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Roddam Narasimha – Leading Aerospace Scientist & Padma Bhushan Awardee – Part 1

18 March 2010 4 Comments

Dear Readers,

Today is a very special day for Coffee with Sundar as it completes 2 years.. And for this special occasion, we have 2 special interviews. The first is the interview with B S Chandrasekhar – Legendary Indian Leg Spinner and second, we have another legend in todays show – Roddam Narashima – India’s foremost Aerospace Scientist & Padma Bhushan Awardee!

Brief Introduction about Roddam Narashima is as follows:

(Source: Wikipedia)

Roddam Narasimha is one of India’s foremost Aerospace scientist and a world renowned Fluid Dynamicist. He is currently the chairman of the Engineering Mechanics Unit at the JNCASR, India. He was educated from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, and obtained his PhD degree at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), United States in 1961. He joined the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in 1962 and was associated with the department of aerospace engineering in various capacities from that date till 1999. He is the author of more than 200 research publications and fifteen books. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society, and a Foreign Associate of both the US National Academy of Engineering and the US National Academy of Sciences. In India his distinctions include the Bhatnagar Prize, the Gujarmal Modi Award and the Padma Bhushan, among many others.

I would also like to thank Prakhar Mehrotra for helping me organize this interview. Also special thanks to Mahesh, Santhosh & Nisha for helping me out with the questions.

Coffee With Roddam Narashima – Leading Aerospace Scientist & Padma Bhushan Awardee!

Question: Many people who are not associated with science and technology are not completely aware of the magnificent advancements being made in this field by Indians. Many Indians are not even aware of their fellow great scientists.. What is your view on this?

RN: Well I think that Indian Scientists in general including Indian Scientific institutions are still a little uneasy about publicizing whatever they do.. When I compare typical American Institutions.. they put out press releases & arrange meetings with media etc.. I am surprised that such things are totally absent in the Indian system.. If some faculty members take the initiative to go to the press his colleagues probably will dislike that..

Apart from all of that.. I think in India.. Scientific research is seen as one or two steps which is removed from the normal everyday life.. Implications of the some of the good research.. even if they do good work.. are often not seen.. I think that the basic reason for that.. even when good science is done in India, they have not seen the ultimate end product or service of that science in India.. in the market place.. in the place where it affects the lives of people.. That I think is one big gap today.. There is gap between what the scientists do in the lab & what common man can see.. can touch.. can buy.. can criticize or admire.. That gap we haven’t been able to close yet!

Question: Why isn’t it easy to close that gap?

RN: One thing I do know from working in India as well as in other institutions abroad.. in US & in Europe.. is that Indian Scientists, in terms of their abilities.. are second to none! Never the less, we must admit that the total output of Indian Science.. the impact that it has made on the world or even for the country is still relatively low. We are still a minor force in the world of science.. Even if you just count the papers published.. We only contribute something like 2.5% of the total number of impact making publications.. Of course, we actually spend a very small fraction of the total budget of the world..

So the paradox in India right now is.. By spending 0.5% of the total world’s spending.. we produce nearly 2.5% of the world scientific output.. Looking at it in another way.. we are 4 times more cost effective than the rest of the world! India still remains the world’s cost effective source of high quality.. by high quality i mean internationally accepted.. research in the world.. Even the chinese are more expensive than us.. US & Europe are ofcourse quite a bit more expensive than us! We are seeing MNCs setting up R&D centers in India.. Even though R&D there may not directly contribute to new ideas & products, they are definitely producing new systems & processes..

So.. It is a myth that India spends a lot of money for Science. India still spends less than 1% of its GNP.. US spends something like 2.5%.. South Korea spends 3% or more.. Chinese spend quite a bit more than us.. So I would say, for the kind of money India is spending, we are getting more per dollar than elsewhere in the world!

Question: With this being the case, why is it that India can’t produce more impact making science?

RN: I already mentioned one reason.. The gap between the lab & the market place is still large..

