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25 CHALLENGES FOR INDIA

WHAT WILL IT TAKE


For A Resident Indian To
Win A Nobel Prize?
R.A. MASHELKAR

E.C.G. Sudarshan, a scientist of Indian origin in the US,

I
T WAS IN JUNE 1998 THAT I MET AMARTYA SEN FOR
the first time at India International Centre in has been overlooked by the Nobel Committee.
New Delhi. At the end of our brief conversation, Sudarshan himself has written to the Nobel
I said: “I hope this will be the year for the big Committee saying “it would distress him and many
one.” My reference was to the Nobel Prize. others if extra-scientific considerations were respon-
He laughed and said: “Do you know Dr sible for this decision”. Some Indian scientists have also
Mashelkar, you have to be 10 times as good to win the formally protested to the Nobel Foundation.
Nobel Prize if you are an Indian!” In the same year, in In science, they say only two people will be
October 1998, the Nobel Prize for Economics was de- remembered, he who says the first word in science
clared. Amartya Sen won the prize. I remember send- and he who says the last word in science. Of
ing him a one-line congratulatory message: “After course, saying merely the first or the last word is
all, you were 10 times as good!” not enough. What one says must have a lasting and
The will of Alfred Nobel dated November 27, indelible impact in the field!
1895 states clearly that “in awarding the prizes, no Did Sudarshan say the first word? The Nobel
consideration will be given to the nationality of the committee says: “Sudarshan drew the approach to the
candidate”. Therefore, more seriously, if the break- use of coherent state representations for the approach
throughs are truly Nobel Prize-worthy, then there to classical physics, at this point, he refers to Glauber’s
is no reason as to why a scientist should not get it work.” Thus, the committee is subtly suggesting that
despite his nationality. Glauber had said the first word! These subtleties are
But what does history tell us? In more than 100 beyond me, since I am not an expert. But the implied
years, 776 Nobel prizes have been awarded till the year emphasis on saying the first word is clear.
2005. In science, only three of them have gone to the As an Indian, I would have been truly proud if
developing countries for the work done in their Sudarshan had won the Nobel Prize, as did so many
respective countries. One of them happens to be our other scientists in the past, who deserved it. What does
own Sir C.V. Raman. This is not encouraging statistics. our past history say? Jayant Narlikar has written a
Let us return to the issue of an Indian winning a book The Scientific Edge, which has been published by
Nobel Prize again. This year, the Nobel Prize in Penguin in 2003. He lists the top 10 achievements of
Physics has been shared by Roy Glauber, John Hall and Indian science and technology in the 20th century.

RITESH SHARMA
Theodor Hansch. Glauber is the winner of half of the There are five before 1950 and five after 1950.
Noble Prize “for his contribution to quantum theory Interestingly, the five before 1950 are all individual
of optical coherence”. This has raised a controversy, efforts, namely, the works by Ramanujam (mathe-
since it was felt by some that the contribution of matics), Meghnad Saha (ionisation equation), S.N.

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25 CHALLENGES FOR INDIA

If tomorrow, any Indian thinks of an idea that


is out of the box to get a material, which
shows superconductivity at 20oC, he
cannot be denied the Nobel Prize
Bose (particle statistics), C.V. Raman (Raman Effect) the Nobel Prize because they tested materials, which,
and G.N. Ramachandran (molecular biophysics). through accepted wisdom, were not supposed to
After 1950, he lists the other five achievements as show superconductivity!
nuclear power, Green Revolution, space programme, An innovator is also one who sees what everyone
superconductivity and CSIR’s transformation. All these sees but thinks of what no one else thinks. Look at this
five are government-funded big team initiatives. The year’s Nobel Prize winners for medicine, Robin
moot question is: what has happened to individual Warren and Barry Marshall. Everyone had thought
excellence after 1950? that the cause of gastritis inflammation and stomach
However, if one looks at what happened before ulceration is excessive acid secretion due to irregu-
1950, C.V. Raman did get the Nobel Prize but the larities in diet and lifestyle. Warren & Marshall
others did not. S.N. Bose’s work leading to Bose- postulated that the causative agent was, in fact, a
Einstein condensate is winning Nobel prizes today. bacterium called Heliobacter pylori. They were
Many Indians feel that G.N. ridiculed but they stuck to
Ramachandran’s work on their guns. They could see and
triple helix should have won think beyond what others saw
him the Nobel Prize, but it and thought.
did not. Indians can always argue
that we do not win Nobel
et us look at the history prizes because our investment

