Indian science conquers new frontiers


New Delhi : Sixty years after independence, Indian science has taken giant strides in virtually every arena – from space vehicles to vaccines. Starting out 60 years ago as a poor country with a history of famines and underdevelopment, India today stands poised as the surprise powerhouse of cutting-edge science and technology.

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Science and technology (S and T) has been key to India’s development strategy right from the time of independence in 1947.

At the dawn of independence, India was keen to develop a strong indigenous science and technology base to promote research and development and enable technological self-reliance. The result was a chain of national laboratories that first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru called “temples of science” and departments for space, atomic energy and electronics.

Indian capability in the strategic sectors showed good progress and consolidation through the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Today, having built and operated a string of nuclear power reactors based on home-grown technology, India is one of the few countries to have mastered the entire nuclear fuel cycle, from mining to reprocessing spent fuel to waste disposal.

It is one of only four countries – the others are Russia, France and Japan – to have the technological capability in fast breeder reactors, which enable more efficient usage of mined uranium. In a couple of decades, it will enter the high growth path in nuclear energy by using thorium in advanced reactors.

Similarly, India has acquired the capability to build satellites for communication, meteorology and remote sensing and launching them into polar or geostationary orbits using a family of launch vehicles.

Launch vehicle development means capability in solid and liquid fuel engines, the latter including the complex technology of high-performance cryogenic engines. Sustained success in the launches has enabled India to enter the global launch market at highly competitive rates.

With renewed international interest in the moon, India, with its all-round capability in space technology, is also embarking on a mission called Chandrayaan-1 to orbit the moon in 2008-09. Five other countries are also participating with their instruments in it.

In addition, a major scientific satellite, called Astrosat, which will look for X-ray sources in the sky across many x-ray wavelengths, is being readied for launch in 2008. There is international participation in this as well.

While an indirect offshoot of the space programme has been the successful development of the intermediate and long-range ballistic missiles, the high points of technology development in defence have been the design, fabrication and production of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) for the air force and navy and the Main Battle Tank (MBT), called Arjun, for the army.

The single-seat single-engine LCA is the smallest lightweight multi-combat aircraft in the world. And the development cost of the Arjun ($75.5 million) was just a tenth of that of M1 Abrams of the US. Today, MBT has established a technology base to design and build more advanced armoured vehicles.

Defence research and development (R and D) has also been driving some of the recent development efforts in the country in the high-end technology of new smart materials and related structures/devices and their applications. Having missed the silicon chip revolution, public-funded laboratories and academic institutions involved in microelectronic devices turned their equipment and facilities to MEMS or Micro-Electro Mechanical System devices.

A national programme launched over six years ago has today yielded a host of MEMS devices such as silicon-based pressure sensors, electronic chemical sensors, piezoelectric actuators, biochips and microsystems for molecular amplification in biology.

There have been other developments in nano science – a branch of science that deals with materials of sizes that are thousand times thinner than human hair. Scientists at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, in 2003 showed that flow of fluids through carbon nanotubes generates electric current. That is, these nanotubes act as ‘flow sensors’.

This has immediate and interesting application possibilities. You can imagine a coronary pacemaker without battery and powered by the body’s own blood or a tiny implant that controls the blood flow of a heart-lung machine or as nanosensors in chemical and biological reactors where fluid flows have to be precisely controlled.

More significant is the application of nanotechnology in the medical field — in targeted drug delivery, for instance.

Diagnostic tools for HIV, hepatitis and some cancers have also been developed and commercialised. While one could argue that some of these are not new products, a few of the first-ever kind are also in the pipeline, such as a live recombinant cholera vaccine, a rotavirus vaccine, a rabies DNA vaccine and a malaria vaccine.

In agricultural biotechnology, while Monsanto’s technology of Bt cotton was implanted in the country with varied success, genetically engineered potato and tomato are under development.

On the basic biology front, India’s participation in the global rice genome project is a significant milestone. India’s capability has led to the country’s participation in the unravelling the genome of the silk worm.

In contrast to the gene-by-gene approach of traditional biology, genomics has ushered a systems biology approach where the roles of groups of genes or gene sequences are analysed in any disease process or metabolic pathway and in corresponding drug development.

Associated with genomics are technologies such as DNA microarrays and bioinformatics, which bring in bioechnology’s interface with information technology, an area where India has emerged as a leader over the years.

In contrast to traditional technologies of the 20th century, these emerging technologies are knowledge- and innovation-driven and do not require great investments. This has had a positive impact on the Indian economy with many enterprises run by researchers-turned entrepreneurs bringing a new image and life to the Indian high-tech industry.