In conversation with Jai Asundi: Executive Director of CSTEP, India

14 June 2024
SERIES South Asian Executive Directors 16 items

Welcome to our interview series featuring think tank executive directors across Asia, where we delve into policy and change processes that are shaping the region.

In this edition, Dr Annapoorna Ravichander engages in conversation with Dr. Jai Asundi, Executive Director of the Centre for Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP) – one of India’s leading think tanks, with a mission to enrich policymaking with innovative approaches using science and technology for a sustainable, secure, and inclusive society.

1. Tell us about yourself and how you came to CSTEP.

After my undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering, I did my PhD in Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).

Following that, for a few years I taught Information Systems at the University of Texas, Dallas before joining CSTEP.

I was motivated to join CSTEP by the (late) founder Dr VS Arunachalam who was also my advisor at CMU. It was his dream to create a world-renowned think tank in India that focusses on science and technology and its role in development.

2. What have been your biggest challenges as Executive Director?

As a think tank, attracting and retaining the best talent is crucial. As far as CSTEP is concerned, there are no academic programmes that directly feed into us. We hence spend considerable time and effort in training our staff on interdisciplinary work. For the first few year’s researchers are just learning the essentials of what it takes to work in the respective areas.

To raise funds, we need to come up with innovative ideas to address development challenges. The right balance of idealism and practicality is needed. Luckily, we have found wonderful supporters in our current funders who believe in the work we are doing and our mission.

3. In addressing these challenges did you get any support? If so, from whom?

Support comes from all quarters. On one hand we have the philanthropies that provide financial assistance so that we can do the work. On the other hand, it’s the government stakeholders that show openness to new ideas and the ability to listen to entities outside the government.

Along the way we also take support from academic as well as civil society partners. Success in this endeavour is not possible without an ecosystem mindset approach.

4. In your opinion, what is the future of the funding scenario in India?

The funding scenario in India looks very bright. We have a number of industrialists who have turned philanthropists because they see the value of deep analysis and thought into the problems we face as a country and the solutions needed for the same.

We have to also keep in mind that the total expenses for think tanks is not particularly large compared to the outsized impact they are able to make in society.

5. What are the current trends in policy research in India?

Within the areas we are working in, clean energy transition, clean air, clean water, and broader sustainability are subjects of great interest.

Any issue that impact the livelihood and hence sustainability of life will always be of interest to government, industry, civil Society and philanthropy.

6. Can you share a success story?

We are still a way away from calling any endeavour a “success”. We have set ourselves a very high benchmark when it comes to making impact. We are keen to see measurable changes on the ground at scale with some of our solutions/interventions.

However, we have a few areas where we can say we are on our way to making such impact. One area is on Rooftop Photovoltaic (RTPV) systems where we have shown how aerial imagery can be used to develop techno-economic analysis for individual rooftops taking into account shadows from surrounding structures. We hope that our solution paves the way for massive RTPV adoption across the country.

7. How has your interaction with your Board members been?

Our Board members are all independent and eminent people. They have been very supportive with our strategy and vision for the future. They have also given their valuable time in providing guidance in areas of their expertise which has helped us establish a well-governed think tank.