Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, the vice chancellor of University of Cambridge recently visited India to consolidate the relationship between the two nations and build on the existing partnership among the various universities in India and the University of Cambridge. In an exclusive interview, Professor Borysiewicz opens up about why partnership with Indian institutes is a priority to the Cambridge University. “I see a country that is vibrant, hugely entrepreneurial and with a lot of areas of brilliance. The huge population means there will be more academics coming from India than the whole of Europe put together. So, these are real opportunities for us. India, as a place, is going forward, and we believe we can help Indian institutions reach their goals as a partner,” he explains.
During this visit, Borysiewicz led a delegation and visited key partner institutes, interacting with key government officials. In Bengaluru, he gave a keynote lecture at the Indian Institute of Science, where he highlighted the need for collaborations in the face of global challenges and stressed the need for such initiatives in the future.
Citing an example of the successful collaboration between the two nations, Borysiewicz explained a case study of the existing collaboration between the University of Cambridge and the Punjab Agricultural University, where researchers are working on increasing the yield of maize.
When asked about India’s potential as a hub of innovation and research in the coming future, he makes an interesting observation. “India is an interesting conundrum. At one end, it is an emerging developing nation, while on the other end, at the high end, it’s operating, as far as I’m concerned in the scientific domain at least, at the highest international levels. I also think it’s one of the most entrepreneurial cultures I’ve encountered,” he notes.
Elaborating on the role played by the University of Cambridge in nurturing universities in developing nations like India, Professor Borysiewicz points out some of the issues that he thinks needs to be addressed in the education system. “For me, the big issue here is finding support for tertiary education. We have to recognise that in many, particularly the poorest nations, you’re never going to escape if you don’t develop a tertiary education. We need to create universities that are autonomous, have diversity and the freedom to pursue individuals. This is a huge responsibility on universities to support our colleagues, who sometimes operate in very difficult circumstances, as we see in war zones like Syria. We need to be able to show solidarity with academics in the pursuit of excellence,” he reveals.
Add to the knowledgeWhen asked about the ailments of science and the need for results of research to leave the laboratories and help the common people, Professor Borysiewicz quips, “I would refer you to the mission statement of Cambridge University — to contribute to society through pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international level of excellence.”
In response to a question on why developing countries mattered for the University of Cambridge, he had this observation. “For pursuing research and solving the pressing challenges faced by humanity one cannot be confined to their spaces or comfort zones. It will require strategic partnerships with a host of institutions who harbour expertise in different domains. It will also require concerted effort that facilitates exchange of ideas, knowledge and capacities.” In his view, policy makers, government officials and venture capitalists need to have the patience and put their faith in the researchers. “We need to have an acceptance of failures on both the sides — researchers and funders. When we embark on any sort of project, we know that there is a 90% chance of failure and failure is not a negative impact on those who participated, but it’s an inevitability of pursuing ambitious goals,” he remarks.
His advice for young researchers and academicians, who he considers as the face of next-gen research, is, “Be passionate about what you do. If you’ve got a passion and a vision — follow it, because they will make an impact. Don’t give up when you occasionally hit a full stop, but remember why you are doing it in the first place,” he signs off with positivity and inspiration.
(The authors are with Gubbi Labs, a Bengaluru-based research collective)