Nobel Laureates See Extraordinary Challenges in India's Research Future

David Gross and Randy Schekman on what India could do to become a leader in scientific research and innovation, drawing from experiences that supported their prize-winning work.

India nurses much heartache for the fact that there has been no science Nobel Prize to its credit since 1930, when C.V. Raman won for physics. After the Nobel Prize announcements in October 2016, India’s Union Minister of State for Science and Technology, Y.S. Chowdary, announced that the government would put in place schemes to help an Indian secure a Nobel Prize by 2035. While the prize 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? India recently had a chance to seek answers from the laureates themselves. The Nobel Prize Series – India 2017 (January 9-13) saw nine winners 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) in collaboration with Nobel Media AB, Sweden, bringing laureates to Gandhinagar, Delhi and Bengaluru – in that order.

On the last day, January 13 in Bengaluru, the spotlight was on David Gross (physics, 2004) and Randy Schekman (medicine, 2013) to devise a recipe for innovation.

Both laureates stressed on the importance of finding ways to regularly include scientific voices during policy development because that sets the tone for future research and solutions. In this context, they highlighted the impact of the US 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, the ‘ends’, they don’t dwell on the means or the journey. Topical white papers by scientists are essential to deliberate on such specifics.

Between 2008 and 2010, C.N.R. Rao, the former chief science adviser to the prime minister of India, set up the Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB) to make research funding less bureaucratic and more meritocratic. He recently admitted in an interview to The Wire that the SERB may have seriously underestimated its challenges.

“Scientists could also form professional bodies and organise seminars for politicians, we do so for the US Congress,” suggested 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. Gross added, “Innovation essentially means ‘new ideas’.” 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?

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 realise this profound connection in many enterprises, continuing as it does to neglect its own scientists’ pursuit of fundamental research. The US, on the other hand, recognised the link early and for which the laureates were grateful.

“Since the late 1940s, both parties (Democrats and Republicans) have been very supportive of the basic sciences,” pointed out Schekman, referring to the post-Second-World-War 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 for 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 has been the least.

Fundamental research demands long term commitment in funding and patience. Which is why it needs continuous support through public funds, the laureates explained. They also noted the role played by philanthropic foundations in aiding long term research in certain areas. Philanthropic donations to research in the US are tax-exempt. They both suggested that India could well adopt this strategy.

Apart from funds, quality resources are also 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 among top-tier institutes like the IITs, Schekman said that very few undergraduate students get to work in good-quality labs or participate in cutting-edge research. Gross felt that the relatively new Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs) are doing better in this context. Seven of them have been set up in the last eight 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. “Their scientists, students and research are truly world class,” he said, “but then again, there are only [a few] institutes.”

Bridging this gap will require more resources and trained manpower. This is where it gets complicated for a large country. 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?” Gross figures it’s an “extraordinarily difficult” challenge to overcome.

One way forward is through encouraging the 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 to or more attractive than the opportunities available 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?”

Both 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 speculated that Big Data and Big Science were poised to get bigger, demanding cross-continental collaborations between nations and scientists. “India must take a lead in forging these collaborations,” advised Gross.

In turn, Schekman quoted the timeless words of Vannevar Bush from a 1945 report titled ‘Science – The Endless Frontier’, which shaped science policy and innovation in the US for decades: “The freedom of inquiry must be preserved under any plan of governance for science.”