New Delhi: CSIR’s new chief says, he looks for “taare zameen par” (stars on earth, a reference to one of Bollywood’s latest blockbusters), in large numbers.
Barely two months into his new job, the director general (DG) of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Sameer K. Brahmachari, is already neck-deep into turning around the 65-year-old, 38-laboratory strong CSIR from a top-driven institution to one that will “work and live in the present but think of the future.”
Having announced an ambitious open source drug development (OSDD) model for the country at the same time as assuming the new office, he is sailing in two boats. While crisscrossing CSIR labs to understand their irksome issues, he is searching for thousands of young minds that can crack the drug discovery problems that his OSDD project will start hosting on the website from April.
A scientist, an administrator, and a self-proclaimed strategist, necessarily in that order, Brahmachari thinks India is in a “state of war” when it comes to health. In an exclusive intervieew with Mint, Brahmachari speaks of how he intends to restore the respect of science and technology (S&T) in society. Edited excerpts:
Apparently, when you took over as director general on 12 November, 2007, the PM called you to say he expected to see a new CSIR. How do you intend to go about it?
Science is an activity of the youth but as a society we are respectful to the old and as Francis Crick (Nobel Prize winner for co-discovery of the structure of DNA molecule) says in his autobiography when respect and politeness creep in, it’s the death of science. So I have to empower the youth in the CSIR system, train middle-level professionals to be leaders; we are heavily dependent on the top cadre (read old scientists) today.
Ambitious plans: CSIR director general K. Brahmachari (Photo: Venkatesh Hariharan)
Science in India today faces not shortage of funds, unlike a few years ago, but a serious shortage of people. How will you attract people to science?
Time was when an Indian Institute of Science (IISc) job, 100 years ago, was the most lucrative job in the entire British Raj, In 1933, as director of IISc, Sir C.V. Raman (Nobel Prize winner in physics), got Rs3,000 as salary; a professor drew Rs1,750, and an assistant professor Rs1,250.
Even students got Rs150 at that time which was same as a high court judge’s salary. IISc is the first and perhaps the best example of public private partnership in Indian history. But look where we have brought down science to. And since we brought it down, we have to restore it to its old glory, as much as possible.
We have to convince the government that S&T people are special; they are high value assets for the country. The government cannot give industry level salaries, but we are working towards a substantial revision of salary as well as a “salary plus” model where (national science) awardees get an additional, say about Rs15,000 (for a Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar awardee), along with their salary. As DG CSIR I have to learn how and what to reward, recognize and respect.
Would there be any change in the nature of S&T work of CSIR?
That’s what I am aiming at. There was a time when the entire space of science and technology development was available to us, but today industry is competing. So low difficulty and high S&T value work is not available to us.
We have to move towards high difficulty and high value S&T, the way Massachusetts Institute of Technology works. Then there’s another area of high social importance and high difficulty where non-governmental organizations are already working.
We have to take up the high difficulty part from them. CSIR should not marginalize itself in continuing to solve the problems of the present; we need to position ourselves for future. That’s what I did when I positioned a small institute (Centre for Biochemical Technology) for future by morphing it into the Institute for Genomics and Integrative Biology in 2002.
OSDD is an ambitious model; will you find talent to make this work?
I’ve incorporated some business models in this which I think will take OSDD forward, which has Rs50 crore earmarked for the discovery phase and Rs100 crore for clinical development. At a Math Olympiad recently I saw incredible kids, solving problems which even Ph.D. students will not solve.
But these are Joint Entrance Examination kids who will get into IITs and four years later sell soaps. I cannot handle them once they get out of this great institution called IIT; I can only tap them when they are in hostels.
We’ll post challenging problems on the OSDD website and give credits to the problem solvers. Once they collect some credits we’ll reward them. I can give them cash, Kinetic motorcycles (has commitment from the Firodia group) or even approach the Tata group for Nano.
I need some crazy problem solvers and for that I’ll tap the registry of Indians who contribute to InnoCentive, the Open Innovation Marketplace.
How has the industry responded?
I am not a socialist reformer. We compete and cooperate with the industry. I have commitments from Sun Microsystems Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. besides some Indian corporate houses including TCG Life Sciences.
I’ll go to Google; even approach religious mass leaders to popularize the idea.