India is well known for its brilliant students worldwide. However, the country nurses much heartache for the fact that there has been no science Nobel to its credit since 1930, when C.V. Raman won the prize for Physics. After the Nobel announcements in October 2016, India’s Union Minister of State for Science and Technology, Y. S. Chowdary declared the government’s goal of a Nobel prize for the country by 2035. While the Nobel is a desirable recognition, it is important that India focuses on enabling pioneering research in the first place. Once the atmosphere is conducive for groundbreaking innovation, economic progress and global recognition will inevitably follow.
So how do we foster innovation that shapes the course of humanity? India recently had a chance to seek answers from the pioneers themselves. The Nobel Prize Series – India 2017 (9th – 13th January) saw nine Nobel Laureates from the fields of chemistry, physics and medicine interact with Indian students, scientists, government officials and industry. This series marked the first edition of an initiative by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), GoI, in collaboration with Nobel Media AB, Sweden; bringing Laureates to Gandhinagar, Delhi and Bangalore.
The final lap of the series took place in Bangalore on 13th January. In a moderated Q&A event, the spotlight was on Laureates David Gross (Physics Nobel, 2004) and Randy Schekman (Medicine Nobel, 2013) to devise a recipe for innovation. Turns out that one of the major ingredients is a healthy cross-talk between scientists and policy makers.
Both the Laureates stressed on the importance of finding ways to regularly include scientific voices during policy development. It sets the tone for future research and solutions. In this context, they highlighted the impact of USA’s National Research Council – an independent science body that collates research results, invites scientific opinion and publishes white papers. “India must develop such a system,” reiterated David Gross.
In 1988, India set up an autonomous body called Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC) to assist policy planning. It prepares evaluation reports, vision documents and roadmaps for various technology sectors and services. TIFAC’s last major report – Technology Vision 2035, was released in January 2016. It included thematic ideas for the future from a wide section of citizens – students to experts. While such reports list possible solutions, they do not detail the routes and challenges in achieving the stated goals. Topical white papers by scientists are essential to convey and deliberate such specifics.
“Scientists could also form professional bodies and organize seminars for politicians, we do so for the US Congress,” suggested Randy Schekman. Both of them pointed out that very few politicians have scientific training. “In the US Congress, there is just one member who has a science background,” revealed Gross. In this context, white papers and seminars become important tools to make the inclusion of scientific voices in policy planning meaningful. Politicians are likely to better understand the process of scientific enquiry if exposed to research methodologies and challenges in various fields.
“I only ask politicians to have a basic understanding of the scientific process, if not its fundamental principles,” urged Schekman. This understanding can widen society’s perception of ‘innovation’.
“Innovation essentially means ‘new ideas’,” stated Gross. But everyone in the room agreed that it often means different things to different stakeholders. To the industry, ‘innovation’ implies new products and economic gain. While governments typically expect solutions to public woes and technological advancement. How can a society enable its scientists to achieve all the above (and a Nobel)?
The answer that emerged was unanimous – support fundamental research in basic sciences.
Gross illustrated through a simple example, “The smartphone is possible today because of the progress in quantum physics research in the early 1900s.” He urged us to probe deeper into the history behind all pioneering inventions. History shows that backing creativity and curiosity-driven research is essential to nurture innovation. What seems an esoteric theory today, can lead to radical technologies and social empowerment tomorrow. Unfortunately, India is yet to understand this profound connection, as it continues to neglect its own scientists pursuing fundamental research. USA, on the other hand, recognized the link very early on. For which the Laureates were grateful.
“Since the late 1940s, both parties (Democrats and Republicans) have been very supportive of basic sciences,” pointed out Schekman, referring to the post World War II era when the atomic bomb provided a grim impetus to lead research in the basic sciences. From 1956 to 2014, the average annual growth rate of US funding to basic research was 9.5%, in comparison to the value being 7.3% for applied research and 6.6% for development. Overall, the US allocates close to 2.7% of its GDP for research and development, while India allocates only 0.85%. Gross pointed out that of all the BRICS countries, India’s expenditure on R&D is the least.
Fundamental research demands long term commitment in funding and patience. Which is why it needs to continuous support through public funds, explained the Laureates. They also noted the role played by philanthropic foundations in aiding long term research in certain areas. Philanthropic donations to research in USA are tax-exempt. They both suggested that India could well adopt this strategy.
Apart from funds, quality resources are needed to train the vast, knowledge-hungry populace of India. “There is a considerable gap between top tier Indian institutes (like IITs) and state level colleges,” observed Gross. This is true in the level of research exposure as well as the quality of education. Even within top tier institutes like IITs, Schekman pointed out that very few undergraduate students get to work in labs or participate in cutting-edge research. Gross felt that the relatively new IISERs are doing better than IITs in this context.
Seven Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER) focusing on quality education and research in the basic sciences have been established in India in the past 8 years. While IITs are expected to create world-class engineers, IISERs aspire to create world-class scientists. “I was very impressed,” remarked Gross, recollecting his visit to an IISER institute. “Their scientists, students and research are truly world class,” he said, “but then again, there are only 5 or 6 institutes.”
Bridging this gap will require more resources and trained manpower. This is where it gets complicated for a large country like India. To create more top-tier institutes, India needs quality manpower. To train quality manpower, we need top-tier institutes. “It’s a chicken or egg problem. Where does one start?,” questioned Gross, “it is extraordinarily difficult.”
One possible way forward could be through encouraging Indian science diaspora to return. Schekman opined that they could play an important role in bridging the gap in our resources and improving research exposure to students. Around 2010, India took the first steps in this direction by initiating several generous fellowships to outstanding researchers abroad . Providing them the funds and freedom to pursue their research, equivalent or more attractive than the opportunities abroad, works. Gross strongly backed this approach, though he cautioned against any misplaced resentment towards them.
“Indians generally have strong cultural and emotional ties back home,” he said, “the key is to make their transition easier.” Engagement with Indian researchers across the globe could improve further if India permitted dual citizenship. It opens opportunities for more Indians to come back at their convenience and contribute the best they can. “Most countries allow dual citizenship today. Why not India?,” asked Gross.
Both the Laureates opined that it is hard to predict the next big innovation in an ever-expanding digital age. Fundamental science will continue to remain the bedrock of all future technologies, and policies based on this truth will eventually bear fruit. They admitted that big data and big science are poised to get bigger, demanding cross-continental collaborations between nations and scientists. “India must take a lead in forging these collaborations,” advised Gross.
Schekman quoted timeless words of wisdom from the seminal 1945 report by Vannevar Bush, ‘Science – The Endless Frontier’, that shaped science policy and innovation in US for decades, “Freedom of inquiry must be preserved under any plan of governance for science.”
This is a concise report on the moderated Q&A session. The final version of this article was published in The Wire on 23rd Jan 2017.