Interview with Prof. C.N.R. Rao, Bharat Ratna

        Prof. Chintamani Nagesa Ramachandra Rao FRS, famously known as Prof. C.N.R. Rao is well known researcher in the field of nanotechnology. He has authored more than 1400 research paper in journals of international repute and 45 scientific books. He is fellow of several academies all over the world including Royal Society, London. More than 60 universities awarded him honorary doctorates around the globe. He is recipient of most of the major scientific awards. Recently, Government of India awarded his the Highest Civilian Award of India- Bharat Ratna. Mr. Meher Wan got the opportunity to discuss on the various issues related to science, education and scientific and technological future of India. Here are excerpts of the discussion-
MW: So, first of all congratulations to you for recent achievements, specially for the announcement of Bharat Ratna, The Highest Civilian Award of India to you. How do you feel now?
C.N.R.Rao:  Well!! I think its fine and very nice that’s all I can say. I was not expecting or anything like that, so it’s nice. Many thanks for considering me for this award.

MW:  So let’s start with some memories of your past times, how did this journey in science begin?
C.N.R.Rao:  Well!! You know, it has been wonderful sixty and odious years, since I first started my research in Banaras University (BHU) for my M.Sc. degree, that was exactly sixty two years ago or more than that. Since then, many things, of course I have been a professor, in fact, member of the faculty, last fifty four years now. So, it has been a wonderful thing. Lots of students who have worked with me for PhD and a few hundred people worked with me, so it has been wonderful.

MW: Yeah, When did you realize that chemistry is your cup of tea?
C.N.R.Rao: When I was 17 years old.

MW: So, at that time you were in B.Sc. or M.sc.?
C.N.R.Rao: I just finished BSC at seventeenth then went to Banaras to do my MSc and then I decided that I want to be a scientist. I was not attracted to become or take up an IAS exam or that type of stuff, so I decided to take up science at that time.

MW: So, why did you decide to remain in chemistry?
C.N.R.Rao: Many reasons, I was  very much excited by science in school actually, by wonderful school teachers here in Bangalore and C.V. raman of course  given lecture in our school that somehow I saw him giving a lecture, I got very impressed by that and then after that of course after my BSc in wanted to do MSc and research that’s why I went to Banaras to do part research, part thesis, part course things like that, so I went there and there you know I read a very famous book of Linus Pouling – “Nature of the Chemical Bonds”, that book was very important book for me, even now in the history of chemistry if there is one book which changed the nature of chemistry was that book “Nature of the Chemical Bonds” by Linus Pauling and I thought, I must do this kind of research that’s one reason I left Banaras and went to United States after that.

MW: How do you remember the times of Banaras Hindu University?
C.N.R.Rao: Oh! Fantastic, BHU was a very good university, at that time you know everything was DC not AC (Electricity- Power Supply). To do experiments, we had to work in night when we had to convert DC in to AC, it is unbelievable there was no regular alternating current electricity, any way in the midnight or in the morning I used to came back from the library everywhere there were lab people working BHU was a very active place in science, you know those days many UP universities, Allahabad also was quite active, no longer the case, BHU is no longer what it was, Aligarh was very good at one time, so it was a very nice place to work I enjoyed , I owe a lot to BHU I am very loyal to BHU even now.

MW: Prof. J.V. Narlikar was also student of BHU?
C.N.R.Rao: Yeah, his father was the professor of mathematics. He is junior to me in age as well as study.

MW: How do you perceive the current condition of university system?
C.N.R.Rao: Oh! It’s terrible. Universities are in very bad shape, we don’t have many universities with high standards in teaching or in research.  We have to improve and have to put in a lot of effort and lot of money to improve universities and first of all get rid of the politics in universities, bureaucracy in universities, in addition we have also to improve the facilities the lot of work has to be done and in the meantime of course, we can’t wait for that to change so we are to create new institutions, India requires many-many good institutions like this one where you are sitting (JNCASR, Bangalore) where we have outstanding facilities where young people can do very-very good research work, so we are to improve such things.

