a university is to provide a liberal education, imbibe in the students a respect for other cultures, to create the environment to help advance global knowledge, to help create a ‘knowledge economy’ in the country, to provide students with the necessary knowledge and skills for jobs in an ambience of rapidly growing knowledge and continuously emerging new technologies, and to provide training in super-specialized fields.

We need an excellent ecosystem for higher education and research in our universities, whose components are: talented young students, high quality faculty, adequate funds, sound infrastructure, including an e-science infrastructure (the research and education network, our National Knowledge Network (NKN), established by the National Informatics Centre, fulfills this role), strong academia-industry interactions, appetite for risk-taking in academia, industry and the government, international collaboration (to be leveraged to strengthen indigenous efforts), using best emerging technologies in higher education and world-class research facilities. Such an excellent ecosystem for science and technology exists in the Institute.

IISc already has strong linkages with industry―SID (Society for Innovation and Design) has played a very important role in strengthening the Institutes linkages with Indian and global industry. This has so far generally involved participating in proprietary product or process development and related applied research for individual companies. Research involves acquiring new knowledge and innovation in the context of S&T, and must add economic value or societal benefit or strategic value. We must look at all aspects of innovation―product, process and design―as we try to become a global innovation leader. Our office had organized a brainstorming session on ‘Hi-tech Manufacturing Startups’, in which Dr. B. Gurumoorthy had also participated. I am very happy that the Centre for Product Design and Manufacturing in the Division of Mechanical Engineering is planning a series of workshops across the country in this context.

Achieving the goal of a ‘developed’ country and ‘a knowledge economy’ is not easy for an economically-developing country like India. In an already-developed country, there is a thermodynamic equilibrium between knowledge in the academic system and the knowledge in the industry system. That is why industry is waiting for new knowledge to come out of the academic system and is also funding this process. Such an equilibrium does not exist yet in all technology sectors in India and industry then is satisfied with ‘technology transfer’. But India is changing, and changing rapidly. The closer a technology sector comes to be globally competitive, the greater is its desire to interact with the academic system. This is beginning to happen and the academic system, particularly IISc, must be prepared for this transformation.

I have been saying for many years that haemorrhage of research talent is taking place at two points―for pure science after the 10+2 stage and at B.Tech level for engineering. There is need to induct them into research careers and to retain them there. IISERs and CBS (Mumbai University and DAE), with their five-year M.Sc courses, the INSPIRE programme of DST, etc. are all attempts at addressing this issue. I am very happy that IISc, giving high-quality undergraduate courses in science (the curriculum, I note, also includes engineering and humanities) in a world-class research ambience, with most of the B.S. students hopefully going on to doing an M.Sc or Ph.D. It is providing a platform for them to have excellent careers in science. I notice this is the second batch of undergraduate students getting their degrees.

A Knowledge-driven Economy

Education is a recurring theme in the speeches and writings of Swami Vivekananda, who was a unique bridge between India’s spiritual heritage and the then emerging modern India. Swami Vivekananda’s views “on the growth of ascetic spirit in India” and “diverting it to useful channels” shared with J.N. Tata during a ship journey in 1893, apparently influenced the latter in the setting up the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. Swami Vivekananda has said: “Knowledge itself is the highest reward of Knowledge, and secondly there is also Utility in it.”

A knowledge-driven economy should have the ability to develop new knowledge and the ability to appropriate knowledge developed in other countries. Excellence is needed in higher education and basic research (including what I have called ‘directed basic research’), in applied research, in R&D-led technology development and in innovation, backed by high-quality manufacturing.

Basic research is a cultural necessity in any civilized country. The highest intellects in a country must be allowed to work on fundamental research problems of their choice. India is trying to build an advanced technology superstructure, but also realizes that this needs a strong foundation of basic research. In research, it is good to follow the advice to young scientists by the famous biologist Peter Medawar (also valid, by the way, for older scientists): “Always work on important problems―important to science or important to society”. A young scientist must, of course, worry about publications, impact factors of the journals he or she is publishing in, and so on. But as you grow older and have got established, you begin to worry less about number of publications, h-index and so on, and worry more about what difference your work is making for the country, and the scientific world.

Concluding Remarks

IISc is a great academic institution and there is no doubt that it will continue to be so and play a crucial role in India’s future development.

Thank you and Jai Hind.

» View Bio of Dr. R. Chidambaram (pdf)