Scientist and filmmaker is a rare combination. A National Award and US Space Technology Hall of Fame, rarer. And, Dr Bedabrata Pain has both to his credit. With over 90 patents under his name, Dr Pain is one of the inventors of CMOS digital image sensor technology, which was the harbinger of digital camera revolution. Dr Pain, however, left his job at NASA and followed his heart to become a filmmaker. His directorial debut, Chittagong, won him a National Award. Dr Pain recently finished a feature-length documentary, Deja Vu, which is a unique take on the future of Indian farms as a result of market reforms. He is also working on a short film called Bunkar.
Ahead of National Science Day (February 28), taking time from his busy schedule, Dr Pain engages in a candid conversation about science and more.
Excerpts from an interview:
Do you think National Science Day is relevant for Indian Gen Z?
Why only Gen Z? I’m not sure how many others it holds any relevance for. In recent times, one has heard of all sorts of ludicrous and vainglorious claims – those that don’t even pass the laugh test - in the name of science, often emanating from those holding high offices. When a decidedly anti-scientific atmosphere prevails, what does a token science day achieve? One cannot drive far by pressing on the brake and the accelerator at the same time.
Dr Bedabrata Pain |
What can the Indian government do to promote the day?
India has one of the lowest total expenditures in research and development, hovering around 0.7% of GDP, the number steadily decreasing since 2010 or so. Not just that this number is low, but India’s private R&D spend is one of the lowest in the world – only about 35% in India, compared to over 80% in the US, China, Israel and others. How about the government assembling all the industry leaders and sending them a stern message to urgently reverse this trend? Just like a CSR, how about creating a CSTR as well? By ST, of course, I mean science and technology.
‘Global Science for Global Wellbeing’ is the theme for this year by the Indian government. Do you think these themes help initiate conversations about science or new inventions?
I’m no policy pundit. But this phrase sounds more like sloganeering under which anything goes, and less a thought-out or meaningful scientific programme. In fact, the theme is more spoken in the same breath with India’s G20 presidency, than with a concrete scientific agenda.
What according to you is science for global well-being?
Science, like its closely related cousin, technology is a vast enterprise, encompassing every aspect of human life. Science has always given birth to ideas, concepts, tools, methods to allow life to flourish, reduce burden of work, and be the bedrock of civilisation. But it is not science that determines whether the fruits of science are deployed to fulfil material and spiritual needs of people, and on an ever-increasing scale! That depends upon the economic and political organisation of the society itself. For instance, today maximisation of profit has come as the biggest stumbling block for making the benefits of science available to everybody.
A still from Chittagong |
The fiasco over Covid should be a wake-up call to everybody everywhere. It was a failure of the governments worldwide. Cutbacks in healthcare, inability to rein in pharma companies to reduce medicine and vaccine costs, fruitless posturing and recklessness by powers-that-be have have contributed only to ill-being, not well-being. Or take the question of warfare. Amidst poverty and declining living standards, an obnoxious of wealth is siphoned off every year worldwide to create weapons that destroys or threatens to destroy lives and civilisation. Instead of ratcheting up war-mongering, India and Indian scientists should lead the way for an end to warfare and armaments production. That would be a great contribution to global well-being.
Where does India stand compared to scientific achievements of other nations?
I don’t think I’d be the first one to point out rather a sorry state of Indian science and technology. Indians are supposedly experts in software, but not only did we never create any new operating system, the AI revolution has simply passed us by – right in front of our eyes. While India ranks fifth in GDP in the world, it is yet to have a single state-of-the-art semiconductor fab. Despite its recent successes in the space programme, India is still not recognised a force in this field.
Today, China leads the world in the annual number of scientific and technical articles, while India produces barely one-fourth of that number. Besides, the citation index for India is extremely low. This is hardly surprising considering that the number of researchers as a fraction of population is very low in India – one-fifth of that in China and 5% of that in US. Similarly patent filings in India remain abysmally low – some 15000 per year compared to some 1.5 million in China.
And, yet, the funny thing is that when it comes Unicorn start-ups in the US, majority of the immigrant-led ones are of Indian origin.
