Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Personal Side Of Science

Recent reports on the discovery of the Higgs Boson (a new subatomic particle) at CERN, not surprisingly, are evoking a multitude of emotions all round the world.  One of Bangalore's newspapers recently published a reprint of an article (from the Guardian) by Amit Chaudhuri.  He writes about S N Bose (after whom the boson is named) and ends by saying:

"Bose didn't get the Nobel prize; nor did his contemporary and namesake, J C Bose, whose contribution to radio waves and the fashioning of the wireless predates Marconi's. The only Indian scientist to get a Nobel prize is the physicist C V Raman, for his work on light at Kolkata University, called the Raman effect. Other Indians have had to become Americans to get the award.
Conditions have always been inimical to science in India, from colonial times to the present day; and despite that, its contributions have occasionally been huge. Yet non-western science (an ugly label engendered by the exclusive nature of western popular imagination) is yet to find its Rosalind Franklin, its symbol of paradoxical success. Unlike Franklin, however, these scientists were never in a race that they lost; they simply came from another planet."
It was evident from the comments on the website that not many people agreed with him, but reading it made me think about why modern Indian science is not making more of an impact globally.

It is true that several deserving Indian scientists did not get the Nobel prize, but this prize has never been quite independent of politics and pushiness - hard for anyone to indulge in all the way from India.  It is certainly not true that most Indians have had to become 'American' to get the prize.  It is very unlikely that those who got the prize for their work overseas would have managed to accomplish what they did if they were in India.  The strengths of American and British science establishments have always been a strong scientific community and support (funding and infrastructure) for technically challenging projects.  This is, of course, changing in the present recession-hit days but it certainly applied to the times when Hargobind Khorana deciphered the genetic code and continued till a few years ago when Venki (Ramakrishnan Venkatraman) showed the physical  way in which the genetic code is translated.  India just did not have the mechanism (or the funding) to allow people to work on  problems of this magnitude.

What is our position now?  This is a question oft asked, especially with the government wanting '20 Nobel laureates by 2020'!!! (perhaps I should put 20 exclamation marks here, but I am restricted by space and time).  Eminent scientists of the country seem to think the way ahead lies in popularizing science by starting many more undergraduate science courses and offering fellowships as incentives to school students who opt for Science (instead of the more popular Engineering or Medicine).  I feel though that this is the wrong end of the stick - the reason the best students opt for Computer Science is because it pays!  It is neither appropriate nor wise to build a 'Science bubble', describing Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Science in glowing, rainbow colours.  Many students reach the end of the rainbow to realize that it is all just a combination of Physics, Chemistry, Math and Biology - and either you always liked it or you didn't particularly and that there aren't very many jobs for scientists anyway.

My thoughts about how to improve the situation are a little different and are based on my experiences in research institutions and the interaction I continue to have with students and scientists of different backgrounds and ages.  Ultimately, I think, it is all a question of people.  It is people who drive the science not vice versa.  Each Indian research institution has its own system in place - one determined by the funding agency, amounts of money, geographical location etc.  While there usually aren't colossal sums allocated for research, most reasonable research proposals do get funded.  This means that it is certainly possible for many people to do at least a bit of reasonable work.  Projects need to be thoughtfully planned as it may not be possible or worthwhile attempting experiments that require cutting edge technology.  But many kinds of problems don't require that level of sophistication.  Overseas funding and collaborations are also ways by which scientists can get access to better infrastructure.  The real issue is not of being able to do science but of doing meaningful or suitably challenging science - tackling problems that are really worth solving as opposed to churning out reams of data.

There are few brave and motivated enough to pursue this approach, partly because of the desire (driven by those at the helm) to show something for every year that one puts in.  The number of publications seems all important in periodic institutional assessments.  The long term impact of the work, the contribution of each author and the kind of review the article has been subjected to are not given much (or any) value.  This is an unfortunate and widespread phenomenon.  There are just a handful of top quality labs in India that have reasonable funding for research, but unfortunately none of them has given enough thought to the administrative systems in place.  Often the director almost singlehandedly decides the direction the institution will take; many times the best  known scientists do not make the best administrators.

There is no clear tenure track system in place as there is in the US - most jobs (with the exception of those in a couple of institutes) are permanent.  However, insufficient thought is given to the hiring process.  Several times, the people who take the final decisions about prospective faculty are not very well informed about the areas of work of the applicants and their ability to do high quality, independent research.  The places that do have a tenure track system also sometimes pay scant attention to initial hirings, the attitude almost seems to be, "Let the candidates prove themselves, we have nothing to lose by keeping them here for a few years."  This generates an atmosphere of electric tension in the younger labs, each person straining to 'have something to show' to the local review committee that meets periodically.

An academic research institution is intrinsically different from an industrial lab.  Certain personal qualities as well as the value that a scientist will add to an existing scientific community, should be given some merit.  In India, if several researchers with different skills decide to focus on a few challenging problems as a group (apart from doing their individual work), the scope of research that can be done would be much wider. For this, people need to be able to read and think beyond their immediate area of research and have a genuine desire to communicate and collaborate with others.  The worth of an academic scientist is accurately viewed, I think, by the new ideas he (or she) brings, the kind of environment he generates, what his students attempt to do some years after having trained from his lab and, of course, the actual research he carries out and presents.

In my view, Indian science establishments (at least those doing research in Biology and Chemistry) would do well to study the setup at MRC Labs of Molecular Biology (in Cambridge, UK).  These labs have an impressive record of having supported a phenomenal number of Nobel prize winners, several for work done at MRC, and also for the number of alumni who have gone on to win the Nobel prize.  What kind of environment makes this possible?  My guess is that Max Perutz (Nobel prize winner, founder and chairperson of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge) had an eye for good people though some of his policies were criticized (especially allowing the sharing of Rosalind Franklin' s data with Watson and Crick without proper permission).  But the labs had an unusual mix of talented scientists and a highly interactive environment, which apparently still remains.  This in itself is not sufficient to result in innovative, exciting research.  The MRC Labs are very selective in the hiring of faculty, but once hired, sustained funding is ensured to support important and long term research goals.  In other words, the faculty do not need to keep proving their worth and spending large amounts of time worrying about future grants to support projects that may take several years to accomplish.  This combination of good people who talk to each other and who have no reason to be insecure about the future of their research  seems to work well.  There is no apparent reason why this cannot be attempted in India.  The money is there (one just has to count the number of millions of millions that have gone into people's pockets in scams uncovered in the last year).  But we desperately need the critical few who have the rare quality of vision - one that allows them to identify true talent (or potentially winning combinations) and the conviction to support them freely and wholeheartedly, oblivious to the whims of each new government.  We have had such personalities in the past and I hope the scientific community allows some more to come up in the present (or at least in the future).

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