science funding

View from India: ISF facility boosts scientific and cultural landscape

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On 14 July, the Infosys Science Foundation (ISF) inaugurated its new facility. It aims to make Bangalore into a large collaboration space.

To put things in perspective, when Infosys turned 25 years old in 2006, its founder, Nagavara Ramarao Narayana Murthy, began to think about contribution to science and engineering. Consequently, Murthy, along with some of the members of the Infosys Board, initiated ISF as a not-for-profit trust in 2009. ISF has instituted the Infosys Prize, an annual award, to honour outstanding achievements of researchers and scientists across six categories: Engineering and Computer Science, Mathematical Sciences, Social Sciences, Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Humanities. The prize includes a 22-carat gold medal, a citation and a purse of US$100,000 (or its equivalent in Rupees). “As people interested in science, mathematics and engineering, we must think about how science, mathematics and engineering can solve our grand problems. I understand that such grand problems cannot be solved by science, mathematics, and engineering alone. It requires a cultural transformation of the Indian mindset,” said Murthy.

The need of the day is to use the power of the human mind to find quick, innovative and affordable solutions to these and other major problems that our country faces. Our science, mathematics and engineering researchers are the country’s front-line warriors in our war against our grand problems and they need to be encouraged. Of course, all of this can happen if young minds are channelled to think along these lines. This and more has been working in the minds of the core team and it was felt that ISF must have a modern, comfortable, technology-enabled and productive home in the city with an easy connection to the public transport system so that students and teachers interested in science and science research can congregate at ISF and participate in science-related events.

ISF’s new space is positioned as a place for dialogue to encourage the meeting of minds and exchange of ideas. It is an addition to the scientific and cultural landscape of Bangalore and India at large. The new facility could be a means to scale-up its operations and strengthen its identity. “ISF office aims to be a place for collaboration and events and lectures in science, arts and engineering. The vision is to look at Bangalore as a large collaboration space. Bangalore is probably the only city in the world with deep roots in engineering and science,” added Kris Gopalakrishnan, president of the Infosys Science Foundation.

Premier educational institutions like the National Law School of India University, the Indian Institute of Management and the International Institute of Information Technology Bangalore; liberal arts colleges; a large IT talent pool; a community of startups, and a large number of R&D labs of Indian and global repute are among the highlights. “The next 25 or 100 years of India’s Independence could be spent in the creation and application of knowledge for public use. The research should move from the labs to the market for addressing social issues. New workable models may be created not just for India but also for the world,” said Gopalakrishnan.

Perhaps this calls for some encouragement in the form of investments. India’s gross expenditure on R&D is 0.7 per cent of its gross domestic product, which is much lower than that of many global economies. Investment in research could be scaled-up for improving levels of employment and the economy at large. A move in this direction is the Science Gallery Bengaluru (SGB), which is a not-for-profit public institution for research-based engagement targeted at young adults. It works at the interface between the natural and human sciences, engineering and the arts through a Public Lab Complex, ever-changing exhibitions, and mentorship programmes. SGB has been established with the founding support of the Government of Karnataka and three academic partners: the Indian Institute of Science, National Centre for Biological Sciences, and Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology. “Science Gallery is a space for fundamental knowledge. It aims to bring people from all walks of life into its fold and the ambition is to scale-up to address problems,” observed Jahnavi Phalkey, founding director at SGB.

Research should be focused on solving societal problems. “Let me state some of the important problems we must solve with alacrity," said Infosys' Murthy. "Can we improve the productivity of our farmers by a factor of five? Can we find an inexpensive and durable solution for the purification of our polluted air and polluted rivers? Can we find a solution to the shortage of potable water? Can we devise a non-invasive solution to measure blood sugar levels and non-invasive tests for detecting certain kinds of cancer that require biopsy?” More such thoughts: probably a devise to cure cancer without chemotherapy; a solution to predicting a flood or a drought a few months in advance to help farmers; a way to produce large software systems with zero error, or to find an inexpensive but ultra-strength concrete to build roads to withstand wear and tear for 100 years; a solution to Chikungunya and Dengue viruses, or a plan to move India up from a lowly 101st rank among 116 nations in the Global Hunger Index.

Let’s face it, everyone cannot do research. But everyone can be made aware of the problems and given a chance to voice themselves; Bangalore can play a role by initiating public spaces for discussions and disseminating knowledge. “Public spaces contribute to the political-socio-economic development of the city. They contribute to the city’s stature as well-being of citizens,” said Arundhati Ghosh, executive director of India Foundation for the Arts.

Public spaces need to be built on a sustainable basis. “You need to visualise how the public space can pan out to be and it should be inclusive in nature,” said V Ravichandar, honorary director of Bangalore International Centre. In conclusion, public spaces could initiate dialogues between experts and the public. Hopefully such discussions would be fruitful. 

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