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Lokvani Talks To Director - NCL

Ranjani Saigal

Dr. Shivaram, Director of National Chemical Laboratories, shares his vision for NCL and the application of science to solve some of India's pressing problems.

Dr. S. Sivaram is the director of the National Chemical Laboratory(NCL) in Pune India.NCL is a constituent lab of the council of scientific and industrial research, government of India. It is the largest laboratory devoted to the area of chemical and related sciences in India. It has staff strength of over 1000 people with approx 400 scientific and technical professionals.

Dr. Shivaram is a polymer chemist of great distinction. He has a master’s in Chemistry from Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur . He got his PhD from Perdue University, W. Lafayette, Indiana, USA where he was associated with Nobel Laureate Herbert C. Brown.

Dr. Shivaram has received several awards and honors including the Vasvik Award, FICCI Award in Physical Sciences and the Om Prakash Bhasin Awards for Science and Technology, the Millennium Medal of the Indian Science Congress Association and the Silver Medal of the Chemical Research Society of India. He has authored over hundred and seventy-five papers and has seventy-five patents to his credit. He has been cited as inventor in thirty-five U.S Patents.

He spoke to Lokvani about NCL, chemical research for the benefit of all and the opportunities in India for Indo-US collaborations.

Lokvani:Could you tell us a little about NCL?

Dr. Shivaram: The mandate of NCL is to generate value out of the highest quality of chemical research to help the country at large. NCL is fundamentally a research laboratory but we are also the single largest producers of PhDs in chemical sciences in India. I would like to emphasize that in all our work we try to do the best we can to improve the life of every Indian.

Lokvani: How does high level of research in the area of chemical sciences benefit the people in the villages?

Dr. Shivaram: I would like to emphatically state that the highest quality of knowledge and research is critical for many applications that may be considered as “simple” applications to help say villagers in rural area. Such applications require higher rather than lower level of research. Let me give you examples.
Arsenic poisoning in drinking water is a serious problem in some rural areas. The poising is localized. Just because a well in one area is affected does not mean that the water in the entire region is affected. Thus a test for arsenic poisoning that can be used by the villagers effectively will be very useful for them to decide whether a well is contaminated. Such equipment should be extremely simple to use. The villagers may not know to read or write and hence just a color change should indicate contamination. The design of such a test requires the highest level of research. This test is an example of the highest application of science that can help save lives of the common man or woman.
Another example is a water filtration system that can help remove virus. We have designed a pump with a built in filter to remove virus. The pump must operate where there is no electricity. We use “micro filteration” techniques. These techniques work with certain kind of hydrostatic pressures. At high flux this is not a difficult problem but to make this technique work at low flux is a big challenge. We were successful in doing this and these units came in extremely handy during the Gujarat Earthquake. Thus high levels of research benefit rural communities.

Lokvani:What is the major focus to your R & D efforts?

Dr. Shivaram: A major focus of the efforts is to make the Indian chemical industry globally competitive. We work with small and mid range companies to do application driven research that can benefit the industry. Application driven research constitutes 75 % of our work.

Lokvani:Do you think India is globally competitive in the area of research in chemical sciences?

Dr. Shivaram: We are going in that direction. India has great potential in this area. But we are facing a lot of competition from China. The world is still not clear as to how China can produce fine chemicals at a low cost. Of course the world always points to unique Chinese business rules as the cause. I am not so sure since then sustainability would be an issue.

Lokvani:The general feeling seems to be that if India has to be competitive infrastructure has to be improved. Is the government working on improving infrastructure particularly in the area of water and power?

Dr. Shivaram: Power problem is a political problem and it needs to be worked out at the political level. But as far as water is concerned there are many creative ideas. The government has put the water grid idea up for debate. This to me indicates a willingness at least to look at the problem. NGOs are coming up with creative solutions to solve the water problem. Water harvesting has made a big difference in the city of Indore where the collector has now incorporated water harvesting in the building code. This has changed Indore from a city that is water starved to one where there is water even during the dry summer months.

Lokvani: Does the government fund NCL's research efforts?

Dr. Shivaram: 50% comes from the government. 35 % comes from the industry while 15% is from mission-mode funding. Indian industry is not yet mature enough to invest in longer term research objectives. We would like to increase the industrial contributions.

Lokvani:What opportunities exist for partnership with NCL and what is the process to initiate the partnership?

Dr. Shivaram: We are eager to work with people who have interesting ideas. Government of India is extremely generous when it comes to funding good ideas. They just want to be assured of the quality of the work and the team.
I would suggest that as far as NCL is concerned, look at our web page - http://www.ncl-india.org. If the work of any scientist offers potential for collaboration contact them directly and we can find funding from within NCL to foster the collaboration.
If there are ideas that you think may be useful to work on that does not relate to current work at NCL, contact me directly and I would be glad to help. Someone from the US recently contacted me regarding developing a non-invasive test for detecting blood sugars. I liked their work and I was able to connect them with the right people. We were able to find funding to develop the unit and hopefully it may lead to a product.
If there are students who would like to spend time at NCL we have avenues for that.

Lokvani:Thank you for your time.

Dr. Shivaram: My pleasure.

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