13th August 2014 New Delhi, India

‘IISc is very keen on expanding its network’

This month, Professor Balaram stepped down as Director of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) after nearly a decade at the helm. He was also recently in the UK to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of York, recognising his enormous contributions to science. I caught up with him, just prior to his departure for the UK, to get his take on the Institute, his tenure and the state of Indian science today.

  • You have been Director for 9 years. What have been the big changes at IISc during your tenure? Which projects are you most proud of having overseen?

Over the last 9 years, there has been a great deal of developmental work and creation of new programs and laboratories. I am particularly happy that our major program to modernize our academic departments and laboratories and student residences has been completed. The departments Biological Sciences, Aerospace Engineering, Physics, Nanoscience and Engineering now have vastly improved facilities. New laboratories for Aerodynamics have also been constructed.

The Institute has new academic programs, with the creation of the Centre for Earth Sciences, Centre for Neuroscience and the Divecha Centre for Climate Change. An interdisciplinary Ph.D program in Bioengineering has also been established. A steady expansion of student and faculty strength has also happened over the last few years. The introduction of the 4-year Undergraduate Program is another major academic milestone.

Activities have also begun in the new campus of the Institute at Challakere, in Chitradurga District of Karnataka State, where I hope major research programs will be initiated in the years to come. The last few years have been largely devoted to reconstructing and restructuring of the century old institution.

Towards the end of my tenure, a major endowment has been received for the creation of a Centre for Brain Research, which will add a clinical dimension to our activities in the area of Neuroscience. The establishment of the Bosch Centre for Cyber Physical Systems is a major step forward in attempting to enhance the applicability of research carried out at the Institute.

  • Our job is all about promoting international collaboration. Can you tell us what IISc looks for in an international partner?

IISc is very keen on expanding its network of international collaboration. We are particularly interested in partnering with Universities and Institutions in pushing forward our research agenda. We would like to increase the number of international students and faculty who visit our campus for extended periods of time and establish collaborative research programs. I believe that international exchanges must be symmetric, with flow of faculty and students happening equally in both directions. This would, of course, mean that there must be a significant and sustained commitment of resources to support international programs.

  • Of course, IISc is India’s premier research institute so has excellent work going on across the board but, if you had to highlight a few areas where the Institute really excels, what would these be?

It is extremely difficult for the Head of a large institution to highlight specific research areas of faculty members who excel in their research. This is largely because personal ignorance often precludes informed judgment. Nevertheless, I might venture to say that research in the area of condensed matter physics, material science and structural chemistry is of the highest order. Research on infectious disease, molecular and cell biology and structural biology is another very strong area. Computer science, materials engineering and areas of information technology especially related to cyber security are activities of which the Institute can be justly proud.

We have amongst our faculty, leaders in the area of evolutionary biology and ecology, crystallography and nanoscience. There are signs that activities of a strongly interdisciplinary nature involving biologists and engineers in the area of medical devices and prosthetics may have a major impact in the near future. Research at the Institute covers a very vast spectrum of topics of science and engineering and it would be presumptuous for a relatively uninformed individual like myself to pass a definitive judgement.

  • Are there areas of research the Institute is particularly looking for international partners in at the moment?

While the Institute is interested in international partners across the spectrum of science and engineering disciplines, I think some areas of special interest come immediately to my mind. Nanofabrication and Nanoelectronics, Neuroscience, Earth Sciences, Energy and Water Research, Healthcare product design, Infectious Disease Research and High performance Computing are the areas that come to my mind.

  • What is the best way for a UK researcher to get in touch with prospective partners in IISc?

I believe that UK researchers could use multiple paths to get in touch with prospective partners in IISc. In my own personal opinion, direct contact with a member of the faculty may be an ideal way to start. Alternatively, Prof. G. Rangarajan, Chairman, of our International Relations Cell and his colleagues would be very happy to facilitate collaborative proposals. His contact details are given below.

Prof. G. Rangarajan, Chairman, International Relations Cell, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, Ph: 91-80-2293 2560 or email.

  • We discussed the many collaborations IISc already has with British institutions, such as Oxford’s work with IISc on biomedical engineering. What do you think the UK’s research community offers India as a partner?

I think UK’s research community offers a great deal to Indian institutions if appropriate collaborative networks can be set up. A long tradition of exceptionally high quality research in the best of UK Universities stands as a model for institutions worldwide. In the modern world, international collaboration is clearly the way to accelerate the progress of research and to ensure desirable outcomes.

  • Indian science has experienced a lot of growth, particularly in funding, over the last decade. What big projects are coming up at IISc that people should be looking out for?

The last few years have seen a steady growth in funding for science in India, although there is some concern now that the rate of growth has significantly reduced in the last two years. I foresee that the area of neuroscience and nanoscience are likely to grow very rapidly in the near future. Both the areas are currently receiving substantial grants from diverse sources.

Neuroscience has been able to attract specific funding from the Tata Trusts for Alzheimers disease research and the Pratiksha Trust has announced an endowment for creation of a separate Centre for Brain Research. These are among the largest commitments of resources from private trusts and foundations; clearly an indicator of changing times. The area of Nanoscience is poised for considerable growth attracting support from both international and government sources. This is an area where the Institute has also made considerable investments in creating a state-of-the-art laboratory.

The Undergraduate Program will reach equilibrium this year and we will have about 400-450 students on our campus. The undergraduate strength would still be less than 15% of the total student population on campus. Our character as a post-graduate and research institution will only be slightly impacted by the undergraduate program. However, we hope that these young students will be enthused to pursue careers in science as a result of their exposure to an advanced research ambience.

In the long run, I hope that the new campus would become the site for major research projects in the area of Water, Energy, Semi-Arid Ecology and facilitate the location of major research facilities which may attract funding in the future.

  • All of our readers will have already heard of IISc. Can you tell us something they perhaps won’t know about the Institute?

An interesting footnote in the early history of the Institute is the fact that the Founder, Jamsetji Tata  was particular that the models of Cambridge and Oxford should not be followed and that the principle of affiliated colleges must be avoided. The early universities in India set up in the mid 19th century at Madras, Calcutta and Bombay were modeled on British universities. In seeking a model for a research university, Jamsetji Tata and his aide Burjorji Padshah chose John Hopkins, which might be considered as America’s first research university as a model. The Institute has evolved over a century to acquire the characteristics of both a university and a research institution.

1 comment on “‘IISc is very keen on expanding its network’

  1. Interesting and inspiring conversation. The outgoing director deserves lot of appreciation for his untiring efferts to keep the Institute’s image very high.

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