Sunday, October 13, 2013

An Ecosystem for Fundamental Research: An Essential Paradigm for India

 Another season of Nobel Prizes for sciences (Physiology or Medicine, Physics and Chemistry) has come, this October 2013. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2013 was awarded jointly to James E. Rothman, Randy W. Schekman and Thomas C. Südhof "for their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells". The Nobel Prize in Physics 2013 was awarded jointly to François Englert and Peter W. Higgs "for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN's Large Hadron Collider". The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2013 was awarded jointly to Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel "for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems".

James E. Rothman, Randy W. Schekman and Thomas C. Sudhof are affiliated, at the time of the award, to Yale University, CT, USA and Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA respectively. Francois Englert and Peter W. Higgs are affiliated, at the time of the award, to  Université Libre de Bruxelles, Brussels, Belgium, and University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom, respectively. Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel are affiliated, at the time of the award, to Université de Strasbourg, Strasbourg, France and Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA, USA and University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, USA, respectively. As almost always, the Nobel Prizes have been bagged by scientists working in the universities of advanced countries such as USA and European Union. Not unexpectedly, an Indian scientist has not figured the prestigious Nobel roll call this year as well.

Indian Nobel Laureates
Sir CV Raman (1930) and Abdus Salam (1979) and Subramanyam Chandrasekhar (1983) in Physics, Ronald Ross (1902) and H Gobind Khorana (1968) in Physiology or Medicine, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan (2009) in Chemistry are some of the prominent scientific luminaries from India who won Nobel Prizes in Sciences (excluding literature and economic sciences). Given that in terms of numbers India has probably the largest number of colleges, institutions and universities offering scientific and technical education, the small number of Indians amongst Nobel Laureates and the non-appearance of Indian institutions in terms of affiliations at the time of award is quite disappointing. It is also disappointing that although thousands of bright Indian scholars leave each year for higher order scientific education, including doctoral and post-doctoral studies in the USA and EU, the number of such Indians who became Nobel Laureates is even smaller.
This situation is to be read with the fact that in a ranking of the Top 500 universities by ARWU (Academic Ranking of World Universities), only one Indian educational institution, the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore figures, with a ranking between 300 and 400. American universities have captured 17 positions of the top 20 slots, with two going to British universities and one being occupied by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at Zurich. Of the 500 universities ranked, American universities captured a total of 182 slots; European universities occupied 200 slots — but only three made the top 20. As many as 17 Chinese universities were included as well. ARWU, also known as Shanghai Rankings, considers every university that has any Nobel Laureates, field medalists, highly cited researchers, or papers published in Nature or Science. In addition, universities with significant amount of papers indexed by the Science Citation Index-Expanded (SCIE) and the Social Science Citation Index (SSCI) are also included. In total, more than 1000 universities are actually ranked, and the best 500 are published on the web. Universities are also ranked by several indicators of academic or research performance, and the per capita academic performance of an institution. For each indicator, the highest scoring institution is assigned a score of 100, and other institutions are calculated as a percentage of the top score.
Indian University Scenario
India has around  570 universities, including 13 Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), 17 Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and 30 National Institutes of Technology (NITs). Each university, except the IIMs, IITs and NITs as well as some specialized universities tends to have several colleges attached to it; an average reported figure is 300 colleges per university. All the universities and colleges except the few dedicated to management education teach and conduct research in science and engineering. The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is the largest Government funded, autonomous R&D Organization in India, having 37 laboratories which cover, among others, biological sciences, physical sciences, chemical sciences and engineering sciences. Nearly 17,000 staff work in the CSIR laboratories.  Nearly 700,000 science and mathematics graduates and another 700,000 engineering graduates are turned out each year by the Indian educational system – impressive figures by any standard.
