Published: 29th November 2022
Repurposed, reoriented, redirected research to address COVID-related issues: Dr Kalaiselvi, CSIR's DG
From the ‘Golden Revolution’ to the path-breaking Steel Slag Road technology, CSIR has a lot going on. Here are some insights from the new Director General at the helm
From an entry-level scientist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to its first women Director General, Dr N Kalaiselvi has seen it all at the organisation. Now, at the helm for two years, she highlights some major trendsetting technologies that the CSIR is currently dabbling in, in an exclusive conversation with EdexLive. Excerpts from the interview:
1. PM Modi has asked CSIR to develop 'Vision 2042'. Can you fill us in on any plans in the making?
Former DG Dr Shekhar C Mande already initiated an exercise called Vision 2030. It was a lab-centric vision document for 2030. That was a great exercise that was done initially at the lab level, as a result of which 37 labs were set up. CSIR works under eight teams referred to as Team Directorates. We have also consolidated all eight teams' vision documents and, through this, CSIR has come up with a consolidated CSIR Vision 2030 document in line with the national vision, that is India Vision 2047. So we will start implementing all those activities one by one, starting from FY 2023.
2. How do you view the scale of government funding in research? Is enough being done by India to support its researchers?
The government's support is surplus. Whichever way the government can support us, it is supporting us. But as researchers, we also stretch our wings further and we try to get industry support whenever we address industry-specific issues. We are handholding other ministries and, therefore, we get funds from other ministries too. Apart from that, to address certain societal issues, we get the help of relevant organisations. So without solely depending on government funding, we try our best to manage, depending on the problem area in which we are focusing our attention.
3. Every fresh generation of researchers has contemporary issues to figure out and produce solutions/explanations for. How does CSIR help these researchers get accustomed to these contemporary issues?
When the government came up with the Production Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme, it was a national-level encouragement. This is how we funded that particular project and it has taken shape. Similarly, now the government is talking about hydrogen missions, especially the green hydrogen mission. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) will soon announce the Green Hydrogen Mission, but CSIR has already been working in the direction of a green hydrogen mission. This is another CSIR-funded project. CSIR is definitely making the government's special announcements on different technologies the most prioritised area of research, even in terms of funding.
4. You were the Director of the CSIR-Central Electro Chemical Research Institute (CSIR-CECRI) in Karaikudi before becoming DG. How did the research fraternity fare during the pandemic, as per your experience?
I don't think that research suffered a lot due to the pandemic. This is unlike academia or within classroom education, where the physical presence of a teacher and student is important. We, the research labs, did not take any institutional closure or lab closure even during COVID — most of the CSIR labs were functioning. We repurposed, reoriented and redirected many of our research activities in such a way that we are able to address COVID-related issues in one form or the other.
Even the engineering labs, to the surprise of the other CSIR fraternity, started preparing dispensers and different types of PPEs. This is how the research was continuing even during the pandemic. Our PhD scholars perhaps did not attend labs with 100% strength, but they were all on campus and were attending labs alternatively. So COVID did not really affect the research ecosystem significantly. Research is one very beautiful area that can be resumed at any point of time after a break and, therefore, this was a very small impediment. We supported them by giving certain projects extended timelines for their completion.
5. What are some of the roadblocks in allowing students from viewing academia and research as viable career options and what does CSIR plan on doing in the near future to address those concerns?
We are already doing it. For example, once, our Prime Minister asked us a very valid question, “As scientists, to what extent will you stay connected with the student community of this country?” From then onwards, we started thinking out loud and adopted the concept of Atal Tinkering Labs, introduced by NITI Aayog. We are connecting with the Jigyasa programme (a student-scientist connect programme launched by the Central Government) which is exclusively meant for students, especially school children.
With the Atal Tinkering Labs, we are making the content of the labs available in the regional language and even for hearing-impaired children. Coming to skill development, the CSIR Skill Development programme is available for different age groups and different skill sets. We have skill training programmes for students who have cleared only Class X or who have dropped out of school.
