Human psychology always likes to know the unknown and this endeavour has catapulted the human enlightenment. The urge to discover have propelled the human race to travel enormously in space and time (pun intended), from the early years of civilization to the current age of space travel. The quest for knowledge has led us to unravel the mysteries of wide-ranging issues, be it cosmic inflation or quantum computation or genetic mutation. All these achievements are mere fructification of intense research. However, the necessity in research and innovation have not diminished over time, rather it has got intensified.
In the 21st century, the quality and quantity of research are one of the key indicators of development. Recent UNESCO data shows that Israel sits at the top of the pile for the two most important indicators: highest research and development (R&D) expenditure as a percentage of GDP (about 4.5%) and researcher per million inhabitants (~8500). Therefore, it is of no surprise that the country is thriving in spite of being located in a politically and environmentally hostile region. The emerging economic powerhouse, China, is investing heavily in research by spending about 2.2% of its GDP. Only a robust research atmosphere can guarantee a sustainable development as well as political significance which is evident from the 20th-century history of Western Europe and the United States of America.
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However, in the national context, the R&D expenditure is stagnant at about 0.7-0.8% for the last 20 years. In spite of being the country with the second largest population in the world, the scientific workforce is only about 500 researchers per million inhabitants! In a different perspective, we are even lagging significantly behind the eastern European nations and are only comparable to South Africa in the context of BRICS. Therefore, at the juncture of celebrating 75 years of India’s independence from the colonial rule, it is time to pull up our socks and indulge in research, if we really want to come out of the colonial shadow and aspire to be a global player in economics and politics. To initiate this process, in the recent years we have seen rolling out of several government schemes such as “Startup India”, “Digital India”, “Make in India”, “Skill India”. These initiatives are expected to encourage government institutions as well as the private sector to indulge in research and innovation.
The trends highlight that there is never a dearth of reward, challenge and excitement in being a research professional. A prominent example is the success story of ISRO, a government institution with a shoestring budget doing wonders in space research and emerging as a globally recognized and respected brand. Two big initiatives in fundamental science known as IndiGO (Indian Initiative in Gravitational-wave Observatory) and INO (India-based Neutrino Observatory) are in the pipeline. Not to mention the contributions of several CSIR labs and institutions like DRDO and BARC. Nevertheless, there is plenty of room to grow in research and one main contributor to the growth is the skilled workforce with adequate scientific temper. It must be noted that for this purpose the handful of IITs, NITs and IISERs are not sufficient and that prompted several private companies to invest heavily in scientific and technical education to bring home and nurture highest quality research and teaching ecosystem.
Albeit these efforts, there exists a gap between industry and academia. To be more precise, our curriculum still lags the vision for the endpoint linkup with real-life problems. One solution for this specific problem is to innovate in the curriculum in such a way that the scientific rigour shakes hand with technical advancements. It is well known that today’s scientific discovery is tomorrow’s engineering marvel. For this purpose, in the early 1980’s IIT-Bombay started an innovative course called Engineering Physics which was later taken up by some other prominent IITs. The foundation of the discipline was laid post world war II in the United States and subsequently in Europe and Canada. These came from the necessity of providing an engineering education with a strong foundation in physics and mathematics, as well as strong engineering capability. It is interesting to note that at the same time the transistor was discovered which actually paved the way for computer revolution. This allows one to realize how scientific discovery can lead to unveiling new industries. It is not the sole example in the pantheon of scientific discoveries rather a tip of the iceberg.
From the days of inception of Engineering Physics in India, the graduates from the program cater to an elite set of recruiters who look forward to an employee with a high level of mathematical abilities, logical thinking and good cognitive skills. Even then, many of the graduates prefer to join various institutions conducting R&D in India and abroad to experience the pure joy of shaping the future. The unique blending of Physics and Engineering allows the disciples to conquer many emerging new frontiers in science, engineering and technology.