Where does India lack in the field of science?
What India needs is a complete rethink of its science and technology strategy. Far too often, one focusses only for the low-hanging fruit – something immediate. But it has been shown again and again, that the biggest bang for your buck comes, not from goal-oriented research, but from basic fundamental research. The transformative value that basic research generates is both unpredictable and unquantifiable, but is certain.
Did Einstein develop E=mc2, thinking that one day it would be used for creating atomic energy or atom bomb? Did Neils Bohr give birth to quantum physics thinking that it would create the world transforming semiconductor industry?
Our outlook to science returns must change. We have to have a vision for 40-50 years into the future.
What do you think needs to be done to make science a more appealable and less intimidating subject?
The most important thing would be to stop teaching science for exams! Which often means reducing science to few equations and then teaching an ability to manipulate those equations. But that’s not science.
Just recently, one of my school science teachers, Bijon Ganguly, passed away. The most important thing about him is that he created in us a curiosity about knowing new things and phenomena.
Indeed, that’s the first thing about science: curiosity – an effort and intention of finding out, of trying different things, of making mistakes. If this element is missed, the spirit of science is gone.
The second thing about science is to resist compliance and conformism, and to be critical of authority. Things are to be accepted only because they are based on evidence and logic – not because somebody has said so or is forcing it down our throats.
Conversely, a scientific attitude also means not being passive recipients of information, but a desire and an effort to seek out evidence, to subject to it a searching examination to make sure it is real, and to use logic to unearth apparent and hidden connections.
It is a myth that science is only carried out by scientists. Indeed, the biggest asset of science is not its accumulated knowledge, but the scientific method. Something we all need and use as we go about our lives – from a plumber to a doctor, from an artist to a professional scientist. And this scientific way of looking at things is of paramount importance today when when battling irrationality is the order of the day and when fake news, disinformation, and WhatsApp forwards threaten to take control of our lives.
Finally, science is not about seeing connection between things, but observing the unbreakable connection between human beings. Being scientific is therefore being humane and having the greatest empathy for one’s fellow human being.
Creating scientific temper is the most important thing. This is not something for schools and colleges but for the civil society itself. This approach will not only create a more rational and humane society but will lay the groundwork for a new generation of scientists to emerge.
Earlier you had mentioned that induction in NASA’s Hall of Fame excites you more than a National Award. But you have been more involved in activities other than science. So, has the filmmaker completely taken over the scientist in you?
I’m not sure if I have ever made any such statement or in this fashion. If I have, let me clarify unequivocally – both of them are equally precious to me. Even in the times all kinds of nepotism and money-power, a good work stands the test of times.
I try to resist pigeonholing. This, in fact, is a peculiar feature of the post-World War II American enterprise – the creation of the so-called one-dimensional man. On the contrary, one must cultivate and pursue multiple interests, especially in today’s world. It keeps one on his/her toes and gives one fresh perspectives and outlook. In fact, it’s great to resist the rut of falling in a pattern. Isn’t there a saying that most great inventions are made by really young people or newcomers from a different field?
So, my work and interest levels are diverse – not just technology and movies, but science, economics, philosophy, genetics, literature. After all, as the saying goes, one must learn as if there’s no end of life.
You have more than 90 patents to your credit. Are you working on any new inventions?
Yes, indeed. However, as an individual, it is not easy filing for a patent. The cost is often prohibitive.
What according to you is the most useful scientific invention of modern times? And why? The most useless one as well? Why?
Well, science makes discoveries, technology make inventions – so scientific invention may well be an oxymoron.
But going beyond semantics, I am not sure if there’s a single answer. What criteria do we use for such determination? Take concrete or cement for instance. Modern civilisation would be impossible without it. Or light bulb for instance. And the list goes on.
But gun to my head, if I have to put down something, say in the last 100 years or so is semiconductor. Without it, modern electronic civilisation is impossible. No internet, no AI, no camera, no phones would work without the semiconductor revolution. On second thoughts, that may not be a bad thing either. So, perhaps that qualifies it as the most useless one as well.
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