August 25, 2008

How to Spawn Nobel Prize Winners

By Manu Kaushik

Every year in September and early October, innovators around the world go agog with anticipation. That's when Sweden-based Nobel Foundation announces the winners of the Nobel Prize in six disciplines, comprising physics, chemistry, peace, economics, medicine and literature.

In India, though, not many researchers await the announcement with bated breath. Reason: As always, the prize will bypass India as there are no strong contenders in any field. Ever since the prize was instituted in 1895, only four Indians have won the prize after India's independence Amartya Kumar Sen, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Mother Teresa and Har Gobind Khorana.

That's unfortunate for a country that has a billion-plus people. In India, the amount being spent on R & D is much lower than in any other developed country, says Samir Brahmachari, Director General, CSIR. The country also lacks in providing the right kind of environment to foster innovation and application of the discovery for great scientific or social significance, a prerequisite for winning the Nobel Prize. Despite the constraints, can India produce Nobel Prize winners? Yes, says R.A. Mashelkar, Brahmachari's predecessor.

Indians can always argue that we do not win the Nobel because our investment levels are low, but what actually matters is how we can make people think out of the box, contends Mashelkar. Thought leadership, and not just scientific innovation, will happen when India starts educating its people differently. Despite its importance, innovation is severely neglected in many educational systems. We find it astonishing that things like 'innovation' and 'creativity' simply do not exist in our schools, says Brahmachari. Adds Mashelkar: Indian scientists and institutions are risk averse. We must take risks. We must be more tolerant of failures. Most importantly, research must get lucrative enough to spur innovation.

Manu Kaushik

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