Dr CNR Rao, the world’s foremost solid state and materials chemist, airs his views on where Indian science is headed
He is known in India as “Mr Science” and has been conferred an astounding 40 honorary doctorates from all over the world. Dr CNR Rao, the world’s foremost solid state and materials chemist, is currently the Linus Pauling Research Professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru and chairman of the Science Advisory Committee to the prime minister. At 73, his passion is nanotechnology, especially the nanomaterials comprising carbon nanotubes. He has authored over 1,400 research papers and edited or written 41 books in materials chemistry. There is hardly any academy that has not made him a fellow, including The Royal Society of London, National Academy of Sciences, USA, Russian Academy of Sciences, Pontifical Academy of Sciences, French Academy of Sciences and Japan Academy. There is a wide consensus that he would have easily won a Nobel Prize by now if he were working in a Western country. His views on where Indian science is headed, given the way bright science students are sucked in by the software sector are extremely forthright
ML: Would you tell us a little about your background? What got you interested in science? You also said somewhere that you were taught by your mother in your early years.
CNRR: I was born in Bangalore. I did not go to a primary school. I began formal schooling only in the middle school. My mother was a very spiritual person. She used to spend long hours in her puja and was a follower of the Madhawa philosophy of doing the right deeds. She herself did not finish high school but was very well-read through self-study. She used to read English newspapers and was aware of what was happening in the world. She taught me until I was six years old with a special emphasis on mythology and mathematics. My father was an inspector of schools. I was the only child. I had a lot of freedom.
A visit by CV Raman to our school in 1946 was probably the earliest factor influencing my interest in science. I decided to become a scientist when I was doing my intermediate course at Sahyadri Science College in Shimoga and later BSc with physics, chemistry and mathematics at Central College Bangalore. I had actually scored more marks in physics than in chemistry. I did not want to join the civil service or medicine or whatever; so I went to the Benaras Hindu University (BHU) to do my Masters degree.
ML: Why Benaras?
CNRR: Because it was one of the few places where you could take additional courses rather than merely work on a thesis. At other places, like Bombay University, you had to mainly do a thesis. I wanted to study a lot of other subjects. It was the early 1950s and BHU was a great centre of learning. It had many top visiting professors including Nobel Laureates. One day, I came across a book called the Nature of the Chemical Bond by Linus Pauling. I was fascinated. What he wrote was totally new at that time. He got a Nobel Prize for it; he also got another Nobel for peace later. I felt I must work with him. After completing my MSc in 1953, I came back to Bangalore, spent a few weeks at Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and then left for Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) at Kharagpur (West Bengal) which had just come up. After a year, I realised this was not a place where I could do the kind of chemistry I wanted to (molecules and structures).
I wrote to Pauling wanting to do doctorate under him. He said, “Why don’t you work with two of my very good students?” and he gave me their names. When I wrote to them, one of them immediately gave me a fellowship. I had fellowships from MIT, Penn State and Columbia also but I went to Purdue to be able to work with Pauling’s student. He was a very fine person; unfortunately, when I went there, he became an administrator and was always very busy; he hardly ever came to the lab. I was doing my own stuff. And he said, ‘you are good at what you do, why don’t you help others in their work’? I helped a lot of PhD students. In fact, I am a common author of every paper that was written at that time.
I was about 23 at that time and I had already worked on the structure of an important molecule when Pauling had come to the university to inaugurate a new chemistry building. I had shown him how I had worked on two important structures on which he had a theory. He acknowledged my work in the third edition of his book Nature of the Chemical Bond. More important, my PhD was only a small part of the work I did at Purdue. I got my PhD in two years and nine months, but I used to take all kinds of courses and also published some independent work on spectroscopy and physical organic chemistry. In fact, I did not get a degree in chemistry; I got it in chemical physics.
While I was taking these other courses, I used to come across various problems that others were trying to solve. I got interested in them and I ended up writing a large number of papers. By the time I left the university, I had published at least 28 papers, while for my PhD I had published only five papers. In fact, based on those 28 papers, I got a DSc in India. Somebody told me DSc was very hard to get. But I soon got a DSc degree from Mysore University based on a thesis that I had submitted there.
After my PhD, I went to Berkley. Berkley was really fantastic. The chemistry department was founded by GN Lewis who is considered the father of modern chemistry. I worked with Prof KS Pitzer who was once an undergraduate student of Linus Pauling and a noted physical chemist in his own right. Then, in 1959, I decided to return to Indian Institute of Science where I got a job as a reader.
ML: Why did you come back?
