The Grand Challenges of Indian Science – The Hindu, 14 Dec 2009

The Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman had famously said, ‘the difficulty with science is often not with the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones. A certain amount of irreverence is essential for creative pursuit in science.’

The first grand challenge before Indian science is that of building some irreverence. Our students are too reverent. Our existing hierarchical structures kill irreverence. Promoting irreverence means building the questioning attitude. It means education systems that do not have the rigid unimaginative curricula, it means replacing ‘learning by rote’ by ‘learning by doing’ and to do away with the examination systems with single correct answers.
Paper or people?

More often than not, in our systems, paper becomes more important than people. Bureaucracy overrides meritocracy. Risk taking innovators are shot. Decision making time cycles are longer than the product life cycles. Therefore, the second grand challenge is that of creating an ‘innovation ecosystem’, in which questioning attitudes and healthy irreverence can grow.

The third grand challenge is of creating truly innovative scientists, who see what everyone else sees but think of what no one else thinks. The 2005 Nobel Prize winners for medicine, Warren and Marshall, for instance, were such innovators. Everyone had thought that the cause of gastritis inflammation and stomach ulceration is excessive acid secretion due to irregularities in diet and lifestyle. Warren & Marshall postulated that the causative agent was, a bacterium called Heliobacter pylori. They were ridiculed but they stuck to their guns. They saw what the others did not see. And they were proved right.

The fourth grand challenge is the ability to pose, rather than merely solve, big problems. For example, James Watson felt sure that it was going to be possible to discover the molecular nature of the gene and worked hard at it — even to such an extent that he was fired from the Rockefeller Fellowship that he had. Einstein, when he was 15 years old, asked himself what would the world look like if [he] were moving with the velocity of light. This big question led finally to his special theory of relativity.

The fifth grand challenge is to create new mechanisms by which out of the box thinking will be triggered in Indian science. In the early nineties, when I was the Director of the National Chemical Laboratory, we tried to promote this by creating a small “kite flying fund”, where an out of the box idea with even a one in one thousand chance of success of would be supported. Bold thinking was applauded and failure was not punished. The result was remarkable ‘free thinking’ that gave us a quite a few breakthroughs.

When I moved to Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) as Director-General in mid nineties, we created a “New Idea Fund” with a similar objective. Here, over time, it turned out that it was not the lack of funds, but it was lack of great ideas that was the bottleneck!

But great ideas did come to Indian scientists in the distant past. In 2003, Jayant Narlikar wrote a book The Scientific Edge. He listed the top 10 achievements of Indian science and technology in the 20th century. There are five before 1950 and five after 1950. Interestingly, the five before 1950 are all individual efforts, namely, the works by Ramanujam (the products of his mathematical genius are still researched on), Meghnad Saha (his ionization equation played a vital role in stellar astrophysics), S.N. Bose (his work on particle statistics was path breaking), C.V. Raman (his Raman effect discovery led to the one and only Nobel prize that an Indian scientist doing work in India has won) and G.N. Ramachandran (he was the father of molecular biophysics).

After 1950, Narlikar lists the other five achievements, namely the green revolution, space research, nuclear energy, superconductivity and transformation of CSIR in the nineties. In these, except for the superconductivity research, in which the likes of C.N.R. Rao made pioneering contributions, the rest are all government funded “organised science and technology”. Why is it that in the second half of 20th century, we could not recreate the magic of the early part of the century created by Ramanujams, Ramans, Boses and so on?

The potential Ramans and Ramanujams are there even today somewhere. We need to find them early enough and nurture them. For this, we need to recognise that there is no intellectual democracy; elitism in science is inevitable and needs to be promoted.

In the year 2005, the Nobel prize for physics was shared by Glauber, Hall and Hansch, a controversy erupted since many Indian scientists felt that it should have been shared by E.C.G. Sudarshan, a scientist of Indian origin. In the year 2009, we did better. A scientist of Indian origin, Venky Ramakrishnan shared the chemistry Nobel prize with Steitz and Yonath. The fact that Venky was born in India was a cause for great Indian celebration.

Next, will we have a Nobel prize for an Indian working in India?

Why not?

It certainly can happen. The government has created new institutions such as Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research. It has created schemes such as Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research (INSPIRE), for drawing and retaining millions of young bright children into science. There are clear signs of reversal of brain drain.

Infosys has taken a giant step forward by creating mini Indian Nobel prizes worth half a crore rupees each for different scientific disciplines. If we can leverage all this by promoting that irreverence in Indian science, creating new organisational values, creating tolerance for risk taking and failure, then Indian science will certainly make that ‘much awaited’ difference. Nobel prizes will then follow inevitably.