L of Nobel prizes. There


are three Nobel prizes
for Sciences, one each in
levels are low. The US spends
$250 billion (Rs 11,25,000
crore) on R & D as against
chemistry, physics and medi- India’s $5 billion (Rs 22,500
cine. In chemistry, of the total crore). Size of the funding is,
152 prizes, 54 have gone to of course, important. You
the US alone, followed by 27 to build large critical mass in a
Germany and 25 to the UK. given field, setting up a com-
Similarly, in physics, of the to- petition. You empower the
tal 182 prizes, 79 have gone to scientists hugely with modern
the US alone, followed by 23 to tools so that they can run
Germany and 21 to the UK. faster and arrive at the results
Similar is the story with Nobel first. But to me, it is not the
prizes in medicine. Of the total size of funding but the size of
of 186, 89 have gone to the US, ideas that ultimately matters. If
followed by 24 to the UK and 15 to Germany. tomorrow, any Indian thinks of an out-of-the-box idea
Why is the US the leader? Why is it that the other to get a material which shows superconductivity at
economic superpower, Japan, has not been as suc- 20ºC, he cannot be denied the Nobel Prize, even if he
cessful? Many people believe that this has to do with is an Indian, so profound will be the impact of his
the culture of questioning that exists in the US, as discovery on our lives!
against the culture of compliance that exists in Japan. The question is how do we make people think out
A potential Nobel laureate needs to be, first and of the box? I tried to promote this when I was the
foremost, a true innovator. What is the definition of Director of National Chemical Laboratory. We cre-
a true innovator? Innovator is one who does not ated a “kite flying fund”, where an out of the box idea
know that it cannot be done. Bednorz and Muller won with a chance of success of one in one thousand will

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25 CHALLENGES FOR INDIA

True pathbreakers in science will refuse to


preserve the status quo because they
enjoy the fun of creation of new ideas
and destruction of old dogmas
be supported. When I moved to CSIR, I created a laureates from among the current resident Indians?
“New Idea Fund” with a similar objective. In a recent survey, the two names that came up
Eventually, I found that it was not lack of prominently were C.N.R. Rao and Ashoke
funds, but it was lack of ideas that was the Sen. It augurs rather well that C.N.R. Rao
bottleneck! won the Dan David Prize recently, which is
One corollary of the statistics that I supposed to be among prizes that get
have cited is that the traditional and counted as being next to the Nobel Prize.
conservative societies, which include China But is there a way to predict as to whether
and Japan along with India, appear to be at a resident Indians will be in a zone of contention?
disadvantage for a fundamental reason—namely The Institute for Scientific Information (ISI)
the culture. But can this culture be changed? has been publishing citation analysis of each
I believe it can. But we do require a change Nobel Prize winner’s work. All Nobel
at all levels right from school science laureates tend to have exceptionally high
education to the way we fund and the way level of productivity (articles per author),
we do research. author impact (citations per author), and
We have to remould the school science article impact (citations per paper). The
education to the mode of “learning by citation data has frequently been used to fore-
discovery” and “learning by doing” in contrast cast the future Nobel awardees. The results
to the prevailing “learning by rote” method. indicate that high rankings by citation
Rather than memorising the products of frequency are strongly correlated with “Nobel
science, the child needs to learn the beau- Class” authors. In the highest percentile,
tiful process of science. Questioning and e.g., the top 0.1 per cent of authors, a
dissent in the classroom and at home must significant percentage have won the Nobel
be respected and not punished. Prize or go on to win the prize in later years.
Unfortunately, the Indian presence in this
ndian scientists and institutions are risk averse. highest percentile is rather rare. Our presence

