How to produce Nobel laureates

While the AP government’s Rs 100-crore offer caught the attention, only ideating and innovating will win us the real thing

Published: 24th Jan 2017   2:00 am Updated: 24th Jan 2017   3:02 pm

Academic conferences in this country are events more for meeting, greeting and eating than for any serious deliberation, they say. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu’s address at the 104th Indian Science Congress did much more than that. His offer of a Rs 100-crore bonanza for any scientist from the State who gets home that elusive Nobel Prize jolted the attendees out of their seats. In one stroke, the CM raised the stakes so high, making the Bhatnagar Award and the Nobel Prize purse per se, pale in comparison.

While the jackpot is too enticing to ignore, it makes one wonder what it takes to claim the crown. Spirits are bound to drop when one realises that since the days of yore, there have been just five great men among the Indian citizens who made the country proud by making the cut, and only one of them (Sir C V Raman) is for Science (Physics).

Meagre Investment
Is investment (rather the lack of it) the issue for this disappointing show? Is it infrastructure? Is it our intellect? Or, is it our institutions?

Our GERD (Gross Expenditure on R&D) is less that 1% of the GDP, with 65% of it coming from public funding. The figures for China and France are about double, those for the US, Germany and Japan are three times or more. In fact, just two countries — the US and China — account for about 50% of the global share of the GERD!

Our investment too should go up to at least 2% with a per cent each coming from public and private sectors. To be fair to the Indian Government, the Plan outlays for Science & Technology (S&T) doubled from 9th Plan to 10th Plan, and trebled in the 11th Plan to about Rs 73,000 crore. But only 60% was spent, prompting the 12th Plan outlay to be pegged at about Rs 120,000 crore, with a rise not in multiples as in the preceding years, but still by a handsome 64%.

It is logical to argue that lower expenditure could also be on account of our low base of researchers, about 200 researchers per million. China has nearly five times the number, France, Germany, UK, US and Japan about 20 times or more. However, it’s important to recognise that our R&D spend at $200,000 per researcher puts us in the comity of China and several advanced western countries.

The ray of hope though is that India has been doing well in basic research. As the Prime Minister observed, our volume of scientific publications ranks sixth in the world; growing at a rate of about 14% as against the world average growth rate of about 4%. True, our scientific output (research papers) in disciplines such as Chemistry, Physics, Materials Science, Engineering and Clinical Medicine has been consistently claiming ranks within the top 10, even figuring among the top 1% impact journals. The establishment of (more) IITs, IISERs (Indian Institutes of Science Education Research), NISERs and NIPERs (National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research) as well as the multiplying research organisations under the scientific ministries offering attractive research grants should indeed be a major enabling factor.

Path to Innvoation
What ails our system then, that a Rs 100-crore wager had to be put on a Nobel Prize? There are very few answers if one were to measure the value or impact of our scientific and technological research, in terms of either direct (tangible) or indirect (intangible) returns on the investments.

Patent, publish and prosper has been the wise counsel of Padma Vibhushan RA Mashelkar, a living legend who brought innovation in the limelight. The Global Intellectual Property Centre of the US ranks us among the bottom most in its much acclaimed Intellectual Property Index. Our record of innovations has indeed been disappointing, if not dismal.

The path to innovation, described imaginatively by experts as ‘lab to land’, ‘mind to market place’, ‘bench to bedside’ or ‘farm to fork’, is a hard and treacherous one. Starting from an inspired individual (researcher) developing new insights and ideas to infrastructure providing a platform for inventions to take place and incubators helping the inventions graduate to innovations, there is a whole eco-system that needs to work vibrantly in a mutually collaborative way with competitive spirit. People (scientists), Property (intellectual) and Products/Processes are the three most vital ‘ingredients’ in the ideation-to-innovation virtuous chain.

Crying Need
Science must meet the rising social aspirations of people and demanding societal needs. Responsibility with accountability, freedom and flexibility of resource use, autonomy with answerability are a crying need for greater empowerment at the lab/research institution level. A Science Audit (not to be confused with one carried out by the C&AG but one that is practised abroad), which involves an independent (periodic) evaluation of the scientific activities and accomplishments by a team of international domain experts with impeccable reputation would serve as a reality check on the raison d’être of the R&D establishments. Efforts should be made to inculcate scientific temper among children of the country and policies should be evolved to groom budding scientists.

Prodded for a cue to winning the Nobel Prize, “Hard work, Hard work, Hard work” was the crisp and clear response of Nobel laureate Takaaki Kajita of Japan. The ball, for now, appears to be squarely in the court of the S&T institutions themselves – from the Ministry/Department concerned, downward. Ideating, inventing or innovating is the realm of the scientists and science-managers.

Till such time, which is unlikely in the near future, the Treasury Department of AP can relax about its scarce funds depleting by another Rs 100 crore!!

(The author is Director — Centre for Public Policy, Governance and Performance, Administrative Staff College of India, Hyderabad)