The Raman Effect

India getting a Nobel is almost like buying a lottery ticket and silently wishing the odds are in your favour, says Gautam Radhakrishna Desiraju.

doi:10.1038/nindia.2008.302 Published online 18 October 2008

Gautam Radhakrishna Desiraju

Another set of Nobel Prizes have been announced and one wonders why it has been so long since an Indian scientist working in India has been given this prize. Was C. V. Raman's prize in 1930 a fluke, are we simply not up to the mark, or are other factors at work? Is there any connection between the fact that we do not get Nobel Prizes and that we do not win many medals in the Olympics, or produce a Wimbledon champion, and that generally we do not fare well wherever individual excellence is assessed by the highest international standard?

Do we lack a killer instinct, an ability to exhibit the premeditated aggressiveness that presumably characterizes a winner? Or are we burdened by a system, a society and a mindset that simply makes the whole business of consistently winning big international prizes laughable?

More prosaically, it is instructive to view the Nobel Prize as a commodity and the winning of it as a commercial activity that leads up to its successful marketing. This activity has three sequential components: inputs, outputs and the technologies that transform inputs into outputs. The inputs in this case are the group of Indian scientists who might, under favourable circumstances, be able to win a Nobel Prize. The enabling technologies are the measures employed by our scientific establishment to ensure that outstanding Indian scientists become world leaders.

Do we lack a killer instinct, an ability to exhibit the premeditated aggressiveness that presumably characterizes a winner?

These measures should ideally be characterized by a system of rewards that clearly correlates with scientific output, by unimpeachable standards of accountability and by the overall honesty and transparency with which they are administered. The outputs in the Nobel Prize enterprise are the set of traditions, guidelines and rules that are employed in the selection of the prize winners and the manner in which Indian scientists might fare in such a system of evaluation.

This last 'outputs' component of the exercise is completely outside our purview and influence, and so I will not discuss it further except to say that it operates at a very high level of rigour and honesty. In my own subject, chemistry, one can think of many deserving scientists who have not been awarded this prize, but one cannot think of even a single undeserving candidate who has been given the prize in recent decades. The message is clear: the Scandinavian academicians who select Nobel laureates have been doing an impeccable job and the winners are picked from among those whose work is not only novel, but has also changed fundamentally the ways in which we think about our respective subjects. Alternatively, the work is of a type that has had a far reaching impact on people's lives and livelihoods.

Clearly not all excellent work merits a Nobel Prize. An Indian, or anyone else for that matter, has to run a stern gauntlet before he or she is even remotely within the limits of consideration for this award. Nobel Prizes are serious things, and they cannot be discussed in a breezy way by the popular press, as has been done in our country.

There is some consensus that all is not well in India with the second 'technologies' stage of the Nobel Prize enterprise, in other words the way in which the scientific system identifies and nurtures talent within our country. What is required, if indeed the aim of the game is to secure Nobel Prizes for India, is a system that is able to discriminate objectively and then encourage substantially. Assuming that one has a number of competent scientists, the system must be able to identify the really outstanding ones using dispassionate criteria that are blind to all factors save academic excellence. The next step would be to encourage such scientists in all possible and perhaps even untested ways. We are uncomfortable with both these activities.

Over the last 60 years, we have become used to a socialistic pattern of thinking. Our society today caters best to its average members and is not able to cope with the outstanding. It is very easy to tailor a system to suit the needs of the average person—this requires the least amount of thinking. Coping with the outstanding person implies that one is able to firstly identify such a person, and this requires both work and honesty. Encouraging an outstanding scientist is also hard work—the system should not hesitate to operate outside its comfort zone, and this is truly difficult for the Indian science bureaucracy.

When it is commented that a country of our size is not winning Olympic medals and Nobel Prizes in relation to its population, it is forgotten that most of our population is not brought into the sporting or scientific/educational stream in the first instance.

It is in the first 'inputs' stage, however, that we face our most serious problems. When it is commented that a country of our size is not winning Olympic medals and Nobel Prizes in relation to its population, it is forgotten that most of our population is not brought into the sporting or scientific/educational stream in the first instance. Effectively, we are a "small" country. We lack both the ability and the means to bring into the scientific pool, all those who are inherently capable of doing creative work. In most parts of our country, even access to primary schools is difficult.

Those who do manage to go to school have to cope with an arcane and byzantine system of education that compels rote learning and kills creativity. Assuming that some students make it through all this nonsense, our society places such a high premium on the irreconcilable elements of job security and monetary gain that our best students continue to opt for the engineering course, which appears to be the only one that provides some ephemeral satisfaction with respect to this oxymoron of high paying secure employment. Good scientists are risk takers who revel in the unknown. Therefore we are hardly likely to have a large pool of good scientists in a conformist society such as ours.

It is not a question of this or that particular Indian scientist winning a Nobel Prize. The USA secures so many Nobel Prizes because at any point in time, there are say 100 American scientists around, any one of whom may get a Nobel Prize depending on specific shifts in emphasis in the subject, changes in the economic, political and social climate of the world (yes, these are important even in the science prizes), personal preferences of the award jury members and a host of other factors, both objective and subjective. These filters are numerous and unpredictable. Only with a large input pool of contenders will a country stand a chance of consistently securing Nobel Prizes. It has taken Japan sixty or so long years of sustained all-round development before it has entered the Nobel Prize stakes in a big way. India today does not have even five potential Nobel Prize winners. Some say that we do not have even one. In such a scenario, what chance is there of an Indian scientist ever winning a Nobel Prize?

I will end, as I began, with C. V. Raman. Perhaps his prize was a fluke. Perhaps it was not. Raman was an outstanding intellectual and the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, the place where he did his prize winning work, was an example of an untested model for institution building, outside standard comfort zones. The system did not identify Raman, but he identified the IACS, and that was enough.

Nobel Prizes cannot be planned in advance. A chance discovery often starts off the process, but the astute scientist recognizes such a discovery and develops it into a major theme. Many recent Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry have been awarded to people whose work made substantial inroads into academic and industrial activity far removed from the original work that was ultimately recognized. In such a scenario, Nobel Prizes are won by individuals not through premeditated activity but by virtue of the fact that they work in countries where there is overall high level progress in the educational and scientific spheres. A future science Nobel Prize from India is therefore quite unlikely. Even assuming for some reason that it comes to pass, it would be a matter of pure chance. And we all know that winning a lottery is the rarest of happenings.

The author is a professor of chemistry at the University of Hyderabad and is a winner of a Forschungspreis of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.