interview | Venkatraman Ramakrishnan Science

Science flourishes when people are free to question authority, says Nobel Laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan

Biologist and Nobel laureate Venkatraman.   | Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar

Nobel Laureate Venkatraman ‘Venki’ Ramakrishnan, who switched academic tracks to take up biology after a doctorate in physics, emphasises the need for an inclusive atmosphere and questioning of authority if science is to thrive in the country, citing the setback to German science during the Nazi years. He spoke in Bengaluru, where he will deliver a lecture as part of the TNQ Distinguished Lectures in the Life Sciences.

Could an understanding of the structure of the ribosome help in discovering new therapies that target antibiotic-resistant organisms? And has research hit a roadblock in creating a new class of antibiotics against superbugs?

There are many ways of targeting bacteria. But nature’s selected the ribosome quite often, so in fact about half of the natural antibiotics target the ribosome or general translational machinery. And when the structures came out, it was thought that they would be very useful to study how natural antibiotics bound to the ribosome and inhibited them. But then, that would also allow you to design better antibiotics that might be more effective against resistant bacteria, and possibly have fewer side effects.

I think the problem is that antibiotics are not a huge profit-maker necessarily because it costs about a billion dollars to develop a new medicine. And the problem is a new antibiotic is only given to people to whom old or generic antibiotics don’t work. So, the patient pool is small, and also if it’s any good, the patient is cured. It’s not like a cholesterol or blood pressure drug that you have to keep taking the rest of your life.

The result is that for the last several decades, there has been no new class of antibiotics developed. So I question whether the business model is correct for developing new antibiotics. And, one has to remember that penicillin, the first of the big natural antibiotics, was actually developed by the British government in response to WW II with a massive effort at Oxford. There’s no reason why governments and non-profit organisations should not invest heavily in antibiotic research, and I think they should do it before the problem becomes a huge crisis. We’re already seeing superbugs. I think we always have to stay one step ahead of the bacteria, which will evolve to become resistant.

You recently made a strong statement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. What made it important for you, as a scientist, an Indian-born scientist, to speak out?

I don’t normally like to make statements about Indian politics; I like to stick to science. My concern about the CAA is — you know, technically it is not targeted at Indian Muslims — but it does send a message that somehow one religion is excluded, while others are okay. And the rationale is that the countries that people are coming from are Muslim countries, so why should them being Muslim actually be an issue?

Well I think it could be an issue because they are looking at Muslims as a homogeneous group. And they are not a homogeneous group. And so I think, rather than spelling it out that way they could have decided everything on a case-by-case basis. And I also think India has a secular Constitution, and it’s not clear that having a religious criteria for a particular law is going to hold up in courts. Science and technology always flourish, I think, in an atmosphere that is inclusive and tolerant.

You have cautioned against the rise of pseudo-science in India. Do you see a rising correlation between a new culture of science, the polity and the shift to majoritarianism?

Whenever these people make some outlandish statement, tying some ancient scripture to some major scientific discovery, whether it’s nuclear weapons or stem cells, I don’t think scientists in India take them at all seriously. I don’t even know if the politicians who make these statements actually believe in it. But I think it’s just generally bad to have people in authority make these pseudo-scientific statements because it brings India into ridicule. India then looks to be a sort of backward-looking, superstitious country, when, in fact, the majority of educated Indians and the majority of Indian scientists are very much like scientists anywhere else.

Could laws that exclude communities eventually undermine science?

History says that when you start becoming less open, and discriminatory, you end up hurting science; and the classic example, of course, is Nazi Germany, which effectively destroyed German science for probably two or three generations. It took about 50 years to recover. I think science flourishes best when people are free to talk, free to question ideas, free to question authority — because that is how progress is made.

Science really depends on being able to question authority. So, I think anything that excludes communities and creates an atmosphere of intolerance, is probably not a good thing for science. If you exclude a large fraction population you’re missing out on the talent in that population.

You are not a big fan of prizes because they apply a 'sports metaphor' to science; you have described the chronic hankering for a Nobel Prize, in your book, as ‘Nobelitis’...

In sports, you can have a very clear set of rules, and a clear set of measurement. So if you have a 100 metre race, there’s no question what the rules are, there’s no question who came first, second and third; you can measure it. In science, when there is a big discovery, it is not always clear who the big contributors were, because often different people make contributions in different ways. So it’s not always clear which was the important idea and it can be very subjective. For example, in the field of transcription, the Lasker Award went to one very good scientist, and the Nobel Prize went to a different, but also a very good, scientist. How could it be that distinguished expert juries picked totally different people in the same field? And so I think that’s in general not a great thing. The argument for it is that it brings attention to science. And also, human beings like to have heroes and villains and so they like these sort of prizes — to them that tells a more human story.

You have written in your book Gene Machine that you were extremely fortunate that your wife Vera Rosenberry, the children's book illustrator, could take on the responsibilities of childcare at home, allowing you to focus on academia. What can be done to help women scientists stay with research and get past the glass ceiling that often cuts short careers around the time of marriage and child birth?

Unfortunately, this is a problem everywhere, not just India. I think there are a number of things that have to be done. One is, people should be allowed career breaks. First of all, we call it ‘maternity leave’ but the more modern way is to think of it as ‘parental leave’. There’s no reason why the husband shouldn’t also be involved in childcare. And so the idea is to allow leave without penalty, so people can get back their job at the end of it. It is unfair to ask an individual employer necessarily to bear the costs of that. So it’s better a government reimburses people for being on leave.

Secondly, the question of childcare is very important. It’s very important to have good childcare facilities, close to work.

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Printable version | Jun 14, 2021 6:56:27 PM |

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