This is how, at various levels including Class X, XII, diploma holders, degree holders, postgraduates, PhD students, professionals, companies, and at different levels of industry employees, we are customising our skill development training programmes. We make sure that at every age group there is a pathway by means of which science and technology can offer technical solutions to humans for our day-to-day requirements.
6. What are some recent examples of cutting-edge research that CSIR is currently working on?
Aroma Mission — this is a major mission we have going and it is a floriculture mission. PM Modi has stressed the second Sustainable Development Goal — zero hunger. This means that we have to increase, in fact, double the incomes of farmers. We have taken that point very seriously. A few of our Biology and Botany-related research laboratories, like CSIR-Institute of Himalayan Bioresource Technology (CSIR-IHBT) in Himachal Pradesh, CSIR – National Botanical Research Institute (NBRI) in Lucknow and CSIR-North East Institute of Science and Technology (NEIST) in Assam, are coming up with a special variety of plants to maximise cultivation, plantation, maintenance, harvesting, post harvesting, production and the final product until it reaches the market.
Let me give you an example. The marigold plant — we don't just stop at developing a new variety of plant. We are calling this the 'Golden Revolution'. We provide farmers and their families — this includes more than 5,000 families — hands-on training on growing the new variety. More than 7,000 people have benefitted and several thousand hectares of this new variety of marigold have been planted. The same has been done for lavender, hailing it the 'Purple Revolution'. We go one step ahead after the cultivation of the crop and we have offered them steam distillation-drive oil extraction technology and have also supplied them with oil extraction units. The farmers are selling oils extracted from the marigold and lavender, and their income has also been boosted as a result.
The impact is really felt in lemongrass oil. In just the last year, India has exported 600 tons of lemongrass oil. In a way, we have made history through the Aroma Mission development. Looking ahead, we are coming up with special varieties of a virus-free root apple. The chilling time for the product has been reduced from 1,100 hours to 400 hours. In fact, we have introduced this special variety of apple, called Anna, even in the North East. Can you imagine apples in the North East?
The second important success story is the Steel Slag Road. Recently, CSIR-Central Road Research Institute (CRRI) in Delhi came up with an alternative for natural aggregates to lay the roads. They developed technology through which steel industry waste, also known as steel slag, was used as an aggregate for the road. This was the road laid in the Mumbai-Vadodara highway. We have signed an agreement with the Border Research Organisation (BRO) and they are now extending it to Arunachal Pradesh. Just two weeks back, Honorable Minister of Science and Technology Dr Jitendra Singh flagged off the event which marked the transport of a large number of trucks carrying the steel slag aggregates from Jamshedpur to Arunachal Pradesh for road laying.
7. As a woman researcher yourself, what are some plans specifically catered to boosting women in research?
The population of women in Research and Development (R&D) is increasing consistently. In some cases, we have more women researchers than men. In CSIR’s PhD programme, the Academy of Scientific and Innovative Research (AcSIR), the number of women researchers has been increasing year-on-year. CSIR also runs undergraduate programmes, including one on Chemical and Electrochemical Engineering. Initially, we used to get only two or three girls among the 40 students for this programme and we only had one girls’ hostel. Now, almost half of the students are girls and so we built another girls’ hostel. In the coming years, you will see a higher number of women leaders. A minimum of six to seven CSIR laboratories have women directors and that’s already about 15-20% of the 37 laboratories. Even in the CSIR headquarters, most of the divisions are headed by women leaders.
9. The NTA has been conducting the UGC NET exam for a few years now. As it was earlier conducted by the CSIR, what are some of the changes that have been introduced in the conduct of the exam?
We always take utmost care in implementing any scheme or project and we have ensured we do it flawlessly. Some sort of normalisation is required. COVID has taught us a lot of lessons. Sometimes, the number of fellowships will increase, sometimes the frequency of the exam will increase and sometimes the fellowship amount will increase. We will eventually develop some sort of normalisation for this exam as well.