MW: I feel basic education of science is very important and it plays a key role in development of scientific scenario in the country, so how do you perceive the basic education in our country?
C.N.R.Rao: Main thing as I told you, the teaching of science at school level itself is not very good. In spite of that many young people come up, in spite of this all there is not so happy situation in school but still we have to do lot more to schools education. Teachers and teaching have not got the adequate recognition and importance in India. See, teaching profession is not respected for example I don’t know the statistics of the world, which are the countries and where teachers are given very high regard.  Number one country in this regard is Finland, it is very difficult to become a teacher there, very easy to become an administrator, here it is opposite, anybody can become a teacher. So, I think teachers should be given importance, teaching profession should get more respect and facilities for schools, lot of things have to be done and if we don’t do that in next five-ten years, India will no longer we can expect to be a powerful nation. It won’t become just by economic state, we have to improve the education, everybody in India should get a good opportunity for that schools and colleges become very important.

MW: So, does it need political will?
C.N.R.Rao:  Partly political, you know. Industries should also help. After all, all of science for example let us take scientific research, all of scientific research is supported by govt. how can that be? After all America South Korea or even China industries should contribute at least forty to fifty percent of the science expenditure for example. Education also private investment is important. At least in this state in Karnataka where we have a lot of private universities, private collages they are bit too commercial, I think we have to worry about having Harward or Stanford and such universities, they all are private. The best universities of America are private universities of course there are some govt. universities like California which is equally good but some of the top ones are private. Why do we don’t have that? Even I can mention names of some industrialists, who can easily start and easily set up with no govt. interference can be there due to privatization, I don’t know why  we have not done enough for that?

MW: What is the state of industry- academia relationship in India?
C.N.R.Rao: There is not much relationship, you know, I have done extensive research publishing tons of papers for last fifty and half years but I have never been approached by any Indian industry for help. And there is a lot of foreign interest in it, my research is being used quite a bit in industries abroad not in India. Because Indian industries are not quite based on hi-fi technology they are based on technologies which do not require modern science they manage with some old stuff, now things are going to change and if India is to compete with other countries then they will have to support science they will have to support universities more. It has become the necessity of these days and I hope they will do something in this direction.

MW: You have contributed remarkably to scientific research in our country, so what are the great achievements of Indian science according to you?
C.N.R.Rao: Well, there are a few achievements. See, for example, in India whenever we have mission oriented science or technology project like atomic energy or space, we have done great, whenever we have been given well defined project to build reactors, rockets etc, we have done well. Where there is no new science involved or application of known science but that type of projects oriented or technology oriented missions have succeeded fairly well. Where we have not succeeded is real science. Real science means physics, chemistry and biology done in small laboratories that are the ones that give progressive background. Reactors or space science is based on the concepts evolved by the ordinary people, working in small ordinary laboratories like you and me, that’s the one that made science what it is today. Small lab level science should be supported more. Big science has always been supported more, like atomic energy and space, small science in universities and other labs have not had that much of support. But now, even if you give money, our universities are not in such position to use that money to improve. There is also too much otherwise politics, I don’t want to say go in to politics as I am not a politician, on the other hand total bureaucracy and other things don’t allow science to thrive in many of our education institutions, but IITs are all okay, but even IITs, how come one of our IITs is like MIT? They should be like MIT, but they are not. It is not just money, so we have to, that’s why I said, we are facing grave problems where we have to improve in a very big way. Individuals do, there are few individuals are outstanding as far as people in Harward but institutions are very few as best in the world, one, two or three, not many but the few individuals have done extremely well internationally. But that number is very-very small, even I can count in fingers them.

