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Why is India not producing Nobel Laureates?

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Summary

I think it is time to articulate a grand vision for Indian science. But at the same time, we need to be cognizant of the barriers. Our approach has to strike a fine balance, avoiding the twin pitfalls of a) dreams unanchored by reality or b) of being too mired in the present and its challenges that one loses sight of bigger objectives. We need to find the right vehicle that can carry the vision ahead without getting derailed.

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This article originally appeared here on LinkedIn.

 

Author’s prefatory remarks:

These jottings were put down as a way to engage with members of the civic society on a question which laypersons often ask us as Indian scientists. While as scientists we are all aware that Nobel prizes and such are possibly crude measures of the overall scientific performance of a nation, the question is nevertheless something we cannot shirk from addressing, especially since it is the Indian public which is largely supporting our science. Thus we need to view the question as one of why too many fundamental breakthroughs aren’t coming from Indian science. Nobel prizes and such are placeholders for this deeper question. My engagement with this question in this article is a personal one based on my experiences and is not to be viewed as any kind of analytic, objective study of the issue – far from it. It is born out of my involvement with the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences (ICTS-TIFR) in the last three years and what I see as one important ingredient needed for our science to operate on a different plane.

 

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In the decade that I spent at some of the best research centres in the US I kept trying to puzzle out “Why can’t we have institutions like this in India?”. While working on my PhD at Princeton University with one of the world’s eminent theoretical physicists (and future Nobel Laureate), David Gross, I could see and participate first hand in the creative process of science. Through the years afterwards, at Harvard and later at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, I felt I had gained some understanding of what made these places tick. I returned to India to be a part of the vibrant string theory effort here – a frontier area of research where Indian scientists have been making groundbreaking contributions. It has been intellectually and emotionally fulfilling in these years to work from India and contribute to the cutting edge. However, the Indian string community’s disproportionate contribution on the world stage is more an exception than the rule. The question of how one could create a broad scientific atmosphere of high level excellence, in India, has remained on my mind.

 

In the decades since Independence, India has, to its immense credit, assembled a trained body of scientists and built institutions for advanced research. This has enabled the Indian scientific community to contribute to the progress in science and technology at a global level. However, it is now high time to examine how we can build on these solid foundations and take Indian science to a higher level. How can we have Indian science be in the driving seat, worldwide, of, at least, a handful of frontier disciplines; how can India be the home to creative breakthroughs that alter the scientific landscape; how can we nurture a Nobel LaureateFields medalist, or Turing awardee? How do we prepare the ground to bring about such a shift? What prevents us from making this happen?

 

There are certainly barriers to overcome. An obvious one is scale, in terms of resources and, more importantly, the low concentration of high quality researchers in any given research area. There are only a couple of thousand researchers across the country, across all disciplines, whose work has international impact. Distances across the country mean that even these few numbers are often thinly spread. Even the few scientific hubs like Bengaluru and Pune will be hard put to compete with places like Boston or the Bay Area. Our research centres are also often cutoff from the undergraduates who will go onto to become future scientists; as well as from industries which could be a source of problems and ideas. Further, administrative structures are of a governmental nature and often dissipate the energy of driven scientists. Institutional compartmentalisation and lack of opportunities to interact mean that we do not have much of the “transdisciplinary science” that is needed to attack complex questions. For instance, the absence of the biological sciences at the IITs for a very long time has led to a complete disconnect between engineering and the life sciences, which is a glaring gap, as we now belatedly recognise.

 

I think it is time to articulate a grand vision for Indian science. But at the same time, we need to be cognizant of the barriers. Our approach has to strike a fine balance, avoiding the twin pitfalls of a) dreams unanchored by reality or b) of being too mired in the present and its challenges that one loses sight of bigger objectives. We need to find the right vehicle that can carry the vision ahead without getting derailed.

 

Something I had observed in my years in the US was the absolutely critical role played in the scientific ecosystem by certain nodal centres. These centres for advanced research are smaller in scale than conventional universities and have a complementary function. Examples include the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) at Princeton, the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP) at Santa Barbara, the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, the Simons Centres at Berkeley (for computation) and Stony Brook (for geometry and physics). They have been the home to some of the most influential thinkers of our era – Nobel Laureates, Fields medalists and others, starting with Einstein at the IAS, Princeton. A characteristic feature of these centres is that they bring the best scientists together to collaborate and work on frontier questions in the basic sciences through specially curated and, often, interdisciplinary programs, lasting from a few weeks to a few months.

 

Why is this important? The fuel that drives cutting edge science is human inventiveness: ideas and discoveries which reshape the scientific landscape are ones which a) penetrate deep into nature’s secrets (such as those of quantum mechanics or genetics) b) conceptually transform the way we view the world (such as through the computational lens) c) provide us the theoretical tools needed to analyse complex systems and discern hidden patterns (which advanced mathematics does). Such ideas can only arise in an intellectually stimulating environment. This requires scientists from a variety of institutions and scientific backgrounds to come together and spend extended periods in face-to-face interaction, achieving out-of-scale enhancements in productivity as a result. This model of visitor driven theory centres have proven highly successful as evidenced by having been replicated in a number of countries in Europe, Japan and China (see here).

 

At these leading nodal institutes, specially curated programs enable collaboration across standard disciplines. Thus, a program on machine learning can bring together mathematicians, computer scientists, physicists and neuroscientists. These are communities that normally do not have a chance to interact much, let alone collaborate. This is the kind of multiplier effect that we need in Indian science.

 

Additionally in the Indian context, such centres can play the role of exposing the scientific community to emerging topics of research across international boundaries. It builds capability within the country in these topics, particularly amongst grad students and young researchers. This is crucial given the geographic separation of our institutions from the leading ones elsewhere in the world. By providing the right infrastructure and support, we can attract the best scientists of the world to spend substantial time in India collaborating with Indian researchers. In particular, such centres can also be a venue for the large Indian scientific diaspora to meaningfully engage in the long term with Indian science.

 

Establishing top notch nodal centres along the above lines will have a cascading effect. I believe that introducing this missing ingredient in the Indian scientific ecosystem can be the key to overcoming the barriers to excellence and having our own home-grown Nobel Laureates. In the second post on this topic I will elaborate on how the newly established International Centre for Theoretical Sciences (ICTS-TIFR) in Bengaluru is all set to play this catalytic role of a nodal centre in our scientific community and realise the potential of Indian science.

 

Rajesh Gopakumar is Centre Director, International Centre for Theoretical Sciences (ICTS-TIFR), Bengaluru.

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