I We must take risks. We must be more


tolerant of failures. A certain amount of
irreverence is essential for creative pursuit in
here as well as our strong presence
internationally through partnerships is going
to be critical.
science. True pathbreakers in science will What does it take to win a Nobel Prize?
refuse to preserve the status quo because One of the Nobel laureates himself said
they enjoy the fun of creation of new ideas that first and foremost, you have to be very
and destruction of old dogmas. We need to clever. Secondly, you have to work very,
identify and support such scientists to the hilt. very hard. But thirdly, and most importantly, you
Eliticism in science needs to be promoted. A have to be very, very, very lucky! He is absolutely
potential Einstein or a Ramanujam will have to be right. But luck favours only the brave. In order for a
identified and nurtured from early on, just as the resident Indian to win the Nobel Prize, Indian science
genius of Sachin Tendulkar was recognised at the must become brave. I hope the emerging brave new
age of 14! There is nothing like intellectual democracy. young India will also create some unusually brave
Our current research funding pattern, which is too scientists, who will go on to win Nobel prizes. ■
conservative and democratic, needs to change. Out of
the box thinking needs to be done not only by The author is President, Indian National Science
scientists but also by those who manage science! Academy and Director General, Council of
Can we speculate about the potential Nobel Scientific and Industrial Research

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25 CHALLENGES FOR INDIA

THESE INDIANS HAVE BEEN THERE, DONE THAT…


The list of Nobel laureates is embarrassingly short
Rabindranath Tagore Writer. Subramanyan Chandrasekhar Physicist.
Won the Nobel Prize for Literature in Won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1983 for
1913 for Gitanjali, an anthology of poems. work on theoretical studies of the physical
Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman processes of importance to the structure
Physicist. Won the Nobel Prize for Physics and evolution of stars.
in 1930 for work on radiation. Amartya Sen Economist. Won the Nobel
Hargovind Khurana Biologist. Won the Prize for Economics in 1998 for work on
Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1968 for developmental economics.
interpreting the genetic code and analysing V.S.Naipaul Writer. Won the Nobel Prize for
its function in protein synthesis. Literature in 2001 for his entire body of
Mother Teresa Christian missionary. Won work which “unites perceptive narrative and
the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for work incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us
among Kolkata’s poor. to see the presence of suppressed histories”
says a statement from the Nobel committee.

Note: Hargovind Khurana, Subramanyan Chandrasekhar and V.S. Naipaul are of Indian origin but are not Indian citizens.

These Indians Missed Out But these may still make it


The following names crop up every year when
Nobel prizes are discussed
C.N.R. Rao: Structural Scientist. Lauded for achieve-
ments in solid state chemistry and material sciences.
Ashoke Sen: Physicist. One of the high priests in the
quest for sciences’ Holy Grail—The String Theory.
Mahatma Gandhi G.N. Ramachandran Salman Rushdie: Writer. Burst on the literary scene in
Mahatma Gandhi: Father of the Nation, apostle of peace 1980 with Midnight’s Children. Has penned several
masterpieces since.
and, in Albert Einstien’s words, “the only true Christian
since Christ”.
Jagdish Chandra Bose: Physicist. Guglielmo Marconi
beat him to the invention of the radio
by a matter of a few days only.
Satyen Bose: Physicist. Immortalised in science
for the Bose-Einstein Theory of matter and the Bose-
Einstein condensate. Salman Rushdie Vikram Seth

ECG Sudarshan: Physicist. His contribution to quantum Vikram Seth: Writer. Another Indo-Anglian literary giant
theory of optical coherence was ignored. who might still make it.
G.N. Ramachandran: Physicist. His work on triple helix Jagdish Bhagwati: Economist. His work on trade and
was considered Nobel-worthy. globalisation is considered path breaking.

What do the How Are The Winners Selected


laureates In each case, nominations are invited from scientists, heads of academies, researchers
win? from various countries and in the case of the peace prize, nominations are invited and
awarded by a committee of five, appointed by the Storting (the Norwegian Parliament).
● The Nobel Diploma Easily over a 100 nominations are made in each category (more than the number of
nominators since there are many duplications). The prizes for physics and chemistry are
● The Nobel Medal awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences; for physiology or medical works by the
● The Prize Amount Karolinska Institute in Stockholm; for literature by the Academy in Stockholm; and for
champions of peace by a committee of five persons elected by the Norwegian Storting.
(over $1 million) No consideration is given to the nationality of the candidates.

000 BUSINESS TODAY JANUARY 15 2006