Interviews

Social Science should be an integral part of Scientific Innovations

New Delhi, May 16 (G’nY News Service): G’nY Editor in conversation with Dr. Nafeez Meah, the dynamic and dapper director of Research Councils UK about the prospects of the UK-India collaboration on scientific research and innovation. He is heading RCUK for over two years now.

Nafeez Meah

Dr. Nafeez Meah, Director, Research Councils UK.

What has been the mandate of RCUK behind funding research for countries like India?

We have been here a long time now, from 2008 to be precise. The reason why the Research Councils UK India office was established was to get people in the ground to help develop a sustainable and strategic partnership for research innovation. To put it simply, we are here to do research that has a positive impact on society and results in innovation and prosperity. Research innovation is an extremely important component for a prosperous modern society.

What have been the areas of synergy as of now and what are the
ministries/departments that are working closely with you?

There are a plethora of thematic areas we are working on; water and climate, sustainable cities, chronic diseases, sustainable crop production, etc. One of the big programmes that we have now is on energy. We are focussing on areas like nuclear energy and engineering, renewable energy technology and materials science.

Then, there is this very big programme on nuclear research. India has ambitious plans to increase its nuclear power capacity. We are working with the Department of Atomic Energy and a lot of emphasis has been laid on details like, disposal, storage, design of nuclear reactors, safety systems, and other precautionary measures. India’s nuclear capacity is about to witness a substantial increase by 2020. At present we are working with Department of Science and Technology (DST), Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), to name a few.

What are the major bottlenecks or shortcommings that you face as far as the research projects in India are concerned?

There could be a little more work in India in integrating scientific research with social sciences. I think social sciences play a very important role, although it tends to be often overlooked. When you think about the big challenges, be it water, be it energy, there are important engineering and scientific dimensions, but you have to account for the social side too. You cannot just develop new engineering solutions without understanding how social change happens or how the governments function. Those aspects need integration.

Not only subjects, do you think that there is enough integration within the scientific communities?

Ah, well, there could be more. Interdisciplinary works in the UK have come along well in the last few years but it was hard work. When I started my career with the UK government 20 years ago, it was pretty difficult to get people from different disciplines to work together. Now it is a lot easier, but it did take a lot of effort and lot of push to get to today’s position. I find that India is a tad bit behind in this interdisciplinary scenario. What is good at the moment is the recognition that these challenges have to be a part of our definition about interdisciplinary study within the scientific realm.

Is there a direction to scientific research in India? What is your perception?

We asked similar questions some two years ago. In a high-level policy dialogue, the UK-India Science and Innovation Policy Dialogue, in November 2013 a mandate was sought about the achievements by 2030. The UK Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Mark Walport and the then Secretary of India’s Department for Science and Technology Dr. T. Ramasami, co-chaired the dialogue. The UK-India research partnership has achieved a lot over the past 5 years, (since 2008) and the next level of this collaboration calls for demonstrating greater impact.

The Dialogue also witnessed the setting up of the UK-India Task Force, to identify potential ‘Grand Challenges’. In two meetings since 2014 the Task Force identified three grand challenge areas – sustainable cities and rejuvenation, public health and well-being and energy-water-food nexus. India’s has taken off in its smart city agenda and under the Atal mission is planning for rejuvenation of 500 cities.

RCUK has been recently strengthened with a Newton Fund of 375 million GBP over 5 years for new initiatives intended to strengthen research and innovation partnerships between the UK and nations. In November 2014, UK-India research and innovation relationship was taken to a greater level with the announcement of a significant new initiative called Newton-Bhabha Programme with 50 million GBP over 5 years from the UK and matched efforts from India.

During your tenure as Director, what do you think was the most fulfilling finding?

There are so many to pick from. But the foremost that comes to my mind is about recognising the cultural heritage of India’s cities. We had a recent workshop to bring together the UK and the Indian experts. There is a lot of emphasis on smart cities and the image that comes to the mind is glass buildings and large structures. But, cities often have, especially in India, a lot of cultural heritage which needs to be integrated to achieve sustainability. Another area that is pertinent is related to water resources. As you all know, currently 85 per cent of all the fresh water in India is used in agriculture.

There are a number of thermal power plants that are envisaged to come up in the next 20 years. Thus, the proportion of water that is being used for agriculture has to come down. We have a new programme on sustainable water resources and I think it’s pretty important and we are being helped by top institutions from both India and the UK to develop sound solutions.

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