12 Aug 2016 21:05 IST

‘Industry needs to step up to the plate in research’

Carnegie Mellon President Subra Suresh says industry funding key for technological breakthroughs

Subra Suresh, president of Carnegie Mellon University, recently addressed the 12th convocation of the Great Lakes Institute of Management. For the Chennai-born and bred Suresh, who graduated from IIT Madras in 1977, it was a homecoming of sorts. Prior to joining Carnegie Mellon in 2013, Suresh headed the prestigious National Science Foundation in the US. As director of this $7-billion, independent federal agency, he led the only government science agency charged with advancing all fields of fundamental science and engineering research and related education. In this interview, Suresh talked about the innovation he initiated at the NSF, about his biomedical research and the India connection with CMU. Excerpts:

Around the same time last year, TCS announced a grant to CMU of $35 million. What progress has been made with this grant?

TCS announced the gift last August at a special event on campus that included the governor of Pennsylvania, the local County executive and the mayor of Pittsburgh. Through this gift, TCS hopes to enlarge its visibility and interactions with the students and researchers at CMU who are at the leading edge of computing, big data analytics, personalised medicine and information technologies that will shape the 21st Century.

At the time, we announced construction of a new building that will house a large number of CMU students and faculty. The building is being designed and it will open about two years from now, spring or summer of 2018. In a small portion of the building, space will be allocated for interactions between TCS and other industry collaborators with CMU students and faculty. CMU has expertise in many areas of science, engineering, technology, fine arts, policy, business and computing, and our faculty and students work with several hundred companies around the world. So collaborating with TCS, a global company with a large footprint in the US, makes a lot of sense.

Will CMU plan an India campus?

After the US, India is home to the largest number of our alumni in the world. There are approximately 1,200 Indian students out of 14,000 at Carnegie Mellon’s Pittsburgh campus. This is in addition to a number of Indian-origin Americans who are at CMU. Two years ago, we announced a CMU research initiative called BrainHub, and Kris Gopalakrishnan of Infosys helped set up a research centre at IISc, Bengaluru. He also advocated for Carnegie Mellon and IISc to work together, and provided a gift to support researchers and post-doctoral fellows at CMU with scientists at IISc.

So there are a lot of these organic collaborations which connect CMU students and faculty with Indian organisations. We also have exchange students from other parts of India. We don’t have a campus in India, but we have many other deep connections, and our goal is to ensure that it grows organically.

When you headed the National Science Foundation in the US, how did you foster innovation in new areas?

NSF is the only federal agency whose mission is to support long-term research. It was set up in 1950 to develop talent, best ideas and best people through a meritocratic system. During my time there, we started the NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps) in 2011 to make is easier for scientific discoveries to have greater industrial and economic benefit and societal impact. The funding for it will eventually come from small business programmes, venture capital funding and so on.

NSF funds a small sum of money for a short time; $50,000 for six months. This is not for new research, but to explore if research can succeed in the market place. That’s the mission of the I-Corps. And in the last five years, 1,000 programmes have been funded. The programme has been so successful that recently the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Energy adapted this programme, as did the National Science Foundation of Ireland.

Also, we created the Global Research Council at NSF in 2012 to bring together heads of research funding agencies from more than 50 developed and developing countries. Now in its fifth year, this year’s May meeting was organised through an India-UK collaboration. It’s usually one developed country with one major developing country co-organising an annual meeting.

You moved from engineering to the frontiers of medical science. Can you give an update on your work on understanding malaria?

My background is in mechanical properties of materials. Around 15 years ago, I decided to turn my attention from studying synthetic materials to studying materials in the human system directly connected with human diseases. I look at these materials at the micro- and nanoscale, at the cell and molecular level. It’s known that the pathogenic basis for malaria depends on how red blood cells become stiff and sticky, which eventually can lead to fatality.

I brought an engineer’s perspective to this, which at that time was uncommon. Working with medical doctors in the US, Paris and Singapore, and other parts of the world, we developed a variety of techniques. Using genetics, genomics, computer modelling and microfluidic technologies, we developed platforms that will give us a better understanding of the disease and will likely advance diagnosis and treatment.

For example, we took the malaria parasite, genetically knocked out one protein to see what the contribution of that protein is in causing malaria. We are using microfluidic techniques to study other red blood cell disorders like sickle cell anaemia; it’s a genetic disorder affecting several hundred new patients every year worldwide, and many of these patients periodically suffer from severe pain and other symptoms.

We have also developed a microfluidic device that uses soundwaves to separate cultured cancer cells from white blood cells, and used the same tool to isolate circulating cancer cells found in blood. It’s difficult to isolate those rare circulating cancer cells from blood cells. Soundwaves are an interesting tool because they are benign, which we know as ultrasound is regularly used during pregnancy. Other techniques can damage the cells you capture.

Has all this research led to cures?

Not yet. While we have a number of patents, we have to demonstrate scientifically that each of our projects would work. First we have to show that something works in a lab, then we need to prove that it works in a clinical setting. There are quite a few steps to this process.

We’re on that path with the microfluidic device. The Hershey Medical Centre in Pennsylvania, provided us with blood samples from three women who had breast cancer. We were able to capture tumour cells with a reasonably high efficiency in one try using a small blood sample. Now we have to continue working on this technique to scale it up, and there is much more work to do. It won’t replace existing techniques but it will be one more technique to help diagnose cancer.

For our malaria research, we’re finding out new things about the disease and its underlying mechanisms, and how it changes red blood cells.

You have said earlier that industry in not funding research enough?

When I went to the US in the late 1970s, you had Bell Labs which did lot of pioneering work and produced many Nobel laureates. There were General Motors, Ford, US Steel and Alcoa research labs. Now that has all changed. Few of them exist the way they used to because of the pressure and demands on companies for quarterly results and many trends associated with globalisation. Industry does do research, but how many Apple researchers do you see coming for professional society conferences. So, while industry does deliver a lot of innovation, it’s more from a development perspective rather than basic science. This is at a time when the need for basic science for future technological developments is critical.

We take for granted the mobile phone and GPS. But GPS came about because the Department of Defence in the US used it during the Cold War for espionage and intelligence gathering. The NSF supported the basic research for the development of GPS in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s before there were departments of computer science. Maths, physics, developing algorithms, computer chips… without all that NSF-funded basic research, companies like Samsung and Apple would not be able to do what they do now. If industry does not do this, and if government funding does not keep pace, then our ability to come up with new innovations, new scientific discoveries will lag behind the progress that’s possible.

Is partnership with industry the way forward for research organisations?

Industry partnership is important for a number of reasons. It leads to a transfer of knowledge and basic research. Industry attracts talent more easily. Also for researchers, industry interactions give context, specifically, applications to pursue. Economic considerations are as important as scientific considerations if you want to go to the marketplace and for this reason also, industry interactions are beneficial.

What specific tech areas should Indian schools focus on for a sustainable future?

The great thing about India is that we have a large number of young people entering a number of fields. Since the time I went to the US, the fields are changing rapidly. Rather than focusing on one area, a high quality degree in science and engineering that prepares students to deal with and adapt to changing circumstances is more important than teaching them any one area. One of the reasons students from India have done well over the past 40 years all over the world, it’s because of the quality of education here.

Are you happy with the number of students getting into basic science or is software sucking up all the talent?

The market balances it. The reality in the US is that more people would go into basic research if there was more funding. The success rate is less than 20 per cent for proposals submitted to NSF and NIH. A lot of young people have to spend a lot of time to get funding for research rather than do research. There’s a higher optimum funding rate to be found, but we are not yet there.