The other reason is also that India’s trade & businesses is not driven by completely export environment, unlike those in east asia.. East Asia’s model has been “Export Fast”.. even if you dont sell within the country! Indian Model has been different.. It is “Sell it first in India” and then think of export! In one of view, it is good! It has increased the living standards within the country! Indian industry is sensitive to Indian market place.. This also meant that.. Indian needs are quite often met by products & technologies imported from abroad rather than be devised by Indian firms.. So Indian market is skewed in some sense! It makes it easy for Indian industries to make money.. when they can take the products made elsewhere.. bring it to India.. make it probably cheaper.. that has been probably been the route for Industrial prosperity in India.. But things are changing… I am beginning to see instances of technologies made out of India.. often for the Indian market.. These are turning out to be interesting, not only for the Indian market but also elsewhere.

Question: You have played a key role in establishing a major parallel computing center in the country. Great advances in the area of engineering research today are been made by using high performance computing. US, Germany and China have been competing in this space. Could you tell something about this in the context!

RN: For example talking about super computers & innovative technologies in India, I do think that there are beginning to be instances of things being done out of India.. often for the Indian market, which also of interest abroad! India has been.. in a way.. making parallel super computers for quite a while now.. The first Indian parallel computer was made in 1986 at the aerospace lab… Now we have the 7th generation.. Now these parallel computers have made the country invulnerable. However none of them have been a commercial success.. it is more of meeting our needs rather than to sell.. But we are now seeing business propositions for these super computers.. They are now seeing a market for these in India..

The second example is the NANO.. So we are beginning to examples of products developed out of India.. Sooner or later, we are going to see more such innovations out of the country!

Question: You had completed your PhD in Caltech and what made you come back to India and be a part of the Indian academic community? I am deeply in awe and respect towards the work you have done and I think its a great act by you to stay in India and train students here… I am asking this because; many people tend to settle in the US after doing their graduate studies there.

RN: Well I came back to India because I always wanted to be back in India! I like working in India. It may come as a surprise to many people. I came back in 1962 and It wasn’t a big decision for me to take. Well why did I come back? I came from another generation when going back was not considered abnormal! It had nothing to do with opportunities in US being much more than the opportunities back home.. In fact even then, US had more opportunities.. But I had known from my previous experience that it was possible to do this research back in India! In fact, there were some advantages of doing it in India! If you really know what you want to do.. India is even today not a bad place to do research! Of course there are limitations! But large number of bodies exist which support research! There is a new initiative to set up the equivalent of National Science Foundation.. When this board is set up, it will give a considerable boost for doing exciting research in India! Institutions are now hiring people who want to come back to India & continue research. There are large number of fellowships & scholarships. The atmosphere for doing academic research in India is now changing rapidly.

Question: Management studies in India are so popular. They attract so many students & have an immense hype attached to it, whereas research does not receive such a treatment. What do you think is the reason for this?

RN: Well I think it goes back to what I said already! After the economic reforms of 1991, business & industries have expanded in India. Our GNP has gone up. It is growing at 7 – 8% for several years now. Industry has found out that it is now possible to prosper in India. Of course they complain about a variety of things still like labor laws etc.. But nevertheless, record shows that India is a good place for business. It is actually quite remarkable because it was not too long ago that people used to talk about the Hindu rate of growth (never grow faster than 3%). But thanks to some good policies things have changed. I actually believe that be in business or science, India is limited by its policies and not by its abilities. India has people who can do it! With the growth of business environment, management studies are becoming popular!

Readers, stay tuned for the part 2 of this interview!




  • Vatsala said:

    So this means we need to create a pool of talent that will interface between the end user perspective and the pure research oriented perspective. Good point highlighted….

    Right now, in the wake of the recession last year, there is a huge “entrepreneurial” wave in India.. May be some of these guys should turn their focus to what Mr Roddam Narasimha has highlighted here…

    has anyone from the CWS junta got a brainwave yet?

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