A Noble Pursuit

My colleague Nitin Pai started an interesting discussion on twitter this morning by asking the question: “Why does India have fewer science Nobels than Trinity College?”

Late as I was to the conversation on twitter, here is my long form answer to that question. To begin with, there can be no targeted efforts at winning Nobel prizes, nor is that end in itself a useful objective. Any pursuit of science honours and awards has to be placed within a broader pursuit of research excellence. This cannot be limited to individual research groups or institutions either. There are at least six areas that need attention for us to get anywhere near a Nobel.

First, the research talent pool is global, and it has been so for longer than in most other fields. The best talent needs to be recruited in order to get top-notch research done, and they have to be paid accordingly – but linked to outcomes. For example, Singaporean universities have done extremely well over the past decade or two in recruiting talent from across the world, often out-bidding other universities. While IITs and other Indian universities have slowly started wooing Indian researchers studying or working abroad, this needs to be extended to people of other nationalities as well. Recruitment is currently limited to entry-level assistant professor positions. Given our limited funds, more innovative ideas can also be explored – such as inviting established professors to open second laboratories in the country.

Second, much of cutting edge research is interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary. Many of the breakthroughs in Biology in the past 50 years have come from physicists and chemists working on biological problems with unique tools and perspectives at their disposal. Even if individual star researchers exist in some of our institutions, they cannot do much. Successful research institutions are those that bring many talented people together so that in collaboration, they can work wonders. This means that walls must be broken down between departments and institutes, intellectual silos must perforated before they can deliver.

Third, Nobel-winning research is made possible not just by brilliant professors, but by equally talented doctoral students and post-doctoral researchers. In almost all PhD research, there comes a time when the student knows more about his or her project than the professor. This won’t happen if the best talent decides to go abroad. Students can be encouraged to stay back in the country through improvements in many things including pay, benefits, mentoring, etc: but most critically through better career prospects. PhDs by many Indian institutions are thought of very poorly by the same institutions. The biggest disadvantage for an Indian researcher to get a tenure-track faculty position in a top US university is having an Indian PhD. This can change only when universities decide to invest in their doctoral students rather than look at them as cheap, bonded labour.

Fourth, while India needs to spend a lot more on R&D, incentive and advancement structures in India require a serious re-think. Academic tenure is a late-19th century concept that was created to encourage freedom of independent opinion among academics, by giving them job security for life. The utility of tenure is quite limited in science/tech fields, and comes at the cost of removing many incentives for professors to perform after they have received their tenure. While the concept of tenure is still in place in the US and other countries, it has become weaker in practice. For example, if a synthetic chemistry professor cannot win competitive funding sources and his lab runs out of money in a US university, the professor is effectively out of a job even if he or she has tenure. This is far from the situation in India. Tenure is not a luxury that Indian academia can afford. Something new will have to be thought up – a system that better incentivises performance, while at the same time keeps research careers in India attractive enough.

Fifth, there is a dire need for administrative reform in Indian research institutions. Researchers in India cannot compete with their foreign counterparts if it takes a few months for them to purchase basic ingredients and consumables. As Shilpa Anand mentioned on twitter, procurement policies need to be greatly simplified and the role of tendering needs to be re-examined. Decentralisation is key.

Sixth, we need independent research boards that are in charge of granting funds. Currently, it is the Union Department of Science and Technology, Department of Atomic Energy and a motley collection of government departments that are in-charge of disbursing science funding. What we need instead are research boards which can disburse grants in as objective a manner as possible, with double-blind peer reviews and good processes to select the best research proposals. While the Government of India has set up a ‘Science and Engineering Research Board’ to serve a function similar to the American National Science Foundation, there are no signs so far of this board getting empowered with sufficient funds, autonomy and power to make any tangible difference.

And finally, individual laboratories are institutions too. They require the same kind of careful nurturing larger establishments do.

To India’s credit, there are a few islands of excellence in scientific research that have been created over the past two decades. (Which, for better or worse, have little relation with the far more numerous ‘Centres of Excellence’ that have been created.) But scientific research is far too important to be left only to the scientists. It’s time that the rest of us started introspecting as well.

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2 Responses to A Noble Pursuit

  1. Eon August 10, 2013 at 12:40 PM #

    Fact of the matter is, you left out the most important items from your list.

    • Pavan Srinath August 10, 2013 at 12:43 PM #

      Care to tell me what they are?