A look at the Vaibhav science summit
The recently concluded "Vaishwik Bharatiya Vaigyanik" (VAIBHAV) summit brought together Indian scientists, researchers and academicians from within the country and abroad under the aegis of the Government of India.
It was a science summit with a purpose, and it took its job seriously. For it was not a mere congregation of scientists and technologists who lectured or presented papers, and dispersed. This summit had the backing of the Government of India at the highest level, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi taking a sustained interest in it. Titled "Vaishwik Bharatiya Vaigyanik" (VAIBHAV), it brought together Indian scientists, researchers and academicians from within the country and abroad to forge a system of collaboration in a wide spectrum of 18 science and technology disciplines to benefit India. About 80 subjects came under these disciplines.
The summit was a virtual one with video links and held entirely online across different time-zones from October 2 to October 31, 2020. The recommendations that emerged from these discussions are being compiled to be submitted to the Government of India and the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) for follow-up action. An advisory council comprising Dr V.K. Saraswat, Member, NITI Aayog and Professor K. Vijay Raghavan, Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, and Secretaries of various Science & Technology Departments are studying these recommendations to prepare a roadmap for future collaborations in niche areas of science and technology.
The 18 areas, where collaborations will be forged, include cutting-edge technologies, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, health and areas of social concern. These disciplines and subjects were chosen by what were called champion institutes in India, whose scientists and researchers are accomplished in these areas. Some of the disciplines are artificial intelligence and machine learning, quantum technology, electronics and semiconductor technology, computational sciences, data science, photonics, materials and processing, advanced manufacturing technologies, energy, aerospace technology and communication technology. The remaining disciplines are earth sciences, health, medical sciences and biomedical devices, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, agro-economy and food security, environmental science, social sciences and management science.
A statement from the Union Ministry of Science and Technology on November 1, 2020, at the end of VAIBHAV, said, "Certain areas of collaboration emerged, which were not stressed in the past, [are areas] such as bioremediation, urban ore recycling and metal organics. Experts debated on the future electricity grids, interactive but islandable microgrids and related technologies [that are] key to electrification in India and maintaining resilience. At one time-zone in cyberspace, a session was discussing the importance of assembly packaging various functionalities over a single chip while at another time-zone, technical ideas with regard to trapped ions and atomic clock were being proposed. To name just a few, wafer-level packaging, 3D integration for MEMS, heterogeneous integration of 2D materials on silicon platform... hot turbine blade cooling technology, membrane separation for purification of elements... are some of the areas of collaboration identified." (MEMS stands for micro-electromechanical systems).
The statement added: "It was a grand initiative in the area of science and research not just for academic institutes but for public-funded R & D organisations and industry that use the outcome of research... In terms of participation, coverage of areas, the intensity of discussions, number of hours spent on the discussions, the number of countries, and the quality of participants, the summit created a benchmark for itself."
In fact, VAIBHAV was a mammoth summit that saw about 2,600 overseas Indians registering for it. The deliberations were in the form of 230 panel discussion sessions. There were 722 hours of formal deliberations. Among the panellists, 45 per cent were overseas Indians and the remaining 55 per cent were scientists living in India. About 22,500 scientists, technologists, researchers and academicians from India and abroad took part in the month-long series of webinars.
As a woman scientist from New Delhi, who played an important role in organising VAIBHAV, said, "It was by far the largest science and research summit held in India. It was conceptualised in August 2020. Many brainstorming sessions were held with scientists and researchers in India and their Indian counterparts working abroad. The planning was completed in September. Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the summit on October 2, the Gandhi Jayanthi day. The Indian scientists from abroad, who took part in the summit, are in influential positions in science and technology there. They are known for their original research."
It was the champion institutes which chose the 18 disciplines and the 80 subjects to lay a roadmap for what India should do in the coming years with the Indian collaborators working abroad. For instance, the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) at Guwahati and Roorkee chose data sciences, an area in which they specialise. The IITs at Kharagpur and Hyderabad and C-DOT (the Centre for the Development of Telematics) selected computational sciences. The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai and IIT, Delhi, has done good work in quantum research. There are several Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs) in the country. Their forte is in pure sciences. The IISERs offer M.Sc. courses, and PhD and post-doctoral programmes in different pure sciences Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, chose social sciences in which it is accomplished. The Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), of course, selected management sciences. "We were keen on panel discussions on social sciences because everything ultimately boils down to societal benefit," the scientist said. The laboratories, coming under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), have their own niche areas.
Other champion institutes included the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, C.V. Raman Research Institute and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), all situated in Bengaluru; the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT), Chennai; the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) at Trombay, Mumbai; the Benaras Hindu University; the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur; and Jaypee Institute of Information Technology (JIIT), Noida.
There were more champion institutes: the National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI), Hyderabad, the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi, the National Institutes of Technology (NITs), the Central Drug Research Institute (CDRI), Lucknow, the Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad, the IITs, the TIFR and the IIMs.
