Rao is a chemist, specialising in solid-state and structural chemistry. He has around 60 honorary doctorates from universities across the world, and has authored around 1,500 scientific papers and 45 books.
Born in Bangalore, he received his Bachelors degree from Mysore University, a Masters from Banaras Hindu University, and a PhD from Purdue University in the United States. In 1963, he returned to India and taught at IIT, Kanpur, before moving to IISc, where he served as director over 1984-94.
Rao is currently helping set up three supercomputers in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Mumbai. It is believed that this project will help boost India’s supercomputing strength and bring it on par with China and South Korea. He is also involved in another project to produce hydrogen in a lab and to separate hydrogen and oxygen.
Among other awards, both Indian and foreign, Rao has won the prestigious Dan David Prize, a prestigious award for men of science instituted by Israel. He used the prize money of that award, $10,000, to set up the CNR Rao Educational Foundation to acquaint rural children with science. In 2011, the professor was accused of plagiarism for allegedly reproducing the text of other scientists in a research paper and was forced to apologise to the peer-reviewed journal Advanced Materials. Ultimately, a co-author, a PhD student at IISc, admitted the gaffe and took full responsibility for it.