Interview: Bharat Ratna winner CNR Rao talks about science in India and his immediate interest, artificial photosynthesis

Sunday, 29 December 2013 - 8:01am IST | Agency: dna

While India is doing well in scientific research “others are doing better and more”, says Dr Chintamani Nagesa Ramachandra Rao, better known as CNR Rao or simply Dr Science, who has just been honoured with the country’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna. The 79-year-old scientist, who is known for his work in solid state and structural chemistry and heads the Scientific Advisory Council to the prime minister, hopes that industry will also support science in the years to come. Vishal Manve caught up with the visionary who wants to see India technologically at par with the West.

You have been honoured with the Bharat Ratna. How does it feel to receive India’s highest civilian honour?
I am most grateful that my country has considered me worthy of receiving the Bharat Ratna award. I am really overwhelmed with this honour.

What is your advice to young scientists and enthusiasts who want to research and establish a career in science and technology?
Those who are interested in science should not give up whatever comes in the way. Determination to succeed is essential if one has to pursue science in India. Perseverance and doggedness are essential qualities. I believe that there are great opportunities for young people in science and technology.

You are known to have nurtured many students and taken scientific institutions to new heights. What is your biggest goal in life?
A large number of students have obtained PhD degrees and post-doctoral training with me and it has been a pleasure to work with these young people. My only hope is that I can do even better in the next few years since there is no limit to excellence. Furthermore, I would like India to be a global leader in science.

What are India’s biggest achievements in the field of chemical engineering? What does the future hold for research and scientific innovations in this field?
Of the various science subjects, chemistry seems to have done well. My recent experience with nano science and technology has shown that whenever we do targeted funding and provide the right facilities to institutions and individuals, it will be possible to get good results. In nano science, we were doing very little ten years ago. Today, I believe that India is ranked third or fourth  in the world. What is also interesting is that of all the industrial ventures, chemical and pharmaceutical industries have done well in India by supporting research and development. I feel basic science is getting its due now.

I heard about the award when I was at the Thiruvananthapuram airport in Kerala. I spoke to the prime minister (Manmohan Singh) and thanked him for the honour.

You have worked on two dimensional oxides, nano-metals and graphene and were quoted as saying that these would keep you busy for next few years. What is your take on the way the Indian scientific scenario is progressing?
Our scientists have to pick the right problems — which will have an impact on the science concerned and get noticed in the world. This is something that all of us have to learn so that India makes a greater impact. In graphene and many other contemporary areas of importance, there are very few people working in India. Graphene and carbon nano-tubes are considered to be top areas of world science today, but not so in India.

There is lot of research and achievement… and India has always been well known in this field. Do you think if the government focuses more on science and research there are chances of India becoming a pioneer in this field?
Some of the research done in India has been recognised, but we have to do much more. While we may be doing well, others are doing better. We have to be able to compete with our neighbouring countries, and this is not an easy thing to do.

Tell us a bit about graphene and the artificial photosynthesis method that you are working on?
As you know, graphene is a thin layered material which is only one atom thick. This material has created a big sensation. I am working nowadays not only on graphene but also on graphene mimics which involve graphene-like materials produced of other layered inorganic materials. Since I started working in this area in the last four-five years, there is a great boom. Artificial photosynthesis is another area of immediate interest to me because this is one way of producing hydrogen. If we can do in the laboratory what plants do so easily, it will be fantastic.

You are in the prime minister’s scientific advisory council. Do you think scientists need more resources for research to achieve an impetus and breakthrough?
The Science Advisory Council to the prime minister has done many useful things and it can do many more. It is not only the government that has to support science. I hope that in the years to come, industry will also support science. Although there is a peculiar negative atmosphere everywhere, I must point out that in the last eight-nine years, a number of good things have happened in areas related to science. This includes increased funding, greater support to scientists, creation of new institutions and so on.

What is your routine for the day? What kind of lifestyle do you believe in?
My routine for the day is to get up early in the morning at 4.30am, do some exercise and then think about my work. Afterwards, I listen to some music and have coffee with my wife at around 6 in the morning. I then get ready to go to work.

What does science mean to you? At what age did you realise you wanted to get into this field and how has been the experience been so far?
I considered seriously about becoming a scientist when I was about 17 years, (when I just completed my bachelor’s degree). This feeling got confirmed by the time I finished my master’s degree in Varanasi. By that time, a famous book of Linus Pauling on the nature of the chemical bond had really ignited my interest in chemistry.

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