More relevant is the number of doctoral candidates that emerge from the Indian education system each year. India turns out close to 10,000 Ph Ds each year in science, engineering and technology. This is quantitatively impressive considering that all the OECD countries are reportedly producing 100,000 Ph Ds each year, and the leading country, USA itself contributes around 50,000 Ph Ds in science and engineering. Numbers possibly tell only less than half of the story, at least as far as India is concerned. While the doctoral programs in the USA are focused on the cutting edge of science and engineering, with a fair degree of association with Nobel Laureates and laboratories undertaking fundamental research, the Indian Ph Ds are handicapped by the lack of such leading edge associations. In addition, lack of laboratories committed to fundamental research in India for post-doctoral and research employment in public sector or private sector further constrains even those who have passion for research in India. An article in Nature, 472, 276-279 (2011), ruefully observes that the academic employment opportunities for Ph Ds have been declining even in the US, leading to their migration to jobs that do not require such advanced degrees.
IIFRs for a Research Ecosystem
India has less than 1 percent of its graduates enrolling for Ph D programs. The brightest of graduates, in fact, migrate to the advanced universities in US and Europe for Ph D programs. There is a clear need to address the fundamental research paradigm in India not merely to retain more    Ph D talent but more fundamentally to raise the state of discovery and innovation in India. With India harmonizing its intellectual property regime with the world order the previously held concerns on protecting discoveries and inventions out of India have considerably reduced. There must, therefore, be concerted efforts in, and for, India to participate in cutting edge research. Rather than spread itself thin, India could implement a phased plan to establish the foundations of fundamental research, starting with physical and chemical sciences, followed by engineering sciences and biological sciences.
The research ecosystem can take roots and grow only when the industry integrates the fundamental research in its operations, and also is proactive in contributing to the establishment of centers of fundamental research in India. Like the industry and business are expected to contribute financially to fulfill corporate social responsibility (CSR), there would need to be contributions to fulfill corporate innovation responsibility (CIR). A part of the research ecosystem should include a major initiative by the Government of India to set up a chain of Indian Institutes of Fundamental Research (IIFRs), on the lines of the IITs and IIMs, but exclusively focused on post-graduate education and doctoral and post-doctoral research. In addition, two developments in the Indian educational system that are potentially on their way must be restructured and leveraged for the benefit of fundamental research.
The first is the entry of corporate houses into Indian education. Instead of focusing on run-of-the-mill programs, business houses should partner the IIFRs to establish research schools of excellence and/or provide grants and chairs to encourage fundamental researchers. If they must set up their own institutes they must be their own institutes of fundamental research. Secondly, foreign universities which want to enter India must be asked to set up at least one center of fundamental research in each of their Indian centers as part of their physical campus programs in India. Just as India has delivered substantial value in global outsourcing of information technology and manufacturing, India would deliver significant value for foreign universities networking into India for fundamental research. A combination of Government sponsored IIFRs, public sector and private sector corporate sponsored research centers and foreign universities’ extension research schools should provide the winning formula for a pervasive ecosystem for fundamental research in India.
Research is a Passion
Basic to fundamental research is the fact that research is a passion, and not an employment or a business input. True researchers tend to be passionate in the field of discovery and invention. Neither age and gender nor nationality and geography have any relevance to the unending quest for new discoveries and inventions. Amongst the hundreds of Nobel Laureates, 25 years is the age of the youngest Laureate and 90 is the age of the oldest; 59 years is the average. In fact, over 49 Laureates are younger than 40 years, with most of them being in Physics. As Dr Higgs’s continuing work demonstrates, fundamental research is a lifetime passion. Similarly, it is truly multinational; as long as a world class research ecosystem exists in any nation, world class researchers would migrate to that nation, as a large nation like US and a small nation like Sweden equally exemplify.
Research takes extraordinarily extended time and intense effort that cannot be ordinarily rewarded. It is even more so with fundamental research. It drills down to unexplored hidden depths of knowledge but also connects seemingly unconnected domains of knowledge. The 2013 Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and Physiology demonstrate the importance of cross-functional knowledge, especially computer modeling or transportation modeling, in understanding complex chemical and biological activities. The God Particle (Higgs boson) research could not have happened but for the massive investment and effort involved in establishing the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. While India does need to go a long way in fulfilling certain basic economic, industrial and social growth needs through considerable investments, India cannot also afford to ignore the need and responsibility to invest in establishing and nurturing an ecosystem for fundamental research. Fundamental research will lead to a truly fundamental transformation towards a leadership role in global scientific and engineering domains for India.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on October 13, 2013   

1 comment:

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