CNR: I always wanted to come back, especially because of my mother. She would have been heartbroken if I had not come back. She had not asked me to return. In fact, she would never have said anything if I had decided to stay on in the US. But I don’t know what she would have done if I had not come back. She was so quiet and such a selfless person. She has never asked me for anything in my life and I have not given her anything either. I feel terrible now. In fact, when she died, we discovered that she had nothing with her. She had given away everything that she had. My wife was closer to her than I was. I was too immersed in my work. I got married to Indumati after I came back when I was about 26. I have been married for exactly 45 years.
ML: In the ‘50s, most people did come back to work in India…
CNRR: Of course, nobody believed in America at that time. India was the automatic choice. Berkeley wanted me to work there. I don’t know what would have happened if I had stayed on. After I came back, I was offered a readership at Punjab University. I thought why should I go there? It was not such a great place. In three months, I got an offer from IISc. If that had not happened, I would probably not have returned. Do you know that Dr Manmohan Singh would have been my colleague, if I had joined Punjab University? He had joined as a lecturer of economics at that time. He is just a year older than I am.
ML: When was this?
CNR: It was 1959. So it is 48 years since I came back. It was quite an experience. IISc was supposed to be a good institution; in fact, it was terrible. I was doing spectroscopy without a spectrometer! But however lousy the facilities, I did certain things well. The impact of your academic work is judged by the number of times you are cited. An article that I wrote at that time is one of my most cited works. I have about 35,000 citations. Most Indians do not have more than 5,000 citations and many people who are cited more than 2,000 times mention it in their bio-data. A monograph on ultraviolet and visible spectroscopy using molecular orbital notations was published by Butterworths of London in 1960 and went into several editions and languages. I was still very unhappy at IISc. I had a long discussion with my wife and told her that in India I cannot do the kind of cutting-edge research that I want to do. For the first time in my life, I thought that maybe India is not the place to be. She did not want to leave India, but then I was so unhappy as well.
I went to Purdue and Chicago for a short stint, came back and quit IISc.I accepted an offer from IIT Kanpur in 1963. It was started with American aid and help from MIT, Purdue and Berkeley. It was a new IIT and I was asked to build and head the chemistry department. I was just 29 years old then. I thought: how many times in life can one get an opportunity like this? That department I can proudly claim was the best chemistry department that I have ever seen anywhere. Indeed, there has probably never been a department like that anywhere in India. Every member of the team - Goverdhan Mehta, D Balasurbamanian, Animesh Chakravorty, S Ranganathan, PK Ghosh, D Devaprabhakara and JC Ahluwalia - was a member of the Academy (Indian Academy of Sciences). The chemistry department also produced hundreds of superb students. While this was happening, I also began to get a lot of awards. Sir CV Raman wrote to me a personal letter inviting me to be a Fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences in July 1964.
I got an international award called the Marlow Medal by the Faraday Society of England; it was my first international award and Michael Faraday was my boyhood hero. I got the SS Bhatnagar prize at 34.
I remained at IIT Kanpur from 1963 to 1976. It was a busy time during which I got involved in several other activities at Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the National Chemical Laboratory, National Committee on Science & Technology, etc. Vikram Sarabhai also asked me to chair the committee on chemistry at the Department of Atomic Energy. Towards the end of my time, IIT Kanpur was plagued by some administrative problems.
Then, in 1974, I was invited to be the Commonwealth Visiting Professor at Oxford. I went there and, my God, it was a fantastic experience! I got to do research and publish papers with JS Anderson, a pioneer in solid state chemistry. Brian Smith, a friend from Berkeley, was there too. I made some life-long friendships at Oxford.
After Oxford, I returned to Kanpur, but realised that I would have to move on to fulfil my dream of setting up a modern chemical research facility in India. Then, I went to America again to receive a medal given by the American Chemical Society from Glen Seaborg, a Nobel Laureate at Berkeley. I gave a talk after the function and there were these two deans of two universities keen to offer me positions. And I almost agreed.
When I was at IISc, I used to talk a lot with the space scientist Satish Dhawan. Satish, Shivraj Ramaseshan and I were good friends. We used to meet every day and go to the restaurant to have dosa together. While I was wondering what to do, Satish Dhawan said, “I am told that you want to leave”. I explained to him my thoughts. He said, “What is it that we can do that will keep you here”? People were like that then. Vikram Sarabhai was also like that.
I told him that I want to work and teach young people and I want to build a completely new kind of laboratory which would be so good that I can compete with the best in the world. Also, I insist that I must have complete freedom to do it. There should be no interference. That means a new department has to be created, which I will create.
