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India needs to support its homegrown scientists, give them decent income: Venki Ramakrishnan

Biologist and Nobel laureate Venkatraman ‘Venki’ Ramakrishnan.   | Photo Credit: Sandeep Saxena

Biologist and Nobel laureate Venkatraman ‘Venki’ Ramakrishnan, in his new book The Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome, tracks his career in science from the day he left India as a 19-year-old with his “heart set on becoming a theoretical physicist,” his culture shock at university life in the U.S., meeting his future wife Vera Rosenberry, and of course ‘stumbling into the ribosome’. In an email interview, Ramakrishnan talks about the role of scientific collaboration, his views on ‘genius’, and the impact of nationalism on scientific research. Excerpts:

Is the notion of a scientific genius, like Einstein or Feynman, redundant, given that scientific breakthroughs are more likely to be collaborative?

As I’ve pointed out in the book, science never emerges from a vacuum. Rather, advances are made when the state of understanding in a field and developments in technology reach a stage when certain ideas can be pursued. When that happens, one or more people happen to see the next possible advance a little before everyone else. This is why so many discoveries are made nearly simultaneously by two or more people, like the discovery of calculus by Newton and Leibniz, the theory of evolution by Darwin and Wallace, or quantum mechanics by several people including Heisenberg and Schrödinger. Even Feynman was only one of several who formulated quantum electrodynamics. So I don’t subscribe to the heroic narrative of science. Rather, some of us are fortunate enough to be the agents of important discoveries that would have been made anyway. Certain kinds of large-scale science is by nature going to be collaborative, but I don’t believe the leaps made by individuals will ever go away or even diminish in importance.

Just as the U.S. has, for over a century, been able to attract some of the smartest people in the world, does India need to do the same? If so how?

India will start attracting people when it does world-class science that is not done elsewhere. To do this routinely, it also has to provide a decent environment — this includes basic amenities like housing, safe, clean and unpolluted neighbourhoods for the scientists and their families. It also needs to provide competitive salaries. I see this as quite a long way away. As a first step, India needs to support its homegrown scientists well, giving them a decent income, good facilities to carry out their research, and independence from political pressures. Scientists need to fulfil their side of the bargain by subjecting their work periodically to rigorous assessment for continued support.

You’ve spoken about nationalism as the flipside of bigotry. But hasn’t nationalism also fuelled competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and led to advanced rocketry, satellites? Might nationalism still have its uses for science?

Nationalism is only useful to spur on technical advances with specific applied goals. It is different with science, which is universal, and needs both freedom of thought and objectivity, all of which are the antitheses of nationalism. Science in Nazi Germany and biology in Stalin’s Soviet Union both suffered due to an injection of ideology and nationalism. Science needs a rapid exchange of ideas and expertise to advance, which is often catalysed by movement of people between countries. Science is therefore global and thrives far more on cooperation rather than rivalry among nations. This reduction of national barriers to flow of people and knowledge across borders is different from competition between individuals or teams. That sort of competition happens all the time and helps drive science forward by weeding out bad ideas and making scientists work harder and better.

In several parts of the world, India included, there’s a suspicion of GM crops. What drives it, and what are the consequences of this scepticism on global scientific research?

The suspicion largely comes from two factors. The first is that people do not realise that genetic modification using modern tools is simply a more precise way of doing something that people have been doing randomly for centuries. Even the transfer of genes between species has actually occurred naturally, although that is more rare. The other is that many GM crops are being produced by large multinational companies, which result in monopolistic practices as well as traits that encourage the use of herbicides, etc. But these are not intrinsic to GM, which is simply a powerful tool that could be used for good, such as to make plants that are higher yielding, more nutritious, tolerant to drought or other harsh conditions, or naturally pest-resistant. It is up to us — governments and society — to make sure that GM is used in a beneficial way.

You switched from physics to biology after a PhD. If you were a physics grad today and had to make a switch, what field of research would you opt for?

There are lots of opportunities for someone with a background in physics and mathematics. There is cognitive neuroscience, computational biology, computer science (especially machine learning and artificial intelligence and quantum computing). And within physics, there is a lot of excitement in many areas. But people should not be guided by what is fashionable or trendy. Fashions come and go but you have to be motivated by what actually interests you.

Venki Ramakrishnan will be speaking at The Hindu Lit for Life 2019. To be held on January 12, 13 & 14, at Lady Andal School premises, Harrington Road, Chennai. Visit www.thehindul.com to register.


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