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'Good science needs a solid foundation'

EHSAN MASOOD talks to C. N. R. RAo, incoming president of the Third World Academy of Sciences

When academics from the developing world meet colleagues who have emigrated to rich countries, the conversation, not surprisingly often turns to the subject of brain drain. The late Nobel laureate physicist Abdus Salam, for example, was among those who believe strongly that a base in a developed country can be a more effective route to improving science in the developed world.

But times have changed. C. N. R. Rao, the Indian chemist and incoming president of the Third World Academy of Sciences, is among many scientists attending the Budapest meeting who have built successful, high-quality research insitutions without leaving their countries of origin.

Rao says that his links with the leading institutions of Europe and the United States - where he studied and worked - are as strong as ever. But he says he would never have been able to develop the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore had he been based in Oxford, Cambridge or the University of California. "That is not to say I did not have the chance. I still do," he says. "And I would not be telling the truth if I said I have never been tempted to leave India."

Rao says he is proud of what he has achieved. He says his laboratories have some of the best equipment in the world. He says he is fortunate to be able to work with some of India's most promising scientists, and adds that he is particularly conscious of his role as a mentor and role model for the next generation of scientists.

While staying in India has taken its toll on his health, it has not affected his often blunt outspokenness about his country, in private and in public. Rao says his experiences in India have taught him an important lesson: that high quality science on its own does not make a country developed, and that advanced technology cannot be sustained on shaky foundations.

Development comes, he says, "when everyone has two meals a day, your electricity doesn't get cut off, when everyone has clean water to drink, and, more importantly, when people are capable of realizing for themselves the need for water purification." This, for Rao, is knowledge-based development. "It is not just about increasing your gross domestic product."

Bangalore is India's high-tech city. But the Nehru centre - like practically all of the city's institutions - generates its own electricity. "If I depended on the city's supply, we would get no research done."

One of Rao's biggest concerns about India is the emphasis on high technology, possibly at the expense of infrastructure development. Rao says he is particularly concerned about recent trends to direct more investment in elite centres of excellence - even the Internet - without first paying attention to what he calls "a crumbling system of education". Rao asks what use the Internet will be to the majority in any developing country when they have been deprived of a basic education, and information-seeking skills

Rao recalls an anecdote about the prime minister of one developing country, who, when told that his scientists had achieved success in an area of high technology, tried to telephone his congratulations. "Do you know what happened," says Rao. "The PM couldn't get a connection."

Having heard Rao for close to half an hour on the issuesthat he considers to be a priority, it is not difficult to predict the direction he intends to steer the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) when he takes over as president next year.

Rao says that in addition to its work among scientists, he wants TWAS members to spend more time thinking about whom science and education has failed to reach. Two areas he feels TWAS could make a difference are: illiteracy and the provision of clean drinking water.

Rao says he sees TWAS members focusing down on three or four achievable projects in each area in different countries. The idea, he says, is to demonstrate to ordinary people the relevance of science to their daily lives, and that science can help raise their standards of living.

Rao has plans, too, for scientists. He says he would like TWAS to raise its profile in those countries which do not have their own academies of science.

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