I then built a new department called the Solid State and Structural Chemistry Unit at IISc. I also got involved in setting up the Materials Research Laboratory. It was a tough period and the shift from Kanpur to Bangalore was a difficult period of adjustment both professionally and for my family.
ML: What did you do next, after the IISc stint?
CNRR: Well, in 1982, I was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, London, and soon after, in 1983, I went to King’s College, Cambridge as the first Nehru Professor. A year later, I returned to IISc and was offered the post of the Director. This was another tough period as I realised the difficulties in addressing infrastructural problems. Soon after, Indira Gandhi was assassinated and Rajiv Gandhi became the Prime Minister. I had an excellent rapport with Rajiv Gandhi and a lot of good work was done during his time.
ML: Isn’t that the time that you received your Padma Vibhushan?
CNRR: Well, there were many awards and honours but I really cherish only two. One of them is the Doctorate from Oxford - only three Indians of the modern era have got it -- Indira Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and I. Before that, Rabindranath Tagore had got it (laughs). After a point, it is not at all important; I have 40 honorary doctorates from around the world - and I am a member of all the academies of the world - with no exception - except maybe some of the smaller ones.
ML: Everybody says that you should have got the Nobel long ago and people have got it for less work than you have done.
CNR: I don’t know (laughs). But as a dark-skinned person, you have to be 10 times better than the whites to achieve the same level of recognition. GN Ramachandran, the world-class biophysicist, became Fellow of the Royal Society in 1977, when he was 55. He had published his paper on triple helix DNA structure in 1954! I should have got most of my international recognitions 5-10 years earlier. I became a member of Fellow of the Royal Society only in 1982.
ML: At a recent address to the Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, your speech expressed worries about the future of scientific research in India.
CNR: Well, yes. Today, the focus is only information technology (IT) and software. Everybody wants to join the software industry to the exclusion of everything else. India has done well in software and people are, indeed, making a lot of money; but, as far as science in concerned, they are not the best of influences.
ML: Why do you say that?
CNRR: Well, the government is being persuaded to ignore higher education. SM Krishna, the former Chief Minister of Karnataka, is a very good friend of mine. Krishna was all praise for these software czars who were very close to him. I told Krishna: “why are you listening to these people”? They have been arguing that there is no need to spend money on higher education. Higher education can take care of itself. This is a perverse argument. The Indian software industry is the biggest beneficiary of highly subsidised higher education and, today, they say that there is no need for the government to fund higher education! Higher education is not merely engineering and management which land well-paying jobs. What about pure sciences? Everywhere in the world - Oxford, Cambridge or the US, the best work is done by government-funded institutions, especially in pure sciences. But as long as Krishna was the CM, he didn’t do a thing for higher education, thanks mainly to the advice of one particular software businessman.
ML: A lot of people are complaining that the software boom is sucking away many bright people.
CNRR: The value system has become lopsided. India’s basic strength has been generosity. You have to be generous to others - to colleagues and young people. Today, everybody is so materialistic. They want a house, a car, a wife and then they want a second car and a second house. I don’t know if they want a second wife (laughs). I never cared about material things only about operational freedom, etc. We must think of how to get young people interested in science.
ML: You have held a large number of administrative positions as well; didn’t that hamper your research?
CNRR: I never failed to produce papers even when I held administrative positions. But yes, the quality went down while I was dealing with petty complaints and procedures. Fortunately, my citations in the last 10 years have gone up tremendously. By my own standards, the last two years have been the most productive period. In the last one year, I have worked on many new things, new phenomena and new materials.
ML: To what do you attribute this increase in productivity?
CNNR: You have to work at things consistently, every single day. Indians are not used to that kind of schedule. They work hard for a few days and then relax. You cannot develop a career like that. I work around 10 hours everyday. Also, if I am working on papers, I am with students all the time. I also travel extensively. I am going to Rio de Janeiro for a lecture, after that to Durham University for a lecture and then a lecture at Oxford. I just came back from Madrid.
ML: As the advisor to the PM, you have expressed concern that India’s contribution to research is meagre.
CNR: If you calculate, we contribute just 2.7% to world research. It is very little. China’s contribution has now shot up to 15%. Then there is the issue of quality. If you consider that, our contribution is just 0.5%. India is hardly represented in the top journals. You can say I have done well for myself. But that was not the objective. If that was all I was looking for, I could well have been in the US. I would have done even better. In all the enthusiasm of using bright students to sell soaps and credit cards, this is where we have landed. Plus there is too much of emphasis on IT. Look at Bombay University or Madras University. I don’t know even one good scientist working in these places which produced luminaries at one time.
