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How will IISc spend its Rs 100 crore

March 10, 2005 08:49 IST

Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram's Budget announcement of Rs 100 crore (Rs 1 billion) for the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) has not prompted it to rush to the drawing board to devise something new.

Instead, those who are running it are hopeful that the grant will enable IISc to upscale, do more of what it is doing, to make more of a difference.

The professors are 'delighted,' says IISc's director Goverdhan Mehta, that more than anything else, the grant has recognised the institute's work and turned the spotlight on scientific research.

The spotlight will have to be kept there for some years if factors not in the control of IISc but vital to its sustenance are to be dealt with effectively.

Senior professors at the institute say that IISc can take care of itself, almost. But the institute can do precious little about the desperate lack of a culture of science outside its walls, which is where the government will have to step in with a lot more than a Rs 100 crore one-off grant.

It may even have to go against its political grain and give higher education a lot more importance, says a professor.

The quantum of the grant itself is not big by the institute's standards, for individual departments alone, such as physics or mechanical engineering, are working on projects totalling upwards of Rs 20 crore (Rs 200 million).

But, as the professors tell this correspondent, the money will be useful in two areas: putting up much-needed new buildings and improving  existing ones; and second, attracting young people to the institute.

Some of the money will also, perhaps, go towards scaling up research in emerging areas, such as nanotechnology, which promises to benefit society in many ways, says Mehta.

IISc is consolidating work done by different departments into one multi-disciplinary "nanoscience initiative," says S Chandrasekaran, chairman of the division of chemical sciences.

The future of such programmes rests on finding fresh talent, both in students and in scientists. The 'catch them young' effort comprises two areas of thrust. One, as HL Bhat, a physics professor says, capturing the imagination of young students to inspire them to take up basic science.

"We have had some success but a lot more needs to be done," Bhat says. Two, identifying, or where necessary head hunting, young scientists who will become the institute's next line of leaders.

In all this, help has come from an unexpected quarter -- the success of outsourcing, says H P Khincha, chairman of the division of electrical sciences. As outsourcing of research takes off, some of the positive fallout of the success in the IT services industry will work for science too.

With Indian IT engineers going places, the better undergraduate colleges are realising that their fortunes are tied to those of their students. They are thus beginning to compete in offering better facilities and teachers so as to produce students better grounded in the basics. This is all that IISc wants, for it will ensure much of the rest.

The institute gets some Rs 80 crore (Rs 800 million) a year from the Centre, which includes salaries, student scholarships, and day-to-day operational costs, says IISc's director, Goverdhan Mehta.

IISc also gets a bit of money that accrues on its so-called "Bombay property," real estate which the Tatas bequeathed it long ago, says another professor. Interest on the corpus, managed by an investment committee, is ploughed back so as to build the corpus to a size where accruals are large enough to spend on research programmes, Mehta says.

The fresh corpus of slightly over Rs 100 crore is nothing to write home about. The top Indian Institutes of Managements are much smaller than IISc but have comparable funds, invested in the market and growing every year.

But, private industry, in addition to the Department of Science and Technology, the Defence Research Development Organisation and other related government agencies, is increasingly a source of funds.

From small beginnings made years ago, large companies are increasingly confident that money spent on funding a broad mandate of research at the institute, rather than on focused projects, will help them in the long run.

"The result is that we are looking at 10-year agreements with some of these companies," says S K Biswas, chairman of the division of mechanical engineering sciences. Among the companies is one of the global top three automobile companies and a large state-owned oil company.

Private industry has begun to understand that allowing scientists to "do their own thing actually works," Biswas says. They are learning that asking for more focused projects can endanger the institute's primary focus on basic research.

As he put it, "We are paid to think. . . to be curious about the world around us. For that we make research proposals, get grants, build labs and compete for the brightest students and faculty. In the process, we often stumble upon solutions to problems that are worrying industry."

With scale achievable by grants like the latest one, the frequency of stumbling will increase enough to get more industry funding for broad research.

The eventual result could be software for a top cellphone handset maker or a way to use nanoparticles (one billionth of a metre across) to improve the performance of a motorcycle engine for one of the leading two-wheeler makers in the country.

If this process is to be sustained, the institute needs bright students interested in science. The quality of BSc students from most of the universities in the country leaves one in no doubt on how grave the situation is.

The institute runs "integrated PhD programmes," young fellowship programmes and a DST funded Kishore Vaigyanic Protsahan Yojana, to tap undergraduates, pre-university students and even higher secondary school students respectively.

Several of the IISc's faculty members spend time liberally, engaging students from schools and colleges in public forums, or through non-formal initiatives such as the one run by the Bangalore Association for Science Education on the premises of the Nehru Planetarium.

In this, they are joined by colleagues from other research institutes here, such as the Raman Research Institute, the Indian Institute of Astrophysics and the National Centre for Biological Sciences. All this does yield results but not the numbers.

Yet, there is hope. Whenever a department at the institute has an "open house," such as physics recently and aerospace a few months back with participation from the Indian Space Research Organisation, high school students turn up in droves, often with their teachers.

Many, untouched by the entrance test frenzy of the engineering colleges yet, are excited about reading science. IISc hopes that with the grant it will be able to become more of a natural magnet for them.


Assets switch

CHANNELLING FUNDS

Improving infrastructure and attracting young people to the institute.

NEW VISTAS
The fund may also be used to scale up research in emerging areas, such as nanotechnology.

NOT IN DIRE STRAITS

The grant is not big by the institute's standards -- individual departments alone are working on projects of over Rs 20 crore.
Harichandan A A in Bangalore
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