Professor CNR Rao’s life has been a long and eventful one. He has produced research papers by the dozen, met the doyens in science from around the world, received the highest national awards, including the Bharat Ratna, and a clutch of foreign awards for science. Yet, Indian science has not done as well as Dr Rao in its chequered history, barring the rare shining examples of scientists who braved the odds to make a signal contribution. So, when one picks up an autobiography of the great man (A Life in Science), it is with an expectation that there would be some in-depth exploration of what ails Indian science. Therein lies the great disappointment with this book.
In the epilogue, Dr Rao mentions a meeting with Professor CV Raman at the Indian Academy of Sciences. Raman told Rao, “Professor Rao, I am eighty-one years old. It bothers me that India is not on the top of the world in science.” Rao goes on to say, “I’m now eighty-two years old and I echo Professor Raman’s statement.” The scientific establishment, and that includes the pertinent ministries of the government, and even the lay reader would have been keen to hear from Dr Rao his take on this problem.
He mentions that not enough money is given to the pursuit of science, which is a measly 1% of GDP, according to him. But, given India’s size, even that amount should produce some results. Instead, all we hear from scientists is a litany of complaints, of seniors stealing the work of their research pupils, bureaucracy, suicides by scientists, and the exodus of the best scientific talent to more hospitable shores.
Indian scientists are bogged down by the nitty-gritty of science administration, the turf battles that are all too common and one in which the best man seldom wins.
Dr Rao was a bureaucrat himself, albeit a scientist. At various times, he was the director of the prestigious Indian Institute of Science (IISc), director of the Indian Institute of Technology ( Kanpur), president of the Indian Academy of Sciences, member of the Planning Commission, member of the US National Academy of Sciences, founding member of the Third World Academy of Sciences (started by Prof Abdus Salam, the Nobel Prize-winning Pakistani scientist), founding member of the Materials Research Society of India, to name a few of the exalted positions he held.
And, here is what he has to say about his time at IISc. “I approached the Planning Commission for a special grant for improving the basic infrastructure… Thankfully, they gave me Rs3 crore so that we could set up a new electric sub-station and change the plumbing on the campus. One of the minor contribution (sic) I could make, in the meantime, was to stop the grazing of cattle in the campus…With patience, I could also stop people from parking their bicycles in the corridors of the main building, effectively blocking the way. I started improving the gardens by planting several thousands of trees.”
Laudable, to be sure. But what about the state of science at the IISc? Not a word about that. Surely, one should expect more insights and analysis about the state of science in India from an eminent scientist who headed two prestigious institutions, the IISc and IIT-Kanpur. Instead, most of the book is a dreary enumeration of the awards he has won, papers published, eminent people he has met and foreign travels.
The prime minister then, Indira Gandhi, called him to a meeting with her and offered him a secretary’s post in the government which he turned down. It might have been illuminating had he explained why he had done so. But, to his credit, it must be mentioned that Dr Rao was an indefatigable scientist who looked upon research as his vocation. At age 37, he was offered the position of director of IIT-Kanpur, which he turned down. “I was asked to take up the directorship by the minister of education in Delhi, but I had no interest in doing so. I had many things to do in science.” Not many in his place would have turned down the offer, coming as it did from the education minister himself. However, later in life, he got all those lofty positions and seemed to relish them.
What emerges from this book is a man undoubtedly dedicated to science, but who also basked in the glory of being a famous scientist. In the process, we miss in this book the rich insight an eminent scientist could have given on the state of science in India and what is needed to rejuvenate it.