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Indian industries need to invest in research and development: Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan

India-born Nobel laureate and scientist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who’s president of the Royal Society, spoke to ET about research and education in India.

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Jan 09, 2016, 03.26 PM IST|Original: Jan 09, 2016, 04.00 AM IST
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India-born Nobel laureate and scientist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who’s president of the Royal Society, spoke to ET about research and education in India.
India-born Nobel laureate and scientist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who’s president of the Royal Society, spoke to ET about research and education in India.
India-born Nobel laureate and scientist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who’s president of the Royal Society, spoke to ET about research and education in India.

Has India's biology research kept pace with others in the last decade?

It has in a few places but the problem is that it's highly variable. If you go to a place like National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore, Karnataka, the kind of work being done there is comparable to some of the best labs around the world. I’ve visited a number of places like the Indian Institute of Science and so there are a lot of places where good, firstrate work is being done. Some of the new Interdisciplinary Centre for Energy Research (projects) including the two or three that I visited, are also promising, while they’re still new and have to establish themselves but it’s a good start. But I think it’s quite variable if you go to a lot of Indian universities. They’re doing what I would call very incremental work and not really what I would consider first grade.

How has the relationship between public-funded labs and private companies been changing?

That’s a good question. People want to encourage more of that. The US is exceptionally good at this and is good at translating discoveries and starting spin off countries. Another country unusually good at this is Israel. The reasons… are unclear but investing in startups means inculcating a culture of risk taking and you have to develop it. You have to have a population with enough knowledge which takes both knowhow, information and a culture of risk taking.

It is a problem really since the question is how do you take government-funded science and make useful things with it. In Cambridge, we have a science park, which was actually originally set up by Trinity college, of which I was a fellow. There are a number of startup companies there but it takes some active effort on part of scientists to engage with industry but industry should also be willing to invest and my feeling from talking to my fellow scientists here, industry is not as interested in research as it is in the West.

My feeling is that Indian science will be more broadly spread and Indian industries also need to invest in research and development and not just use it from elsewhere. There are a lot of technology companies that have invested in India in the last few years so I’m very hopeful that it will happen but it needs to be encouraged.

What is the role of private companies, especially startups, in developing biological and medical research in India?

I don’t know enough about it but this is just my guess but clearly there are some areas where Indian companies are doing quite well but there is a lot of potential. There is quite a lot of potential in monoclonal antibodies and there is a huge potential there. Some of them may come out of patent — vaccine production etc. There are areas like molecular biology and the tools of biotechnology with very established techniques. I think, India could do more of that sort of thing, which would lead to more innovative work.

How does a poor country decide its priorities? Should research be different from that in the west?

I don't think the solution is to study world problems that are being studied in the west. Before I became president of the Royal Society, a professor, Raghavendra Gadakar, asked why Indian scientists weren’t researching on more Indiaspecific problems. Many of them want to tackle broad mainstream questions.

If you’re very good and tackling more mainstream problems, go ahead, but if you feel you can compete with global community. But on the other hand, you could find very interesting science by tackling specifically Indian problems, diseases, plants and pests, ecological problems which are universal and matter to India like solar power, water conservation and energy in general.

These are things that Indian scientists could be involved in and do interesting science. I’m not saying they have to sacrifice the level of their science but doing their own thing and not constantly worrying about what the Americans or the British are doing.

How can educational institutes in India foster research?

There are a few quite good institutes throughout India and I think one idea is that people trained in these institutes then go off to other institutes and spread the ways of thinking. One problem in India is that state universities have become highly politicised. One thing that could be useful is to insulate faculty members from political influences to do and say what they think.

What is India getting wrong when it comes to education?

When I grew up in India, I had lots of free time to play but never took a single coaching class. Of course, I never got into any of the IITs so it’s a different story but I had quite a nice childhood where I was encouraged to explore, read things unrelated to my curriculum. I don’t have personal experience, but from what I read, middle class, higher families in India or even people below the middle class, their children are facing a lot of stress.

You have interviews for kindergarten, it’s ridiculous. I think the way people are taught here is by rote and how to take an exam and not how to learn interesting things. This in the long run isn't a healthy. But when Indians go abroad, they do extremely well, so something’s working but it may also mean that because you’re bright and educated, you do well given the right circumstances.

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