If the country’s top research institutes were embedded into university campuses, it would give students a direct experience of cutting-edge research from a very early stage, according to Nobel Prize winner Venkatraman Ramakrishnan.
During an hour-long web chat hosted by the US State Department on Tuesday, Dr. Ramakrishnan took questions from Indian students, scientists, reporters and well-wishers on a variety of subjects, including the state of India’s education and research establishment.
He felt that currently, top class research in India is limited to a few good institutes, a situation that needs to change. "I have always felt that for research to improve, students need to be exposed to the very best research at an early stage. One change over the last several decades is that individual universities have lost ground to large research institutes. It would be a good idea to embed research institutes inside university campuses, and perhaps also integrate research more into universities," he said.
Asked whether the government’s expansion of the IIT network would help Indian scientists make a global mark, he felt it was as important to set up more institutes for the basic sciences, modelled on the Indian Institute of Science, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and the National Centre for Biological Sciences, preferably located within university campuses.
Dr. Ramakrishnan also recalled his visits to several universities, and his impression that they were underfunded in comparison to central research institutes. "I think if one has to constantly worry about funding and facilities, it is hard to be innovative," he said, recommending that the government and Indian scientific community take steps to improve funding for universities.
He pointed out that increased funding for research would follow economic growth. "Science is expensive, and historically countries have started excelling in science as their economy has grown, whether it was the industrial revolution in Britain, or the growth of the USA or Japan," he said, pointing out that the US became the leading economic power by 1910, but only became a major scientific power after 1945. Similarly, Japan gained economic strength from 1960, but started producing world-class scientists, including Nobel prizewinners only in the last 10 to 20 years. For India, "I am hopeful it will happen in the next few decades," he said.
Even at an individual salary level, scientists and even PhD students need to be paid much better, said Dr. Ramakrishnan. "I don’t think scientists care a lot about money. I took a 40 per cent pay cut to move to England. However, it is important to pay scientists well enough so they don’t have to constantly worry about money and are secure, because this frees them to think about their research," he said.
Apart from the money factor, it will take time for Indian science to develop a culture of excellence. "I see very bright young scientists in my field in India who are publishing very good papers. Eventually, these people will create an atmosphere of excellence, and then from that a culture of tackling the hardest problems –rather than a defeatist attitude of ‘we can’t compete’ – will emerge," he said.
He accepted the admiration of the many high school students chatting with him, since he remembers what it was like to be a young student dreaming of a Nobel Prize and being fascinated by scientists. But Dr. Ramakrishnan is not comfortable with the title of an Indian role model. "People should not see me in that role but rather develop internal confidence. But I hope that people feel happy about the fact that someone from India, who got their basic education in India, could go on and do well internationally," he said.