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The Prize and Indian Science

It was a nice surprise to hear that one of the three winners of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry this year was born in India and had his college education here. Prof. Venkataraman (Venky) Ramakrishnan is now a US citizen who works at the Cambridge University, UK. From the short interviews he gave after winning the Prize, he appears to be a nice person as well.

The next day several television channels in India showed experts discussing why scientists working in India were not getting  Nobel Prizes. The question is somewhat silly, for one thing because there are only so many Nobel Prizes, but a more meaningful question would be whether scientists in India are producing work of the same quality that deserves the Prize.

The answer is close to no, as far as I am aware. I am not aware of all fields, but the ones I know there is no one producing anything that will be remembered for years after they have passed on, nothing that gets into a  regular textbook, and no one is in sight of being moved from the author index to the subject index of a book.

I recently pointed to two ills of our system which in my opinion contribute heavily to the lack of quality research, one is the extreme concentration of research funding into the research institutes and laboratories as opposed to universities, and the other is the excessive control by a few people over the hiring of new faculty in those institutes. Further to these comments, I think these are symptoms, more than the cause, of the real problem. Basically, it is only a few people who control almost all the appointments and research grants in the institutes, and they are also the ones who influence the ministries to maintain a horrible disparity of funding between universities and institutes. It is like the Pareto principle of 80-20, that 80% of research appointments and funding are decided by 20% of the people at these places, probably worse, like 90-10. But because the universities are more or less out of the reckoning for research funding and good appointments (also because the salaries at the universities are significantly lower for a higher workload, i.e. also because of lower funding) this translates to a really small number of people. Every list of awards given in India have essentially the same small number of names, the students or collaborators of the then big bosses. And so it perpetuates.

The situation is not going to change, and science research in India is not going to be better until the number of people who matter increases by at least an order of magnitude, so that research interests are wider, and more new ideas have a chance to play out. And that is not going to happen unless there is a major change of funding strategy to make the universities better places for research.

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  1. November 4, 2009 at 3:17 am
  2. December 25, 2009 at 5:11 am

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