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This science flagship started India’s industrial revolution

Aug 06, 2022

The Indian Institute of Science gave rise to many industries, some of which are still around today. Its scientists were instrumental in setting up and leading many of independent India’s PSUs. It also counts among world-leading institutions of scientific research

In 1893, a monk and an industrialist – Swami Vivekananda and Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata – met on the steamship ‘Empress of India’ en route from Japan to Chicago. Their conversation sowed the seeds of Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Tata’s mind. “I very much recall at this moment your views on the growth of the ascetic spirit in India, and the duty, not of destroying, but of diverting it into useful channels. I recall these ideas in connection with my scheme of a Research Institute of Science for India, of which you have doubtless heard or read,” Tata wrote to Vivekananda on November 23, 1898. By then, he had constituted a Provisional Committee under the leadership of Burjorji Padshah, who would go on to become a central character in the setting up of IISc.

Padshah, who had visited many countries to understand how universities function, wrote after his tour: “...such a university might be the crown of the existing universities.” He noted that the presence of a large number of young Indians at Oxford, Cambridge and other colleges and hospitals in London and Edinburgh demonstrated the demand for postgraduate education, mostly because “European degrees have a money value superior to that of Indian degrees; but the difference in the money value is itself the result of the differences in educational efficiency.”

The committee, on December 31, 1898, presented a draft to viceroy-designate Lord Curzon. Services of Sir William Ramsay, a Nobel laureate, were sought to pick the institute’s setting. Bengaluru – where it still stands on a campus of 400-plus acres – was chosen because of the city’s good climate. Next, Sri Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV, the maharaja of Mysore, donated more than 371 acres. Viceroy Lord Minto granted a formal approval for the institute, and the vesting order to enable it to function was signed on May 27, 1909.

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Driver of industrialisation

At IISc’s foundation ceremony in 1909, Wodeyar IV said, “The institute should make some provision for students, who, though they possess no capital, are likely to turn a scientific training into a useful account.” The first batch was admitted on July 24, 1911, in the departments of general and applied chemistry headed by Norman Rudolf, and electro-technology under Alfred Ray.

From the start, IISc’s focus has been on research and the institute has featured in national and international rankings over the years. In 1913, Sir M Visvesvaraya, the dewan of Mysore, was nominated to its Council. He urged researchers to carry out studies that would realise his dream of an industrialised Mysore. “His association had an immediate impact on the nature of research,” IISc says. “In five years, six factories were started as a direct result of the investigations carried out here: an acetone factory in Nashik; a thymol factory in Hyderabad (Sind); a factory to make straw boards from bamboo in Bengaluru, a soap factory in Bengaluru, and sandalwood oil factories in Bengaluru and Mysore.” The success of the sandalwood oil and soap factories made sandalwood and its products synonymous with Karnataka.

Nursery of institutes

Prof P Balaram, IISc director from 2005 to 2014, told TOI: “In the 1940s, when World War-II ended, it was clear that you needed a lot of technology in India. And many engineering departments at IISc were started in the 40s and 50s. These came much before the IITs. In fact, people from here went on to create many other institutes and programmes.”

During WW-II, IISc contributed by training personnel, manufacturing military and industrial goods, and collaborating with Hindustan Aircraft Limited (now Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) to repair and maintain British and American warplanes. “This period saw an expansion of research in engineering, and new departments such as those of Aeronautical Engineering, Metallurgy, and Mechanical Engineering were added,” IISc says.

Between the 60s and the early 80s, under director Satish Dhawan, IISc’s research areas grew to include materials science, computer science and automation, molecular biophysics, and interdisciplinary work under the Centre for Theoretical Studies, which eventually led to the formation of other centres in ecology, atmospheric and oceanic sciences, and more.

The social impact of advancements in science was a key focus during this period, particularly under the Cell for Application of Science and Technology to Rural Areas (ASTRA), which continues today as the Centre for Sustainable Technologies.

Eminent minds

Dhawan is just one of the many big names associated with IISc. Its first director MW Travers was an associate of Sir William Ramsay. Three of its directors were knighted – Sir AG Bourne, Sir Martin O Foster and Sir CV Raman, who also won a Nobel.

IISc counts among its former students and faculty several eminent scientists like Homi J Bhabha, founder of India’s nuclear programme, Vikram Sarabhai, founder of India’s space programme, meteorologist Anna Mani, biochemist and nutrition expert Kamala Sohonie, and solid state and materials scientist CNR Rao, to name a few.

“One of the most important things to come out of IISc is the people. While the contributions of Bhabha, Sarabhai and Dhawan are well known, there are many more,” Balaram said, adding that IISc also played a key role in establishing other academic institutions, including the IITs and organisations like BARC and Isro.

“Immediately after Independence, GN Ramachandran started the physics department in Madras University, S Ramaseshan started the department in IIT-M. PK Khelkhar started IIT-Bombay as project officer and then IIT-Kanpur as first director, while JC Ghosh was the first director of IIT-Kharagpur,” he added.

Other prominent IISc-ians include Prof Roddam Narasimha, who conceived India’s Light Combat Aircraft, Tejas; Prof Rohini Godbole, a physicist with multiple international awards known for her work on the Higgs Boson (God Particle), for which physicists Francois Englert and Peter Higgs won the Nobel in 2013; CV Vishveshwara, whose predictions nearly 50 years ago were credited by scientists from LIGO after discovering gravitational waves for the first time, and VM Ghatge.

Balaram said all of India’s PSUs in the initial years of Independence, including HAL and NAL, had people from IISc, and many institutions – NCBS, JNCASR, ICTS, to name a few – were conceived here as their founders were trained at IISc.

21st-century research

Moving into the 21st century, IISc has set up an undergraduate programme, several new departments and centres in the areas of brain research, nanoscience and engineering, hypersonics and more, strengthened ties with industry, and incubated several startups. It has also expanded to include a 1500-acre campus at Challakere in Chitradurga district, Karnataka. It will soon start a medical course, something Padshah had conceived 123 years ago

In 2015, Bharat Ratna Prof CNR Rao, one of IISc’s directors (1984-1994) and a former scientific advisor to the PM, had told TOI: “IISc is the only one in India with the potential of matching the MITs and Harvards.”

Today, IISc has more than 40 departments/ labs offering PhD and integrated PhD programmes, several master’s programmes and a four-year BSc (research) programme. It has dozens of active patents and several tie-ups with industries taking its research into the market while more than 20,000 students have graduated from it over the years. It has become more conscious about translating research into products and has helped host a lot of companies. AstraZeneca, a pharma MNC, began its operations at IISc. “...Wipro’s first operation, too, was at IISc. Many of these things are not acknowledged,” Balaram said.

The institute, through SID (Society of Innovation and Development), incubates a host of startups in deep science, including those that have won the National Startup Awards.

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