Archive for October 12th, 2009

Pride and Peeve: India and the Nobel science prizes

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on October 12th, 2009 by Rajesh Kochhar – 1 Comment

Rajesh Kochhar

So far four genetic Indians have won the Nobel science prize: Chandrasekhar Venkata Raman (awarded 1930), Hargobind Khorana (1968), Subramanya Chandrasekhar ( 1983), and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan (2009). Of these only the first one, Raman, was an Indian citizen and the work done was in India. All others acquired US citizenship and worked in the West. While there is pride in the honour bestowed on them, there is also regret that our pleasure is vicarious.

India is still answering questions that were raised by the colonialists 150 years ago. When an Indian did well academically , he was declared to have overcome prejudices of his race and declared a scholar in “ our sense of the term. Times of India editorially saw Ramakrishnan’s Nobel prize as a proof , because proof is needed all the time, that “Indians are no less talented than people elsewhere in the world”.

Raman is the first non-White scientist to win the prize. It would have been better for Indian science if he had missed the prize. (He got it with the skin of his teeth.)This early honour has created such dazzle that India has been blinded to the reality of its pursuit of science.

Raman used to boast the prize winning equipment cost only 200 rupees. (There is some dispute on the exact figure he quoted.)Raman missed the point completely. The main point is not the equipment cost a paltry sum, but that it was easily available in the country. Modern science was still young and its infrastructural demands were modest which they could be met at the level of a college lab. This was true of Raman as well as of the physicist Jagadis Chunder Bose and the chemist Prafulla Chandra Ray before him. Both were professors in Presidency College Calcutta which a century ago ranked among the best equipped academic institutions of the world. High quality original research was a continuation, or a short step ahead, of classroom teaching, as is exemplified by the work of Raman himself, Chandrasekahar, Meghnad Saha and Satyendra Nath Bose.

Science has progressed very rapidly since the second world war. The academic threshold for entering research is much higher than before. In keeping with progress in science, our science teaching at school , college and university levels should have been upgraded. Contrarily it has deteriorated

Basic science has increasingly become a child of high technology. India’s economy and industrial development do not have the intrinsic strength to sustain cutting – edge science. Since the recent economic growth has been driven by property boom and service sectors which are science-less, there is much less interest in science than before.

Indian education system has precipitously been made a part of patronage system. As many as sixteen central universities were opened with the stroke a pen. There have been successful street level agitations for more of them. Their location has been guided by real estate considerations rather than even semblance of an assessment Eleven of them do not even have a building to operate from leave aside a campus. The appointment of all vice-chancellors has been challenged in the Supreme Court. Are these signs of a country aspiring for Nobel prizes for in situ work?

Take the case of a small state as Punjab. Its capital, Chandigarh, has a university and an engineering college of long standing. Punjab already has a functional central post-graduate pharmacy university (NIPER), and a central science university (IISER) . A technical university (IIT) has become operational. On top of it, an all-purpose central university has been sanctioned in a far-off place. Are we talking of institutions of excellence or of cyber cafes and beer bars?

Ramakrishnan published his path-breaking three-dimensional map of ribosome sub-unit in 2000. Western recognition followed immediately. He was made a member of European Molecular Biology Organization in 2002; fellow of the Royal Society of London in 2003; and fellow of National Academy of Sciences, USA, in 2004. Curiously it was not until 2008 that Indian National Science Academy could bring itself to electing Ramakrishnan as a foreign fellow.

We do not have the self-confidence to recognize talent pon our own. We recognize it only when it is certified by the West. And then we deify the certified celebrities. We place them at high pedestals so that we do not have to listen to them, learn from them or put them to any use. We make them into two-dimensional images so that they can be hung on the wall and saluted. (They have not yet reached the statue stage.)

Contrast this with China. Ramakrishnan’s counterpart in physics is Shanghai-born Charles Kuen Kao for whom the prize has come at the fag end of his life. It is however remarkable that he was asked in 1970 to set up electrical engineering department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, of which he subsequently served as vice-chancellor (1987-1996).

Ramakrishnan and before him Amartya Sen while moving from US to UK took a cut in their pay. Quite obviously to them research facilities and ambience mattered more than the pay slip. Indian university faculty and national lab scientists may like to keep this in mind.

If India wishes to become a Nobel prize factory, it will have to see beyond the current fiscal year or the next general election. Lord Rutherford in the 1930s compared biology to stamp collecting. Biology has come a long way since then; it is now a full-fledged lab science. The present and the near future belong to it.

Ramakrishnan’s own career graph is worth studying. He spent four years, 1994-1999, at University of Utah before moving to the Nobel prize factory in Cambridge. Utah is not in competition with Cambridge. Rather it acts as a feeder. Utah’s vice-president for research has made a significant point: “ We do not have the money to hire the people who are already famous. We have to spot the talent and nurture it”.

Here then is a model for India. Set up a Cambridge-type national lab and surround it with Utah – type talent spotters and nurturers.//

Note added 13 october 2009. Also see R. Kochhar: “Some pride, some regret: From Raman to Venkatraman. Tribune , Chandigarh ( Op-ed) !3 Oct. 2009. URL is