Global collaboration in the face of global challenges

Speech by Vice-Chancellor of the University at Cambridge Indian Institute of Science, 16 Sep 2016

Professor Anurag Kumar, Director of IISc—

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, friends and colleagues—

I’m pleased to be back in Bangalore, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to address you all.

Cambridge and IISc have very solid grounds on which to build future collaboration:

We are already partners in research on subjects as diverse as open-source drug discovery… infectious disease… environmental risk… advanced materials for sustainable manufacturing… and the development of fission-enhanced solar cells –to name but a few.

Since 2013, Cambridge University Press-India and the Institute have been jointly publishing academic titles as part of the Cambridge-IISc series.

Now I am very gratified to learn that, under the DBT-Cambridge Lectureship scheme launched last year, Dr Sanjiv Sambandan, who is joining the University of Cambridge as a lecturer at our Department of Engineering, will be spending some of his time over the next few years here at IISc.

We already do a lot together.

Following today’s conversations with Director Kumar and his colleagues, I am convinced we should be doing much more.

There are two essential principles to our University’s engagement with overseas partners:

The first is an uncompromising commitment to excellence.

The second is that we are led in this overseas engagement by our research community.

It is no accident, then, that Cambridge should have formed in India some of its most sustainable partnerships.

Indian scientists have a record of world-class research.

And crucially, Indian leaders have shown the political commitment to supporting the country’s scientific community.

I was pleased to hear this commitment expressed in declarations by the Indian government, which pledged to “make it easier to do science and research in India, improve science administration, and… improve the quality of science education”.

And so here, in Bangalore, and at this Institute, we find the same commitment to excellence that drives Cambridge’s research community.

We find the same interest in the application of science and technology to solving some of the world’s most pressing problems.

It is obvious to me that we also share the certainty that no single institution can tackle these problems alone.

From mitigating the effects of climate change, to improving lives of people in rapidly growing cities, the challenges we face are global –and so must be the solutions.

The threats posed by antimicrobial resistance don’t stop at international borders.

Energy efficiency is an issue that affects us all, whether we are based in Cambridgeshire or Karnataka.

Collaboration between research-performing institutions (both domestically and internationally) is no longer optional.

Nor is it simply an added extra to our institutions’ daily work.

No matter how good it is, no matter how well established, an individual research-performing organisation cannot attain excellence on its own.

World-class institutions must harness the power of strategic partnerships –with other universities, with businesses, with civil society, with governments.

As resources diminish, and as challenges increase in complexity and scale, this becomes an imperative.

The lone researcher –even the lone institution— is no longer a viable model for the delivery of world-leading science.

Consider the fact that, while Einstein was the sole author of the paper predicting gravitational waves, the more recent scientific paper confirming the detection of those waves had more than 1000 authors from around the world.

This –the multiplying power of collaboration networks—is one of the reasons why I campaigned for the United Kingdom to remain a full member of the European Union ahead of the referendum in June.

The outcome of the referendum was not the one many of us at Cambridge had hoped for.

But we are a resilient institution.

In our history of over 800 years we have weathered many storms, and we will ride this one out successfully – indeed, not just ride it out, but seize the opportunities it offers.

Not least of which is thinking about innovative ways of strengthening our links with our close and trusted friends –in Europe, in India, and elsewhere.

In fulfilling our ambition to remain a global university, we rely on our continued (and indeed enhanced) collaboration with our partners –whether they are universities, governments, businesses, alumni or donors.

The good news is that we have more tools at our disposal than ever before to facilitate these interactions.

And we are more determined than ever to make overseas students and researchers feel that Cambridge is a good place to be.

As Vice-Chancellor, I have advocated constantly for a greater openness towards, and a richer interaction with, India’s academic community.

I am pleased to say that this advocacy –sustained by our insistence on excellence, on mutual academic benefit, and on wider societal impact—has paid off.

One recent example is the India-UK collaboration in crop-sciences, formalised earlier this year.

This entails the University of Cambridge and other British research institutions working with India’s Department of Biotechnology on some of the fundamental plant science allowing us to understand yield enhancement, and plant resistance to disease and drought.

The ultimate purpose of the initiative is the translation of this fundamental research into sustainable agriculture, improving food security and the lives of farmers.

It has already yielded fruit in the signing of an agreement, earlier this week, between Cambridge and the Bharti Foundation, to support joint research into corn crops carried out in partnership with the Punjab Agricultural University.

The involvement of Field Fresh Foods, here in India, makes this an innovative model of collaboration between university and industry.

We are strengthening ties with India in other ways.  

Because beyond institutional partnerships, what matters most to the success of scientific collaboration are the people who will work together and exchange knowledge.

In July this year, the University of Cambridge was confirmed as one of only four UK institutions allowed by the UK’s Home Office to pilot a new simplified visa scheme for Master’s students.

Under this pilot programme, students will not only have to submit a reduced level of supporting documents as part of their visa application, but will be allowed to stay in the UK for six months after the end of their courses to find a graduate job.

This streamlined process is expected to benefit more than 1,000 international Masters students applying to the University of Cambridge each year –many of whom, we dearly hope, will be talented and driven Indian applicants.

Only last week a group of female Indian scientists spent four days visiting the University of Cambridge and other research institutions in the East of England, with the support of India’s DBT.