ML: What needs to be done?
CNRR: University upgradation is important and that is going on. The MM Sharma Committee has been made an empowered committee so that it can take decisions. The government has approved a plan for strengthening teaching and research in basic sciences and has provided an additional Rs600 crore of annual budget allocation for this. Prof Sharma is the right person to oversee this. But we cannot wait for old universities to improve. So, we are setting up new institutions - in Kolkata, Chandigarh, Thiruvanathapuram, etc.
ML: What is the future of Indian science?
CNNR: Money is a major issue. The kind of money our IT coolies are making is amazing. Their goals are clear. They want to work for a few years and then retire. After all, Indians are very thrifty. Young people with a PhD with a few years of experience are making Rs2 lakh a month with foreign companies sitting in India, while salary levels for scientists are very low - maybe Rs2 lakh a year.
The problem of globalisation is affecting us badly. You cannot globalise only salaries. What about the other aspects? Businessmen are feeling good about the economic boom but what about civic services? If we cannot fix our drainage, what science will we do? Even the 2.7% of our contribution to global science will come down to 1%. That too is by a few individuals.
To succeed in India, you need tremendous determination, courage, single-mindedness and doggedness. You have noticed I never mentioned intelligence (laughs aloud). In India, if you are not dogged, you have no chance. Everybody will pull you down, until you achieve some international standing - then they can’t do much any more.
ML: Why do you say that?
CNRR: Well, when I came back from the US in 1959, I wrote a book titled Ultraviolet and Visible Spectroscopy published in London and translated in six languages. There was a lot of jealousy. I was only 25. I heard people say: who is this fool writing books at 25, which is published from London? It was unheard of and there was so much of criticism. Then, I wrote another book, which was published in New York. Then they had an even bigger problem with me and said, this guy doesn’t give up.
Tommy Thomson, a very famous scientist, used to tell me, “You know Ram, to succeed in India, you should be partly deaf - you should not hear everything and you should be partly blind - don’t see everything”. In fact, you cannot be too sensitive in India; otherwise, you will be negative, sarcastic and cynical. That’s why I try to help young people. I know what I went through; I used to be miserable about the criticism and how people would treat me.
For instance, when I started a new subject called Solid State Chemistry a lot of people were extremely critical; ‘what is this humbug, what is solid state chemistry? Is there something called liquid state chemistry’? There were very few people working on it those days. Now, I am considered the grandfather of solid state chemistry; it is a mainstream subject and people say it is all because of me. Now, of course, I don’t care any more. But, for a long time, it was very difficult to be a forward-looking person in a backward-looking country. Strangely enough, people treat you very well abroad - if not like a God, something close. Of course, things are changing even here.
ML: You don’t seem to have any patents to your name. Why is that?
CNRR: I have not taken any patents. I don’t know why (long pause). I didn’t have the money. It takes about $15,000-$20,000 for each patent. No institute has the money for it. I can’t put my own money. The Centre doesn’t have the money. I would have probably taken 4-5 patents a year. That would be about $100,000, around Rs41 lakh.
ML: But don’t people walk away with your ideas and get a patent for it?
CNRR: Yes, that happens quite often and they do use it in industry. Besides, I was not too keen, I was more interested in the research. That is why I have only displayed just two or three of my honours on the wall. One of them is my membership of the Japan Academy. I am the only Asian in it among 30 honorary members. That is the highest award Japan gives to a foreigner.
ML: Which are the other two?
CNRR: One is the Dan Davis Prize, which is a $1 million award. They give three of those every year. The other is the Indian Science Award. That is the highest Indian award, so I put it up. Besides, it is made of glass. I didn’t want to drop it somewhere and break it. That is why I have framed it and kept it on the wall. Those are the only three I have displayed.
ML: On the patents issue, hasn’t the National Chemical Laboratories taken some patents which have helped?
CNRR: Yea, some of them have done well, but there is a lot of hype too. Dr Mashelkar did a lot of things. But there is no doubt that there has been a decline in the standard of scientists. At one time, CSIR had some wonderful scientists, where are they today? The same is the situation in Atomic Energy Commission. Kakodkar (Anil) is a wonderful man. He is the best chairman AEC has ever had. We keep extending his term so that we continue to have a good chairman. But, one of these days, he has to leave. Who will replace him? Where are the people? This manpower crunch will hit us very badly soon.