MW: We have started with Prof. J.C. Bose, Prof. S.N.Bose etc.….What went wrong in the mean time?
C.N.R.Rao: Don’t count that names, J.C. Bose was different, he created science; he was the first great scientist of modern India. In 19th century he discovered the coherer, he should have got the Nobel Prize. S.N.Bose and others are different, they did little research rest of life they didn’t do much. See, personally speaking I only respect those scientist who do science till the last date that’s why I am admirer of J.C.Bose. Of course Raman did wonderful physics and Ramanujan did great mathematics but he died in very young age. However, many others also did great works, but J.C.Bose was scientist till last day. All the professors with whom I worked very well known people of America or UK like Prof. Mott with whom I am associated is also a Nobel laureate and at the age of 93, he is still publishing papers. Personally, I like such people who are really dedicated, you know, I still publish papers like a young man, in fact I give a competition to young men to work and compete with me.

MW: I have seen it in your lecture actually, few days back in Indian institute of science at a union of material scientists.
C.N.R.Rao: Oh! Were you there? How did you like that?

MW: I liked your work about hydrogen generation through artificial photosynthesis for energy applications. I liked it much. If we talk about materials science we legged behind in micro-revolution but in nano science and technology this is not the case….
C.N.R.Rao: Yeah, in nanotechnology we are not doing too badly due to targeted funding. What happened, we have funded many institutions through the “Nano Mission”. Until “Nano Mission” came, there was electron microscope in Kolkata only in that whole region. So because of that some results have been obtained.  Now, India is showing reasonable results in Nano science and technology because micro electronics we did nothing. But in all aspects of science, very few scientists are on frontier and that’s unfortunate.

MW: Much credit goes to you for “Nano Mission”.
C.N.R.Rao: Only “Nano Mission”.     

MW: What type of support our scientists still need?
C.N.R.Rao:  Mere money would not help. We have to create institutions.  See, for example, you give a lot of money to some educational institutions, they are not able to use that money, because of local conditions bureaucracy, politics whatever. I don’t know, is it same in all universities but I was told it is very bad generally many places. We have to improve that part of infrastructure and everything in universities. In addition, like IISERs on the other hand we have created are outstanding. If we can create few more good institutions like IISERs they can give us a boost and in the mean time we can improve our universities and we will do that.

MW: Media can play a very important role in highlighting the scientific achievements.
C.N.R.Rao: Yeah. Media has done almost nothing for science. You see the TV program you will start depressing, they will show murders, rapes and this kind of stuff or politics, very rarely science has been figured in the value system of the Indian society. In Indian society science come at the bottom, I don’t know why. See china is different; I just got a letter just half an hour before in a formal letter being induced as a foreign member of the Chinese academy. They invited me for a function; I will have to go there. Anyway, they are so organized I mean they are so proud to be Chinese and everything is so different from here. We are not so well organized we are not so nationalistic somehow we are paying a price for it.

MW: So, I feel science communicators should play an important role in this direction.
C.N.R.Rao: Of course, Science communicators can, media also. Suppose media decides to make science as important thing people will listen to that, because look at television every day and night we are blaring all kinds of thing but never education, science when did you see last program on science on TV.

MW: There may be reason behind it; we teach how to do reporting on politics, crime but not how to do reporting on science? Is it so?
C.N.R.Rao: No! No! This is not the reason behind that, after all nobody teaches you how to communicate all the rotten things, many things you learn yourself. It depends on the interest. In china, are there people who taught them? No. They give importance, Chinese give; South Korea invited me to give a lecture in a major meeting of scientists. South Korea is fantastic, I would say in all the little countries South Korea has done best. They got the freedom at the same time as we Indians got in 1947. Look at what they have done see they give amount of importance for education, scientific research. It is unbelievable.

MW:  Sir, you are chairing the science advisory council to prime minister.
C.N.R.Rao: yeah, we have done many things, I will give a book to read to see what we have done, there are a lot of important things we are concerned about.

