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NOBEL LAUREATE Professor Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who was on a two-day visit to Chandigarh, interacted with the faculty, resident doctors and PhD students at PGIMER on Tuesday. He spoke about ways to facilitate research and solve problems with the mechanism of research application. Excerpts from the interaction
In India, the number of research applications have gone down over the years. Why is it so?
The problem is not (about) the lack of talent, the problem is (about) the lack of proper mentors. India actually does have a lot of first-rate scientists but only very few world leaders. When it comes to research, it is very important to realise whether the problem being dealt with is actually leading somewhere. A lot of times, researchers just end up wasting a lot of time with problems. This is where the need for the right mentorship arises.
We need people with the right judgement and foresight to help other researchers. India is very capable of doing first-grade science; we just need to ensure that time is not wasted on secondary research. Students should also be encouraged to feel free to approach anyone with their questions. A platform for them needs to be there, and students should be encouraged not to be afraid of asking for help.
What, according to you, are the major challenges faced by India when it comes to science and research?
The general problem is that many Indian scientists do not nurture scientists under them, and as a result do not pass on the knowledge they have acquired. This culture is very prevalent in India, and this needs to change. Researchers must inspire other young scientists as much as possible. Students from India go abroad and do extremely well in western universities. There is as such no dearth of talent in this country. Just the right kind of guidance and resources are needed.
Infrastructure and resources are the most vital in research, and there needs to be an environment that encourages students in the right direction.
How can the quality of research be improved in India?
The focus has to be on doing quality, first-grade research. Researchers should not just work on generating data, that is the kind of research that has no impact. The focus must be on doing research that helps in better understanding of the subject — that actually is the kind of research that will have an impact, and will eventually even help other researchers. Ninety-nine per cent of the researchers in the world are already doing experiments, but only 1 per cent are focusing on thinking beyond the subject.
For research students in India, there often is not much support from the system and administration. More often than not, there is a lack of funds to do proper research. How can we change that?
When it comes to research fellowships, there is uncertainty because the fellowship is provided only for a specific duration. And in a lot of cases, research takes longer than the specified duration. This problem exists not only in India, but across the world. For dealing with this, the government and institutions need to work together. In many universities in the west, institutions have reserve funds of their own which they divert to research as and when needed. Perhaps institutions can adopt similar methodologies here to facilitate research.
The education system in India as well as in a majority of countries across the world does not give a lot of focus to science education. How can that be reformed?
The education system needs to change in such a way that we make students cultivate an interest in science from an early age. If the students are provided with a good exposure and resources, they would not just pursue engineering and management degrees. Instead, they will end up actually taking interest in science. When it comes to science, the more experiments are included in the curriculum, the more interest is generated among students. In textbooks, it is all perfect, but if experimental science is included at every step, the students will themselves recognise the anomalies and errors, which will encourage them to raise questions and take more interest.
At the higher education level, perhaps all students should be made to take coursework in general physics, chemistry and mathematics before they start with their specific research work. Additionally, the best way for interested students to understand any subject better is to take up summer projects in laboratories.
You received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009 for your work on ribosomes. Tell us more about how that happened, and what kind of dedication and research does it take to win a Nobel Prize?
The major breakthrough in my life was actually a series of accidents! I was a student of physics before I became a structural biologist. Physics did not interest me as much, and if you really want to do quality research in any field, you need to have the right interest and be inspired enough to really go behind an idea. Ideas do not always work out, and often we get results that we do not expect. Great ideas do not necessarily arise out of a well-defined process. Sometimes it is just an accident, which is why a researcher must be open to changing directions, if needed. And it is also really important not to waste time on the secondary ideas, and invest in the one or two really good ideas one might have.