Monday, October 12, 2015

Neglecting science could kill it one day

The deterioration of science education in India should be of greater concern to us than not winning a Nobel Prize

October is that month when institutions in Sweden and Norway, including the Swedish Academy of Sciences, announce the winners of the Nobel Prize in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, economics and peace. The awards in physics, chemistry and medicine have a long history and it is probably this long tradition, rather than their monetary value, that gives the Nobel Prize the extraordinary power to influence public perceptions of the scientific profession.
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Productive, high-quality science requires good infrastructural facilities, good students, expensive instruments and industry-academia linkages. Such facilities are extremely rare in developing countries
A question sometimes asked, though perhaps less often than it should be by Indian politicians and the intelligentsia, is why, despite our much-touted scientific acumen, no Nobel Prize in science has been won by an Indian for work done in India for more than 80 years — as Sir CV Raman won the physics Nobel in 1930. This question is an important one since the teaching and doing of science require substantial resources that come from the tax payer. An obvious answer is that for Indian science to reach such prize-winning calibre we require not just ‘outstanding’ discoveries in science but also what it takes to come up with them and that these requirements have undergone changes beyond recognition since the Raman era. The question we should rather be asking today is what kind of science allows individual excellence to thrive, bring glory to the nation, and deliver tangible benefits to society.
It is important to realise that many Nobel Prize-winning discoveries both in the past and also in more recent times have been innovation-focused. Contrary to common wisdom, top quality curiositydriven research and that which assumes a broader application often go hand in hand. Excellence in applied and basic research synergises each other over long periods of time. Established innovations can often throw up questions whose answers in turn lead to outstanding discoveries.
The discovery of the ammonia synthesis catalyst in the early 20th century is a particularly instructive case in point. It is essential in the manufacture of the most common fertiliser, globally made in billions of tonnes today, and its discoverer Fritz Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1918. However, while his work revealed how ammonia was made, the question as to why the catalyst works remained unanswered for about 70 years. It was Gerhard Ertl, using modern experimental techniques, who provided the answer and won the Nobel Prize in 2007.
Another relevant example is the Nobel awarded to John Robert Vane in 1982 for providing an answer to why aspirin is an effective pain killer. Although aspirin had been patented in 1900 by the company Bayer, and its medicinal benefits as a pain killer were well established, its mechanism of action was not known. Vane’s answer paved the pathway for the introduction of a new generation of heart drugs.
This year’s Nobel Prize for medicine to Tu Youyou of China for the discovery of artemisinin, an antimalarial drug isolated from Chinese wormwood, is a clear example of how innovation continues to be driven by good science. In China the national project against malaria to discover new therapies was started in 1967, and artemisinin (the active ingredient) isolated by 1972. In other words, it took four decades for the scientific community as a whole to collectively establish and accept the enormous scope and utility of Tu’s work.
Much of Nobel Prize-winning science has been interdisciplinary in character. Many prize-winning discoveries had engineers working with scientists. Carl Bosch and Guilio Natta (one of the Nobel Prize winners for plastic) were chemical engineers who collaborated and shared their Nobels with chemists. In recent times the border lines between physics and chemistry or chemistry and biology are so blurred that chemists often complain that the prizes given for chemistry have little to do with chemistry. In this century four out of the 16 Nobel prizes in chemistry, have been awarded for work related to catalysis, an interdisciplinary area of much industrial relevance.
Productive, high-quality science requires good infrastructural facilities, good students, expensive instruments and industry-academia linkages. Such facilities are extremely rare in developing countries. No wonder many talented scientists from the developing world have looked for professional fulfilment in the West. Aziz Sancar, one of the Nobel Prize winners in chemistry this year, is one more addition to the long list of Nobel laureates in the United States whose primary training in science was in the developing world. Hargobind Khorana and V Ramakrishnan, both Indianorigin scientists and Nobel laureates, also worked in well-funded science laboratories elsewhere.
The future of Indian science as a whole is uncertain and the overall deterioration in science education and research are matters of far greater concern than not winning a Nobel Prize. Science education and research must not be thought of as water falling from a tap that can be closed and opened at will. Neglecting science beyond a point can kill it permanently. In India with less than 1% of GDP allocation to science and the private sector’s complete indifference to long-term industry-academia linkages we are fast approaching that point. Sumit Bhaduri taught at Northwestern University and IIT Bombay The views expressed are personal.

Source: The Hindustan Times dated 12/10/2015

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