ML: Does the PM know this?
CNRR: Of course, he does. He has done more than other prime ministers. More has happened in science in the last two years than before in terms of investment and so on. But maybe it is the wrong time. There is no one to utilise it.
ML: Like the Rs100 crore given to select institutions like IISc.
CNRR: That was stupidly handled. IISc was sanctioned the amount more than two and a half years ago, but the money came only in May. That is the problem.
ML: Can the PM do anything more?
CNRR: Well, like I said, Manmohan Singh is a decent man and very intelligent. I have worked closely with several prime ministers, including Rajiv Gandhi and IK Gujral. Gujral was a wonderful man, but had such a short term. He would have been an outstanding PM if he had continued. PV Narasimha Rao was a big disaster, though he was in the Congress. I don’t want to say anything about AB Vajpayee because I had nothing in common with his government. They threw me out of everything. I owe a lot to them because my science improved due to them.
ML: Why did they throw you out?
CNRR: They thought I had sympathies for Congress. It was Murli Manohar Joshi who was responsible. They wrote a new science policy and I was not involved in it. I have been involved in government policies for decades, starting with the National Commission on Science & Technology when I was only 30. Then I was the advisor to Rajiv Gandhi, to Chandra Shekhar and so on. But I had nothing to do with government policies during the five years of BJP. And all the scientist friends of mine did nothing. There was also a lot of vindictiveness, you have no idea how bad it was. I don’t want to talk about it, except to say, that when others are in trouble, I try to help. Anyway, that is life.
ML: Your current passion is nanomaterials. Can you tell us about its future in India?
CNRR: Yes, I want India to be at the forefront of nanosciences. Although we may not see the fruit of research in nanomaterials in our time, young scientists in India must get involved in it and the country must not hesitate to fund the research. I am especially interested in carbon nanotubes (these are thinner than human hair and promise to revolutionise several aspects of human life from health to defence). Unfortunately, we missed the bus on the semi-conductor technology and are much too focused on Information Technology. I want to do my best to lay the foundation of this research.
Prof CNR Rao - “Mr Science”
Number of Honorary Doctorates: 40
Number of Scholarly Citations: 35,000
Top Indian Positions Held
Chairman, Scientific Advisory Committee to the Union Cabinet
Chairman, Science Advisory Council to the PM
Member of Atomic Energy Commission
President, Indian National Science Academy
President, Indian Academy of Sciences
Member, Planning Commission
Chairman, Advisory Board, Council of Scientific & Industrial Research
Top Indian Awards
Bhatnagar prize (1968)
CV Raman award for research in Physical Sciences (1975)
PC Ray medal in Chemistry (1975)
SN Bose medal for Physical Sciences (1980)
Padma Vibhushan (1985)
Meghnad Saha Medal (1990)
India Science Prize (2004)
Top Foreign Awards
MARLOW medal from Faraday Society, England (1967)
Centennial Foreign Fellowship of American Chemical Society (1976)
The Royal Society of Chemistry (London) Medal (1981)
Hevrovsky Gold Medal, Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences (1989)
Honorary Fellowship, The Royal Society of Chemistry, London (1989)
Honorary Member, Materials Research Society of Japan (1990)
Honorary Member, Materials Research Society of South Korea (1991)
Blackett Lectureship, The Royal Society, London (1991)
Albert Einstein Gold Medal, UNESCO, Paris (1996)
Linnett Visiting Professorship, University of Cambridge (1998)
Centenary Lecturership & medal, Royal Society of Chemistry (2000)
Hughes medal for Physical Sciences, The Royal Society (2000)
Officier de l’ordre des Palmes Academiques, France (2002)
Order of Scientific Merit, Grand-Cross, President of Brazil (2002)
Commander of the Order of Rio Branco, Brazil (2002)
Gauss Professorship, the Academy of Sciences, Germany (2003)
The Dan David Prize (2005)
Chemical Pioneer, American Institute of Chemists, USA (2005)
Chevalier de la Legion D'honneur, France (2005)
Honorary Fellowship, Institute of Physics, London (2006)
Fellow, The Royal Society, London
Foreign Associate, National Academy of Sciences, USA
Honorary Foreign Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Member, Pontifical Academy of Sciences
Foreign Member, American Philosophical Society
Founding Fellow, Third World Academy of Sciences
Foreign Member, Russian Academy of Sciences
Foreign Member, Academia Europea
Honorary Member, Japan Academy
Foreign Member, French Academy of Sciences
Foreign Fellow, The Royal Society of Canada
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