It is our hope –and our expectation— that such initiatives, whether they facilitate the mobility of students or they enable scientists to learn from each other and work together on fundamental challenges, will in all cases make the bonds between Cambridge and India tighter and more enduring.

Which brings me back to India and Britain.

The timing, in many ways, could not be more auspicious for closer ties between our two countries, and our two institutions.

We are truly at a high point of the UK-India scientific partnership: the two countries’ joint investment in research has grown from less than £1 million in 2008 to over £200 million today –including the Newton-Bhabha fund for collaborative research and capacity building.

As the UK and India prepare to kick-off a year of joint activities to mark the 70th anniversary of India’s independence, there will be plenty more opportunities to pursue, in concrete terms, the aspiration that our leaders expressed in the UK-India Vision Statement of 2015:

“[To] be at the leading edge of research, technology and innovation in realising the vision of a low carbon future, while meeting the development aspirations of our people…”

“[To] power the lives of our people with clean energy that is affordable and accessible.

“[To] partner in making our rivers cleaner, our habitats healthier and build smart, sustainable cities in which everyone can prosper.”

In the efforts to make this vision a reality, universities and research-performing institutions in both countries have a key role to play:

As instigators, as facilitators, and as enablers of the collaboration that underpins any truly global initiative.

Through the sharing of knowledge, the exchange of personnel, and the undertaking of collaborative research programmes –we have the expertise and the credibility that very few organisations can claim, whether it is here in India or in the UK.

I have been Vice-Chancellor at the University of Cambridge since October 2010.

The role comes with the use of a nice office in one of the University’s oldest buildings.

When I took up the post, I inherited an office filled with the mementoes of my predecessors –I am the University’s 345th Vice-Chancellor, so you can imagine how many souvenirs have been left behind… 

As I cleared out the office, ready to wipe the slate clean, I found one prized object I decided I wanted to keep: it is a bronze bust of the Mahatma that, to this day, watches over me as I go about my work.

It is a reminder that what we do every day at the University is not to pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake –although the freedom to do so is essential;

Nor do we do what we do to make a profit –although financial sustainability and independence are indispensable to our task.

Gandhi was a strong critic of what he called “science without humanity” –that is, scientific research that has lost sight of the fact that its primary purpose is to serve mankind.

This is an idea that I firmly believe in.

I have travelled some ten times to India since I became Vice-Chancellor, and have made our engagement with our Indian partners a priority.

It has been especially gratifying to be able to count, since 2013, on the insight of a distinguished Circle of Advisors that has helped to guide our relationship with India towards greater goals.

Among the things that have impressed me the most over the past five years are the ever-quickening pace of change, and the ever-mounting scale of the Indian government’s efforts to drive this change.

India is a country in a hurry.

It is a country that has not only continued to tackle the tremendous problems of population growth, public health, poverty, or food security, but has also had the vision and the boldness to invest in its own space programme.

Of my trips to India, I remember in particular a visit to this very place –this very same auditorium—made four year ago.

The occasion was a Science, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum.

It was also the launch of the Bangalore-Cambridge Innovation Network, created in recognition of the similarities and potential convergences between the two innovation ecosystems.

This Network, which has recently been rebooted, now has its secretariat here at IISc.

One of the things I remember most vividly about the visit, however, was the excitement when we presented students from the local IIIT with ten Raspberry Pi’s!

I’m confident that those devices have since been put to good use, and applied in ways that its creators in Cambridge would never have imagined.

A final memory of that visit was of a drinks reception on the rooftop of the Deputy High Commissioner’s residence being interrupted by rain –a situation that we in Cambridge are also very familiar with…

It was confirmation, as if any were needed, that Cambridge and Bangalore have very much in common, including unpredictable weather.

Ladies and gentlemen—

If there is one thing I have learned in my six years as Vice-Chancellor it is about the importance of nurturing those strategic partnerships that add value to the University’s work, and that allow us to better fulfil our mission statement.

Our partnership with the IISc is exactly one of those partnerships.

It allows us, as our mission statement directs, to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence.

I am very happy to be able to celebrate that partnership here today.

One of my proudest achievements has been to ensure that Cambridge’s international engagement –and in particular engagement with India’s finest research institutions—is now firmly embedded in the University’s strategy.

I am equally proud that today, when discussing links between Cambridge and India, it is no longer necessary to hark back to the distinguished history of famous alumni –there are many!— because our current interactions are so important, and so game-changing.

So although widening and deepening our links to India has been a personal priority, it is now also an inextricable part of Cambridge’s institutional priorities.

The relationship with India is of such strategic value to the University that it transcends any individual, even if that individual is the Vice-Chancellor.

India is the world’s largest democracy.

It has the fastest-growing economy among the BRIC countries.

It is the major regional power in South Asia, and a rising power on the world stage.

We cannot hope to understand the contemporary world without understanding India.

We cannot hope to address the major global challenges without an Indian perspective, nor can we expect to tackle them successfully without Indian involvement.

India matters.

And there has never been a better time to engage with its culture, its knowledge, science and technology, its world-view and, above all, the talents of its people.

I will continue advocating for closer collaboration between our two countries –and more specifically, between our two institutions.

And I will continue to do whatever I can to ensure that the fruits of this closer collaboration make a meaningful contribution to society –in India, in the UK, and beyond.

Many thanks.