The UK and India: A GREAT scientific partnership

Transcript of the speech by the UK High Commissioner Sir James Bevan at the Research Councils UK Plenary, 12 November 2013.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Sir James David Bevan KCMG

Professor Grimes, Dr Chidambaram, Professor Boyle, Dr Meah, other distinguished panellists and guests, friends and colleagues.

It’s a great honour to welcome all of you to a week of events celebrating the fifth anniversary of the Research Council UK’s presence in India and the achievements of the UK/India research partnership.

I have been High Commissioner here in India for two years now. Before I took up my office I spent nearly three months travelling around this great and beautiful country with my wife to learn about the real India. We went to 20 of the 28 states. We went to the rural districts as well as to the great cities. We met Indians from all walks of life.

I learn a great deal about the India of today during that Bharat Dharshan. One of the things I learnt is that everywhere you go in India you find examples of world class excellence. That includes, in particular, excellence in science, research and innovation. Examples I have seen during my travels include the new Biotech park in Lucknow, the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, the Infosys Campus in Mysore, and the ISRO’s Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Trivandrum.

Since then I have visited several of the leading Indian research institutes and talked to many Indian scientists about why India is so good at science and research.

You will understand this better than I do, but I think the explanation lies in several factors: your heritage – an ancient civilisation which for millennia led the world in maths and scientific invention; your culture, which values knowledge deeply for its own sake as well as for its practical application; your tradition of brilliant Indian scientists, who provide role models for each successive generation; the strong support for science and research which successive Indian governments have demonstrated; and your strong entrepreneurial tradition that delights in turning new scientific theory into profitable commercial fact.

And India has a track record in science that is second to none. Discoveries which India has given to the world include the modern numerical system we use today, including the killer app of zero, high quality steel (invented here over 2,000 years ago), cotton textiles, democracy (even before the Greeks), radio waves (before Marconi), the circulation of blood in the human body (well before the West understood it), chess and ink. And that ancient tradition continues today, with Indian Nobel Prize winners like economist Amartya Sen, physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar and biologist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan

So as someone who now knows a little about India, the first thing I want to do this morning is to sing the praises of Indian science and innovation.

And as someone who is also the British High Commissioner, the second thing I want to do is sing the praises of UK science and innovation. Because we are good at it too. Four of the world’s top ten universities are in the UK – all of them doing cutting edge research. Britons have won 120 Nobel prizes, more than any other country except the US. And like India, we have some famous individuals of our own who have contributed to the march of science: Newton, Darwin, Faraday, Maxwell, Turing, Crick and Hawking, to name but seven.

And – also like India - the British have discovered or invented quite a lot of things. They include, in no particular order: television, cricket, the pencil, the telephone, SMS messaging, the light bulb, railways, the steam engine, hovercraft, penicillin, gravity, the jet engine, radar, longitude, vertical take-off aircraft, evolution, the internet, bungee jumping and the postage stamp. And - the British invention which has perhaps contributed more than any other to world happiness – sticky toffee pudding.

So Indian science is great, and so is British science. And if you want one simple way to illustrate that, let me cite the biggest scientific discovery of this year and perhaps this decade: the Higgs Boson - the so-called God Particle which explains why the physical world works. It is named after two people: the British scientist who predicted its existence, Peter Higgs, and the great Indian scientist who developed the theory of elementary particles, Satyendra Nath Bose

But while Indian and British scientists are both world leaders, when we work together we are even better. That’s why we are so keen to foster the partnership between India and Britain in science, research and innovation.

Since the Research Councils UK opened in India in 2008, that collaboration, already strong, has grown dramatically. Five years ago our jointly funded research between the UK and India was only around £1m. Today is has reached £150m. You can tell what people really care about not by what they say, or even sometimes by what they do, but by where they put their money. And the fact that our two countries are putting so many resources now into our joint research shows how much we both value it.

I like to quote Karl Marx from time to time, just to wake people up – they don’t usually expect the British High Commissioner to be familiar with his work. Marx was controversial in his day and he’s controversial now. But there is one thing Marx said on which we can all agree and it was this: “the point is not simply to understand the world, but to change it”.

And that, ultimately, is the point of our partnership in science and research. Because although pure research is something we do support for its own sake, the aim of our collaboration is to produce real benefits for real people. And it does. Current examples include joint meteorological research our scientists are doing into predicting the monsoon, the design of new vaccines, and improving the use of biomass in rural India to benefit communities there.

So, ladies and gentlemen, we in Britain are proud to be one of India’s leading partners in science and research. Our aspiration now is to take that one step further, and to become India’s partner of choice. After the progress we’ve made together in the last five years, I am confident that we can reach that goal in the next five.

Published 12 November 2013