Now that Prof CNR Rao has audited India’s political commitment to science, gauged by the niggardly budgets available for research, there is a temptation to audit Prof Rao himself. The prospect is especially attractive since he apparently lashed out at the political gatekeepers of research funding immediately after he was awarded the Bharat Ratna. But temptation must be tempered by reason. Rao’s speech may have been uncharacteristically intemperate and the timing less than perfect, but he has spoken the truth. Besides, had he spoken out before the Bharat Ratna, it would not have had the same impact. Rao numbers among the minority of Indian scientists who invest their lives in their own country, resisting the lure of bigger research budgets, wider interests and a livelier intellectual environment in European and American campuses. While physicists are perceived as elite, Rao is a chemist—the other two Bharat Ratnas for science have gone to CV Raman and APJ Abdul Kalam, both physicists, though the latter worked in aerospace engineering. Rao is among the most widely published and cited scientists, has contributed significantly to materials science, especially in the potentially valuable area of high temperature superconducting, and heads the Prime Minister’s Scientific Advisory Council.
An audit of Rao could be restricted to a single question: what does it mean for India if, despite his proximity to political authority, he must still protest publicly that too little is being invested in science? And if the investment is focused on bang for buck science, is India constraining its own future? These are questions not only for government but also for private enterprise and partnerships between them. It is universally recognised that for science to deliver full commercial, political and social value, investment in it must be disinterested and open-ended, not focused on immediate deliverables. But the political masters of Indian science are yet to appreciate this delightful paradox.