New Delhi: Renowned chemist C.N.R. Rao on Tuesday was awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour, along with cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, in a ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhawan. While Rao is the fourth scientist to receive the Bharat Ratna, Tendulkar is the first sportsman to be bestowed with the honour.

In an email interview in December, Rao, president of Bangalore-based Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, spoke about his decision to become a scientist, why he returned to India despite a successful career in the US, and how the “value system of society" discourages the learning of science despite India’s potential to become a global leader in cutting edge science. Edited excerpts:

When did you decide to become a scientist?

I decided to become a scientist when I was about 17 years old, when I was just finishing BSc degree. It became certain that I was going to be a scientist after finishing my master’s degree at the age of 19. This decision was strengthened by reading a famous book in chemistry by Linus Pauling.

What triggered your interest in solid state and materials science at a time when both the fields were virtually unheard of in India?

I was trained to do spectroscopy and molecular structure. I started working on these areas as soon as I came back to India from the US. However, these areas required sophisticated facilities, which we did not have. Although I did try my best to do something in these areas, I was looking for an area which was new and which had a great future. I then realized that there were very few people working on the chemistry of solids. I decided to work in this area. I have grown with this area now and this has now become a major part of chemistry today. Many people think of me as a grandfather of the subject.

Even though you were doing brilliantly in the US after successful stints at Purdue and Berkeley, you decided to return to India. What factors helped you shape that decision?

I returned to India because of two reasons: I was offered faculty positions in very good universities in the US. However, I felt that if I had a chance to build a good research laboratory and train students in India, it may be of greater value. This was mainly motivated by being a college student when India got freedom. I could never get out of the nationalistic feelings of the early college days. Another important reason was that I was attached to my parents and I thought they would be happy if I came back.

In the past few years, you have concentrated on research revolving around nanotechnology and graphene. How is India as a country doing in this field as inventions from this field get reported everyday?

I have been working in nanoscience and technology for the last 20-25 years. The subject became popular more recently. Graphene is the new addition to this area and I have been working on this area for four-five years. Many people are now working on nanoscience in India, and we have been able to start a major programme through the national Nano Mission, of which I am the chairman. Because of targeted funding and creation of facilities in various parts of India, nano research has suddenly blossomed. It is nice to see that India is now number three in the world in contribution to nano research.

Nanotechnology already has a number of applications of practical importance. Graphene in different forms would also have a number of applications. There is no question that many of these applications would be of direct relevance to man’s pressing problems.

One thing to remember is the best way to classify science is as follows: there is science that has already been applied and science yet to be applied. In this broad sense, many things that we are doing in today’s frontiers will have applications in the near future. This idea apart, the entire area of materials science, in particular chemistry of materials, has a direct bearing on the quality of life and in solving man’s pressing problems related to energy, water, and so on.

What do you think about the state of school-level and undergraduate education in India? Is it doing enough to trigger children’s interest in science?

We have to invest much more in education. India’s investment on education is pathetic and we have to do much more for teachers and teaching. We have to make the teaching profession respectable, as in Finland and some other countries. The value system in society discourages science. I am told that young people who go for a Bachelor’s degree in science are laughed at by their friends and others. This is a sad situation.

What is stopping India from being the hub of cutting edge science, inventions and discoveries, even as it continues to be home to brilliant minds?

There is nothing that stops India from becoming a global leader in science. If we invest properly with the support of industry and government, and with the moral support of society as a whole, I do not see why we cannot be leaders in the world in science. Of course, this would require our scientists taking up challenging problems in science.

You have been critical of the government for its reluctance to invest more in science and technology. How can the government and private companies be encouraged to invest more in start-ups and ambitious projects?

I have been urging the government to invest more, and many prime ministers have promised that they will increase the contribution of the government to science and technology.

I do not blame the government alone. Industry also should contribute something to science. As you know, in the US, Japan, and a few other countries, nearly 50% of the expenditure on science and technology comes from the industry.

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