Thus, detailed discussions were held on the state-of-the-art technologies in various areas, whether those areas are being researched in India or abroad, and what needs to be done in India. It emerged that research in India in areas such as artificial intelligence, quantum sciences, earth sciences, advanced manufacturing technologies, processing technologies and earth sciences should be strengthened.
It was also decided that certain rules that hobbled the existing schemes for collaboration with Indian academicians settled abroad, and for enabling the academicians and researchers in India to go abroad on lien should be relaxed. These programmes encouraged overseas scientists and academicians to teach in institutes of higher learning in India as part of the Centre's "Brain Gain" strategy to boost academic calibre in India. These schemes included the Global Initiative of Academic Networks (GIAN) in Higher Education. GIAN, launched in 2015 under the Union Ministry of Human Resources, provides for the participation of faculty from abroad as Visiting/Distinguished/Adjunct Professors in institutions of higher education in India. The website GIAN@JNU says that GIAN aims at tapping into the international pool of scientists and entrepreneurs to encourage their engagement with the institutes of higher education in India, to augment India's academic resources and elevate India's scientific and technological capability to global standards. "JNU is offering a number of courses across disciplines as part of this initiative," the website says.
There is another scheme called Visiting Advanced Joint Research (VAJRA) under the Department of Science and Technology (DST). It enables overseas faculty, including non-resident Indians and persons of Indian origin, to contribute to research and development in India.
A third programme is a Scheme for the Promotion of Academic and Research Collaboration (SPARC) under the Union Ministry of Human Resources Development. It aimed at improving the research ecosystem in India by promoting research collaboration between institutes of higher education in India and 28 select institutions in other countries to solve problems of national and international relevance.
One of the prime movers of VAIBHAV said, "These schemes do not have much of flexibility. We can only take consultancy from abroad. Under these schemes, our teachers cannot go abroad."
The VAIBHAV website also noted the lacunae in these and other schemers. It said the limitation in these schemes was in terms of the knowledge domain because they are short to mid-term duration programmes, "with no emphasis on project goals, which limited future research endeavours." The website added, "Also the funding in these schemes is limited to individuals and not for the projects and is not linked to research-related goals."
One of the organisers of VAIBHAV said, "Our teachers cannot go abroad under these schemes. So we want to strengthen our teachers' and students' visits abroad and invite academicians from abroad here and promote joint research. To do this, joint funding has to be worked out. Data-sharing mechanism and intellectual property rights have to be worked out. These are among the recommendations on which we have to work to frame our policies."
Some problems relating to technical areas in the National Missions on Artificial Intelligence and the National Mission on Quantum Technology were highlighted in the panel discussions. The organiser said, "These National Missions are at the [policy] framework level. A number of technical sessions were held on these two National Missions. A lot of discussions took place on aerospace, advanced manufacturing technologies, and materials. These three are our immediate requirements. Other areas were also defined for immediate requirement. Quantum science and photonics are the future areas of requirement."
VAIBHAV got off to a no-nonsense start soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the summit on October 2. In his speech, the Prime Minister said that the Centre was fully committed to ensuring that more youngsters took to science in order to harness science for realising the dream of Aatmanirbhar Bharat [a self-reliant India]. The Government of India had taken many initiatives to boost science, research and innovation, he said. Four new vaccines were introduced in 2014 as part of the country's vaccination programmes. These included the indigenously developed rotavirus vaccine. PM Modi added, "We encourage indigenous vaccine production. Recently, we gave market authorisation for an indigenously developed neuro oral vaccine... Our vaccine developers are active and globally competitive during this pandemic. We understand that time is of the essence. We have launched an ambitious mission to eradicate TB (tuberculosis) in India by 2025."
PM Modi said that the Centre had launched major missions to galvanise super-computing and cyber systems. Funding had been stepped up for research and applications in artificial intelligence, robotics, sensors and data analytics. Start-ups were being encouraged. "We want top-class scientific research to help our farmers. Our agriculture research scientists have worked hard to ramp up production of pulses," he said. India today imported only a small fraction of its requirement of pulses. Recently, India had introduced pioneering reforms in the space sector, which provided opportunities to both the industry and the academia, the Prime Minister noted.
Soon after PM Modi finished his speech, a group of 16 academicians and scientists of Indian origin, working abroad, presented their views to him on how to make India an international centre of science and research.
At the end of the month-long VAIBHAV, the advisory council comprising Dr Saraswat and Professor Vijay Raghavan and the Secretaries of various federal Departments that deal with science and technology are studying the recommendations that emerged from the panel discussions. The Departments include those of Science and Technology, Space, Atomic Energy, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the Department of Biotechnology, Health, Pharma, the Indian Council of Medical Research, the Ministry of External Affairs, CSIR and so on. These recommendations will be forwarded to the Prime Minister's office for follow-up action.