India should show sustained commitment to science: Venkatraman Ramakrishnan

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The  culture of innovation has to be cultivated, says Nobel Laureate Venkatraman Ramapkrishnan. – Photo: R. Prasad

In an hour-long interview, Nobel Laureate Prof. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, who called the Indian Science Congress a “circus”, discussed the implications of some of the Indian government policies on science and technology. He summarily rejects the idea of scientists needing permission from directors before discussing the results of a public-funded, published work with the media or public. He is optimistic that India can be a science powerhouse by 2030 if it does the right things. He was the chief guest at the Infosys Prize 2016 award ceremony held in Bengaluru on January 7. Excerpts.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently said India will be among the top three countries in science and technology by 2030. Do you think it is at all possible given the low funding and priority for science in India?

It’s true that R&D funding is low [in India] but I think that these things can be changed. You can invest in R&D and encourage much more private R&D. The government investment may be low but private funding is much lower. I think the culture of innovation has to be cultivated.

I heard many of the talks at the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance. They were of the calibre that scientists could have been at some place in the west for the kind of work they are doing. The government structure of the India Alliance is quite efficient. You get the fellowship money on time and there is flexibility. If scientists want to do innovative work they need flexibility and they need the money to show up on time.

I have heard that the governance of the India Alliance is slowly filtering into other agencies. If this culture spreads administration of science will become efficient. People should be given enough autonomy and they need to be well funded at a young age, when they are creative and bold.

There is no reason why India couldn’t become a stronger science power. Demography is in its favour. So if it does the right things between now and 2030 we don’t have an idea what’s possible. But it requires a sustained commitment to science, requires very good governance of science, flexibility and autonomy for investigators.

CSIR labs have been asked to generate half of their funds. Do you think this will be possible considering the low private R&D spending in India?

CSIR labs have been funded for decades and to make a sudden transition is going to be really quite difficult. I don’t see how that can be done. But they can be encouraged to get more of their funding from the industry. They were originally set up to help the industry. People in the west do it all the time. But the transition cannot be abrupt. Industry also should be open to collaboration. Industry should also take advantage of expertise. A lot of industries in India are still at a stage of implementing technologies developed elsewhere. That’s my impression.

China is still not as innovative as the west. But China was not so innovative 20 years ago. As countries grow economically and start investing in R&D that will help in maintaining economic strengths.

If you are going to be among the top science countries by 2030 it requires sustained commitment. China had sustained commitment. Singapore and especially South Korea have very sustained commitment to R&D. Without that it is not going to happen.

At the same time, CSIR labs have been asked to focus its resources to meet the social and economic objectives of the government. Do you see inconsistency in policy?

In Britain all governments in the last 100 years have subscribed to some extent to what is called the Haldane principle. What that means is that it is the right of the elected government to set overall priorities. However, it is usually done in consultation with scientists to see what’s feasible. Nobody elected scientists so scientists can’t decide whatever they want to do with the money. The government has a right to set an overall priority. But having set priorities, it is not for the government to tell scientists how they should be doing things. They shouldn’t be interfering in the implementation of the goals.

If you want to broad base science, you should spend on basic research. You cannot spend all your money on applied science because applied science depends on the knowledge of basic science. Basic science also develops the knowhow of future.

If you have no basic scientists in India you won’t even be able to take up new technology even if they are developed in the west. So you need a certain amount of basic science.

How do you think the menace of predatory journals can be tackled, especially since India is home to most of these bogus journals and many scientists even from government institutions publish in these journals?

The whole issue of predatory journals is a difficult one. We had a meeting of the Royal Society, the French Academy and the German Academy. The three academies issued a statement on publishing. We have deplored the rise of predatory journals.

It is the job of the [institutional] review committee, heads of departments and senior colleagues to discourage it. It all depends on good governance. It will be difficult to do away with predatory journals. It will be difficult to prove in a court of law. Better would be to have good review process.

