Dr Ajay Kumar Sood will have to complete a task his predecessor started: Getting the government to sign off on a new Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy on which work was begun in 2020.

“What does he do in his spare time? I don’t think he has any spare time!” exclaimed Dr Shankar Ghosh about Dr Ajay Kumar Sood, 71, who has just been appointed principal scientific advisor to the prime minister, which makes him the go-to man for the government on all matters relating to science policy.

Dr Ghosh teaches at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Dr Sood was his PhD supervisor.

Guru and shishya hold, among others, a joint US patent that is a ‘method for measurements of gas flow velocity, method for energy conversion using gas flow over solid material, and device thereof’.

And no, that can’t be simplified.

But what it does tell us is the quality of catholicity in the new PSA.

Dr Ghosh says this is essential for a scientist who is tasked with rolling out public policy.

“Scientists have a tendency to stick to silos: ‘I know my stuff and I’m a super specialist in my field’. He’s a person who has actually crossed disciplines, and has a broad and deep understanding of many fields.”

DR Sood started his career with Raman spectroscopy, where he made seminal contributions in the field of semiconductors. But simultaneously he was working on colloids, which is a very different field of enquiry.

Then he went on to do theoretical work, crisscrossing bio-physics, statistical mechanics, material science problems…

“You will not find many people with such a breadth of knowledge and understanding of various fields, which is very important for a person who is dealing with the policy field,” Dr Ghosh says.

This is true of most PSAs: Dr Sood’s predecessor, Dr K VijayRaghavan, a biologist, for instance, helped the government navigate the pandemic, leading task forces on vaccine and drug development as well as pandemic management, and for that he was retained as PSA, though his term ended in 2021.

It is the nature of the beast: The PSA’s office coordinates with many ministries and advises the government in science and technology policies and interventions that are of strategic socio-economic importance. It also advises institutions, academia and industry.

In his new job, Dr Sood will have to complete a task his predecessor started: Getting the government to sign off on a new Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy (STIP) on which work was begun in 2020.

The draft is in the public domain. Dr Vijay Raghavan absorbed the core political priorities of the government and one of the aims of the new policy is ‘for India to march ahead on a sustainable development pathway to include economic development, social inclusion and environmental sustainability for achieving an Atmanirbhar Bharat’.

The policy notes that emergence of disruptive and impactful technologies poses new challenges and simultaneously greater opportunities.

What also happened during this period is the creation for the first time ever of the National Research Foundation with an outlay of Rs 50,000 crore (Rs 500 billion) in Union Budget 2021-2022 to be spent over five years.

So research and development now has teeth — actually, lots of them. And it is the PSA’s task to set a direction for the fund.

At 0.6 per cent of GDP (2018), India’s gross domestic expenditure on R&D (GERD) is minuscule, compared to other major economies that have a GERD-to-GDP ratio of 1.5 to 3 per cent.

This could be because in India, private sector investment in R&D is less than 40 per cent — in technologically advanced countries, the private sector contributes close to 70 per cent of GERD.

STIP has made some major recommendations in this regard. Dr Sood’s job will be to help integrate all of this.

DR Ghosh says his teacher works incredibly hard, but is also incredibly patient.

“He is not at all authoritarian, and if you make a thoughtful point that contradicts him, he will not hold that against you,” he says.

That probably comes from his learning and the honours he has earned: He was selected twice for the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre’s training programme as a young MSc Physics student in Panjab University, Chandigarh in 1972, and rose to become a distinguished professor in the prestigious Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru.

He joined IISc in 1988 soon after completing his post-doctorate from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 2013.

In various interviews after his appointment, DR Sood has said he wants India to be the best in the world.

The country has to traverse some distance to achieve that: Not a single Indian university is ranked among the world’s top 300 universities in the Times Higher Education index and only two appear in the top 400.

The overall number of trained scientific researchers is small in both absolute and relative terms (15 per 100,000 in India versus 111 per 100,000 in China and 825 per 100,000 in Israel).

But Dr Sood hopes to lead the way to the stars — and be democratic in charting the course.

Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com

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