‘I absolutely believe that scientists should be paid more than they are currently’

Published in The Hindu on November 26, 2009

Venkatraman Ramakrishnan
“I think the U.S. environment is much more flexible with respect to allowing people to change fields,” says Dr. Ramakrishnan, MRC Lab in Cambridge. — Photo: Wikimedia Commons

If Dr. Venkataraman Ramakrishnan, who shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry this year with two others for mapping ribosomes at the atomic level, could not entertain the flurry of requests for an interview from the media after he won the Prize, he more than compensated for it on November 24. He participated in a web chat organised by the U.S. Department of State, Office of Global Digital Programs. The web chat that lasted more than an hour saw him answering a range of questions. The participants included journalists, students and others.

His responses to most of the answers were forthright and were marked by remarkable clarity.

It is true that currently top class research in India is limited to a few good institutes. But that needs to change, he said to R. Prasad.

Dr. Ramakrishnan, unlike some scientists, sees science and religion as two completely different entities. Rather than making him more spiritual, dwelling at the atomic structure of ribosomes only taught him that there was a rational explanation for most things.

The full transcript of the web chat will become available at CO.NX by the end of this week (http://co-nx.state.gov and www.america.gov/multimedia/askamerica.html).

You were quoted as saying that India today offers good opportunities, and students need not have to shift to the U.S. to do top class research. But how much of path-breaking research is done in India compared with the U.S.?

This is a very good question and one on which people could differ.

There was a very interesting piece by Prof. M. Vijayan in your paper [The Hindu] recently. I think it is true that there is more money in the system. Once Prof. C.N.R. Rao told me that when he returned to India he really had to struggle to get things done, but now he has tried to make sure that young investigators have the facilities they need.

But except for people like Prof. Rao, Prof. G.N. Ramachandran and several others, the number of world class scientists is not what one would expect in a country the size of India, and in some ways, you could argue (as Prof. Vijayan has done) that pre-independence India produced more world-class scientists proportionately. I think that these things take time. 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”, etc) will emerge.

Considering the number of top class researchers, Nobel laureates included, in many universities in the U.S., and the benefits of being a part of such a research group, do you still hold the view that there is no compulsion for a young researcher to move to the U.S. to do top class research?

I think it is easier to do top class research in the U.S. (and the UK and Europe) because of the scientific culture of excellence. However, there are people in India who are now regularly publishing in top journals and doing very good work. So if you want to be trained well, it isn’t absolutely necessary to move to the U.S. What you make of the training is then up to you. I think it is always hard to do really original work, and there is also quite a bit of luck involved. One important thing is that information now is easily accessible, and thanks to the internet, scientists in India are less isolated from the latest ideas than they used to be. This is going to have a huge impact on the future.

More and more biotechnology students are compelled to pursue research in the U.S. and other countries as in India, barring very few institutes, work on cutting edge areas is not done. Your comments.

It is true that currently top class research in India is limited to a few good institutes. But that needs to change. One idea I have come across is embedding research institutes within universities, so students have a direct experience of first class research from a very early stage.

Science teaching in India is more bookish and theoretical. Can such a system ever produce path-breaking research?

I agree this is a problem, and there is too much cramming for exams that have very formal questions. My own experience in Baroda was very different. For Pre-science, we had the PSSC physics course from the U.S., and for my B.Sc. we studied the Berkeley physics course as well as the Feynman lectures. This was due to a handful of dedicated teachers, especially Prof. S.K. Shah, many of whom had returned from the U.S.

Do you think that it became possible for you to switch from Physics to Biology since the research environment in the U.S. allows it? Or do you suppose that a lateral shift was possible as science in general, and Biology, in particular, has become interdisciplinary?

I think the U.S. environment is much more flexible with respect to allowing people to change fields. However, I think you are right in saying that science, especially biology, has become more inter-disciplinary and is attracting people from all sorts of fields like physics and mathematics.

Do you still see a large number of students taking up basic sciences? That is not the case here in India, and what can be done to promote basic sciences?

One thing that encouraged a lot of very bright students in my generation was the National Science Talent Search Scholarship. This was prestigious, had special summer programs, etc. and was restricted to basic sciences. Perhaps something along those lines will help.

How difficult is it to get sustained funding (even in the U.S.) for basic research in sciences compared with applied research?

I have to say that although there is a lot of money in the U.S. system, it is sometimes hard to get sustained funding because the grants are typically for 3-5 years.

This is actually one reason [why] I moved to the MRC laboratory of molecular biology, which has a tradition of providing not exorbitant but very stable funding.

Is it fair to expect students to take up research when the salary is not attractive at all?

I absolutely believe that scientists (and even PhD students) should be paid more than they are currently.

How right is it to measure the quality of one’s work by the number of papers published in high-impact journals? Many institutes use this as a measure while deciding on promotions. Your comments.

This is a terrible worldwide problem. It is because those deciding on promotions etc. do not want to spend the time and energy to make an informed judgement of their own.

The worst thing about this is that one can publish a mediocre paper in a high impact journal and get more credit than for an outstanding paper in a less prestigious journal.

The co-ordinates of ribosome structures are available in the public domain. Companies use them for making drugs (and huge profits). Your comments.

So far nobody has made money on it. However, the coordinates are also licensed by Yale and the MRC, so if they do, we will get some return on the 16 investments.

But more generally, the U.S. and U.K. have found that without the profit motive, it is very hard to translate basic discoveries into useful applications and so in the long run it benefits society.