On the other end is the pressure to publish in Science, Nature and Cell, what I call as high-impact vanity journals. People are taking shortcuts to publish papers in these journals. So that’s also creating very bad pressures. If you publish in a good, solid journal, if it is a nice piece of work it shouldn’t matter that it is not in some high-impact journals. It’s the failure of the system to evaluate the work rather than where it is published.

Scientists in many government institutions, some IITs and IISERs need the director’s permission before discussing their published work with the media. Do you subscribe to the idea that scientists should be free to communicate the results of a public-funded work to the public?

Some scientists are very poor communicators. And it wouldn’t be a good idea to force every scientist to be a communicator. Some people are best left alone to do their work and some others are good communicators and they should be encouraged. Scientists as a community owe it to the public to explain why public money is spent for various things; it is a duty to communicate to the public. But it is not reasonable to force every scientist to be involved in communication. So we need to be a bit flexible.

But scientists should be free to talk to the media or public about their work. In the U.K., if you are representing your organisation’s views, and it goes for me as well if I am representing the Royal Society’s views, it has to be cleared. But I can certainly talk as an individual about my work, especially published work. There is no reason why someone should give permission for scientists to talk about their work, unless there is some issue like if the information is classified or has security implications. For example, the institute may be in the process of filing a patent. In that case they can’t talk to the press. But if the work is already published then there is no reason why they should not talk freely. In the case of published work, I would have no problem discussing with the press.

You did mention in an interview last July that scientists in leadership positions would convene to work out a coherent response to Brexit even before a new cabinet was in place. How successful has the scientific community been in conveying its the concerns to the government?

We had a number of interactions with the government. We have had some success in that we have managed to make a case to the government on various policies. The first was we were concerned that U.K.-based scientists would be disadvantaged in applying for EU-based programmes for fellowship, grant etc. Because many if these are five-year grants and if Britain were to leave after two years the granting panel may say why should we fund this person as we don’t know what will happen after two years. So very quickly the Chancellor announced that the U.K government ill underwrite all British applicants for the full duration of the fellowship. That was a very positive step. The EU funding agencies don’t have to worry that the person is from the U.K. It can decide the case on merit and the U.K. component will be funded regardless of what happens.

The other thing that happened is in the Autumn statement the Chancellor announced a very significant increase in funding [up to £2 billion a year by 2020] for science and technology. It was one of the largest increases in recent times in science funding. This is really important because if Britain is going to leave the EU then it has to succeed based on an innovation-based economy.

What about the mobility issue, particularly of scientists?

EU citizens based in Britain should simply be allowed to stay. There we don’t have any firm statement because the government doesn’t want to act unilaterally as there are a lot of British in continental Europe. But the government has made it clear that during the negotiation as long as the EU allows British people to stay in the EU then the U.K. government would reciprocate.

I would prefer the government to make a strong unilateral statement right away because 30 per cent of staff are foreigners and half of them come from the EU. A strong statement that they don’t have to worry would reassure them. Otherwise, there is a danger that they might decide to leave. Talking to various government officials, there is a sentiment even among ministers who are pro-Brexit that they definitely want free movement of talent if not a free movement for everybody. They also feel that EU citizens staying in the U.K. will not be a problem.

Will the U.K. continue to be a part of the major EU programmes?

We would argue that the idea of the U.K. science community is to continue participation in the EU programmes. Whether we are able to do so or not depends on how the negotiations go. But the government is taking the views of the science community into account in preparation for the negotiations.

I see several scenarios. One is things continue as they are. Another is we become a third country and bind into these programmes. What we wouldn’t want is to bind the programmes and not lead the consortia. Currently, the U.K. is a strong science country and many consortia are led by U.K.-based scientists. So if we were to only participate and not be leaders that would be suboptimal. The last option if all else fails is we have a U.K. fund that is separate and replicates much of what we get through the EU programmes. We could have programmes for collaboration with EU and we have collaborations worldwide and not just the EU. I wouldn’t say there is all gloom and doom. I think we should be agile and forward thinking about how we go about.

Published in The Hindu on January 15, 2017

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