MW: Yes, I will surely read, please mention some important issues here, Sir.
C.N.R.Rao: It’s a very large list you should read it, I can’t mention all here, but IISERS were created by us, Ramanujan fellowships, improving scholarships to research students, again we are going to improve it, many such important things. Creation of IISERs is very obvious example; you know getting this big computing power for India. Govt. has just given five thousand crores to improve the hyper computing. In computation, you know India does not have good computing power; china has very high, America of course has very high computing power. So we want to have some computing power so that young people like you can do computing in a big way, so many such things we do.

MW: We will have highest number of youth in the world.
C.N.R.Rao: I tell you the future belongs to you. Even, I agreed to see you because of that; otherwise I may be wasting my time. Future belongs to young people. Sixty percent of India is below thirty and thirty five years. Even imagine, after thirty years later when Indian population become 1.5 billion there will be more young people, that is the why I am in worry. We should work out a plan, well architectured plan for education, progress and employment opportunities for young people, until we do it we will be in very bad situation.

MW: How will we plan for it?
C.N.R.Rao: That is a very big question, I will not go deep in this question as it will need another many hours to discuss here, but I have been requesting you that you should read this book and govt. should appoint a visionary group to think on what should be done for younger generation in next twenty years but they have not done yet. We should do that I have been telling them. You know, that question is very serious to work on; it is not like an education commission. We have to chock out the program for the youth as soon as possible in India.

MW: As I have mentioned that I listened your lecture in IISc recently, you have shown very new research done by your group on hydrogen production through artificial photosynthesis. You are very actively engaged in research in spite of you administrative and other engagements, your public life, how do you manage it?
C.N.R.Rao: Most of the time I do only my research. Other things are my overtime. I work very hard, I get up in 04.30 am in the morning everyday so by the time till normal working time, I do 2-3 hours work. I spend much time with my student. I write papers with them, I actually sit and work with them so that we get maximum amount of research output, we optimize our effort. I write a lot, I write a lot of books, review papers. But in addition to it a little bit, I contribute to our country in various ways too, now I am not in regular administration as before I was president and director of Indian society of material scientists, now only I am asked for advisory.

MW: still it is a mystery to youngsters like me, how do you manage your time?
C.N.R.Rao: See, time management is an important thing, you know, Michael faraday has a very famous statement, he said-
What is it, that can be made short or long,
What is it, that can be compressed or elongate,
What is it, that can you enjoy or detest,
What it is, that god almighty thought so precious,
to give us limited amount of it,
That is time….
You know how have to use it. 90%of the people in the world do not know how to manage time. They waste a lot of time. I try to use it. I don’t have people come to chat; you are only an exception today. I just do my work. If I don’t have such work, I read something.

MW: Finally, my last question, what do you want say to youngsters?
C.N.R.Rao: I tell you, young people should be left alone to follow the path, they want. They should not be forced to go in to engineering etc.  They should do whatever they like; they want to be poet, economists, scientists doctors, whatever they want, but they should not give up their passion. At least few of them should have high level of passion; they are the ones who save India. We don’t need a lot of them, 5-10 % of the population is enough and unfortunately that is not happening, people are forced to go to engineering, everybody in Bangalore goes to engineering, science colleges are being closed down, this is bad, very few goes to economics, etc, only leftover go for that. We should not be like that, all professions need very good people, As India need to come up in all areas so young people should not listen bad advice of fool people like me and they should do what they think is best with full passion. Even I have done that way, my parents allowed me to go BHU very far to here to do MSc, they never told me do this do that, wonderful parents I had. I owe a lot to them because this freedom of thinking and freedom of working is very important for young people. Second, I think three important qualities should be retainedby youngsters inside doggedness, perseverance andtenacity, a little intelligence is also useful but, that comes afterwards. You must not give up after all.

MW: It is very nice to talk to you sir. Thanks a lot to you for such visionary words.
C.N.R.Rao: Same here; Best wishes to you too.

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