The impromptu announcement of Bharat Ratna may not have come as a surprise to fans of Sachin Tendulkar, but it was certainly news to 79-year-old chemistry professor Chintamani Nagesa Ramachandra Rao and to the Indian scientific community. For television news channels preoccupied with the Sachin mania, Rao was just someone who has “also been given the award” along with the cricketer. Some channels even flashed that Rao was the man behind the recent Mars mission. In a sense, the misreporting and lack of awareness about Rao’s contributions reflect how little the nation of a billion-plus people cares for science and its icons.
The reason for this ignorance could be that Rao does not work in high-visibility science fields such as space, atomic energy, vaccine development, digital technology or astronomy. Nor is he a science bureaucrat — someone who holds the position of a secretary in one of the several scientific departments in New Delhi as was APJ Abdul Kalam, when he was chosen for the coveted civilian honour in 1997. Yet Rao can be counted among the handful of Indian scientists recognised globally in their respective area of research and is also someone who has greatly influenced science policymaking in the past four decades in various capacities.
Although a chemist, Rao does not fit in the stereotypical image of a scientist working with smoke-emitting test tubes with colourful liquids. His area of research is solid-state and materials chemistry, which requires poring over properties and behaviour of chemicals and materials at the molecular level using sophisticated instruments. Rao’s forte are synthesis and characterisation of solids with novel structures and properties, and nanotechnology, which promises to impact everything from new materials to biology.
In all, he has authored more than 1,400 research papers and 40 technical books. He is one of the most cited Indian scientists in any field. As the National Research Professor at the Bengaluru-based Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, which he founded in 1989, Rao continues to pursue his research interests and guide PhD students. This puts him in an enviable category of being a teacher and researcher for more than half a century now.
An equally important facet of Rao’s life has been his role in science policymaking at the national level, beginning in 1971 when he was made a member of the National Committee on Science and Technology. Since then, he has constantly been involved in science policymaking as a member or chairman of the Scientific Advisory Council (SAC) to successive prime ministers, except during the tenures of PV Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The NDA government floated a new outfit called the Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, headed by nuclear scientist R Chidambaram, who was involved in Pokhran-II. Its mandate is similar to that of the scientific adviser, but it does not enjoy the same clout as the latter, at least under the UPA regime.
Since 2005, Rao has been the chairman of the current SAC to the PM. Although it is an advisory body consisting of secretaries of scientific departments and some scientists, it plays an overarching role in guiding science and technology in the country. Over the years, several institutions such as the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing — which spurred supercomputer development in India — have come up as a result of its recommendations.
The most recent is the setting up of the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research broadly on the lines of the Indian Institute of Science, which Rao headed until 1994. Upgrading the Department of Ocean Development into a full-fledged Ministry of Earth Sciences with the meteorological department under it is another example of its intervention.
As a scientist and a science adviser, Rao has always advocated freedom and autonomy for scientific institutions. This has put him at loggerheads with the bureaucracy in New Delhi, particularly in scientific departments that are headed by former or working scientists. Several of Rao’s recommendations were either subverted or never implemented in the 1970s and ’80s, as Rao recalls in his autobiography, Climbing the Limitless Ladder: A Life in Chemistry.
In an interview with scientific journal, Current Science, two years ago, Rao recounted how the scientific bureaucracy stonewalled the truth about the Bhopal gas tragedy from coming out. Scientists from the Indian Council of Medical Research and the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research were not allowed to speak up if it was indeed hydrogen cyanide that had leaked. Bhopal was a tragedy in science, Rao remarked.
In the 2000s, Rao pushed for a proposal to set up a National Science and Engineering Research Board on the lines of the National Science Foundation, which is the umbrella funding body for all scientific research in the US. The bureaucracy effectively killed the idea as it would have made the current funding body, the Department of Science and Technology (DST), redundant. Instead, a Science and Engineering Research Board with a much-truncated mandate has been established under the DST.
Restructuring national institutions is necessary to create a right atmosphere to pursue research and higher education more effectively. Keeping this in view, the SAC, in its latest report, has recommended appointment of a Science Administrative Reforms Commission to propose a new administrative system for universities, national laboratories and the science departments and agencies.
The close proximity to prime ministers has earned Rao detractors within the system. He has attracted criticism in scientific circles for his rather brusque style of functioning and bias towards his own scientific discipline when it comes to recommendations for top scientific appointments. Liberal grants made to research areas of his interest — high-temperature superconductivity in the 1980s and nanotechnology in the 2000s — have also raised eyebrows.
As an academic scientist, he has been accused of misconduct — though minor in nature — twice. In 1987, the Society for Scientific Values pulled him up for bulldozing three Indian scientific journals into publishing his papers on superconductivity without the date of the receipt of the papers (in order to claim priority over others working in the same field). Rao attracted charges of plagiarism in 2012 when three sentences in a paper co-authored by two of his students with him were found to have been copied from another paper.
Despite his engagement with science policymaking and other roles in the government, Rao has continued to work in his lab and with his students continuously. He has a deep passion for science, enjoys doing science and talking about it with youngsters and even children. Rao has also penned popular science books on chemistry and nanotechnology — something hardly any top Indian scientist has done. He is a colossus who can be called a true ambassador of Indian science.
His vision about Indian science is clear: invest in quality science education at various levels, increase funding for research and development, identify a few areas to excel and focus on them, align research with national priorities, create opportunities for young people in science and innovation. All this can certainly help India in emerging as a leader in science in a highly competitive world.
Hopefully, his advice will be taken seriously now that the high priest of Indian science is also a Bharat Ratna.