The ‘could’ve, should’ve, would’ve’ of R&D

ISRO’s Moon rover, which will move around the lunar surface come September (if all goes well), will live and and die in a span of 14 days because that’s how long the lithium-ion cells it’s equipped with can survive the -160º C-nights at the Moon’s south pole, among other reasons. This here illustrates an easily understood connection between fundamental research and its apparent uselessness on the one hand and applied science and its apparent superiority on the other.

Neither position is entirely and absolutely correct, of course, but this hierarchy of priorities is very real, at least in India, because it closely parallels the practices of the populist politics that privileges short-term gains over benefits in the longer run.

In this scenario, it may not seem worthwhile to fund a solid-state physicist who has, based on detailed physicochemical analyses, fashioned for example a new carbon-based material that can store lithium ions in its atomic lattice and has better thermal characteristics than graphite. It may seem even less worthwhile to fund researchers probing the seemingly obscure electronic properties of materials like graphene and silicene, writing papers steeped in abstract math and unable to propose a single viable application for the near-future.

But give it twenty years and a measure of success in the otherwise-unpredictable translational research part of the R&D pipeline, and suddenly, you’re holding the batteries that’re supposed to be installed on a Moon rover and need to determine how many instruments you can pack on there to ensure the whole ensemble is powered for the whole time they’ll need to conduct each of their tests. Just as suddenly, you’re also thinking about what else you could’ve installed on the little machine so it could’ve lived longer, and what else it could’ve potentially discovered in this bonus time.

Maybe you’re just happy, knowing how things have been for research in the country in the last two decades and based on the spaceflight organisation’s goals (a part of which the government has a say in), that the batteries can even last for two weeks. Maybe you’re just sad because you think it could’ve been better. But one way or another, it’s an inescapably tangible reminder that investments in research determine what you’re going to get to take out of the technology in the future. Put differently: it’s ridiculous to expect to know which water molecules are going to end up in which plant, but unless you water the soil, the plants are going to start wilting.

Chandrayaan 2 itself may be lined up to be a great success but who knows, there could come along a future mission where a groundbreaking instrument developed by an inspired student at a state university has to be left out of an interplanetary satellite because we didn’t have access to the right low-density, high-strength materials. Or where a bunch of Indians are on a decade-long interstellar voyage and the captain realises crew morale is dangerously low because the government couldn’t give two whits about social psychology.