Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Ignoble Nobel- Vol 2

President Barack Obama has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to decrease the world's nuclear arsenal. The Committee also noted Obama's efforts to solve the world's complex problems. Now I'm as big a fan of Barack Obama as the next guy, but I'm not sure which I find more ludicrous, the fact Obama won the prize or the reasons for giving it to him.
President Obama came to power on a wave of hope and jubilation the likes of which has not been seen in world history. But the truth is that less than one year into his term some of that halo is beginning to fade away. Mind you, most of it is not his fault. He's an extremely talented and sincere man doing a near impossible job. And he's not been doing it for long enough for any of his much debated and criticized efforts to bear any real fruit. So the committee that praises his efforts to solve the world's complex problems needs to take a good look at the world again. I'm not sure which of those problems has become any less problematic than it was last November when Obama won.
As for the citation regarding his efforts to reduce the world's nuclear arsenal, America still has the world's largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, still has not ratified the CTBT and has rewarded Pakistan's freeing of A Q Khan with more cash in aid. Yes, he initiated a debate on the subject, put non-military options with Iran back on the table and has not lashed out yet at North Korea. All very good, but Nobel prize good??!! Really!! It seems to me that someone on the Nobel Committee decided that they could use some of the rockstar like popularity that Obama brings to the table or they just decided to suck up to the USA. If it was rockstar appeal they were after, I submit Paul Hewson aka Bono as an alternative candidate. He's done some real good work, has been active for much longer than Obama has and here's the clincher, he's a real rockstar. If on the other hand they were just sucking up to the US Goverment, well then, all I have to say is, "Very good choice."
For us Indians, Obama's prize also brings back that never ending question about the Nobel peace prize. Why was The Mahatma never given the prize? To which we can now forevermore add, " Is Barack Obama greater even than Mahatma Gandhi?" Well the committee sure seems to think so.

The Ignoble Nobel- Vol 1

The Nobel prize announcements are always a source of much anticipation and eventually debate. But usually the controversies and debates involve the Peace prize or the Literature prize. For us Indians this year's Chemistry prize also provides much fodder for arguments and the Peace prize as well. Dr Venkataraman Ramakrishnan was awarded the Chemistry nobel along with Thomas Steitz and Ada Yonath for their work involving ribosomes. As if this were not enough President Barack Obama has been awarded the Peace prize for his efforts to reduce the world's nuclear arsenal. For the average "argumentative Indian", to quote another Nobel prize winner, this is a bumper Diwali.

The Chemistry prize resurrects the age old debate about brain drain and its causes and effects. Sadly this is a question that really comes into focus only when someone of Indian origin achieves something substantial internationally, when ideally it is an issue that should be front and centre in India's plans to become a global superpower. Dr Venkataraman was born and brought up in Chidambaram, TN. Sure this gives a lot of Tamilians cause for immense pride and maybe the rest of India as well. In some part of our minds we are glowing with a sense of achievement. This is proof that we are as good as anybody else out there, if, we are given the right opportunities. And that if is the point of all the debate. That Indians are generally smart has been proved beyond all argument by our dotcom friends. So the real questions are these? Could the good Dr Venks have achieved all he has if he stayed back in India? Almost defnitely no. Will the current environment in higher education and research in India ever throw up a home grown Nobel in the pure sciences? Highly unlikely. And should the fact that Dr Venks is now an American citizen take away from our sense of achievement? I definitely feel it should. It should be a matter of great introspection and shame that our best and brightest still choose the greener pastures of American academia. Both in terms of increasing our R&D capability across all fields and in terms of increasing India's global visibility and soft power, we should plan to overhaul our structure of higher education. And it has to begin from top down. The bosses running higher education in India shouldn't be retired politicians looking for a cushy end. That job should be given exclusively to top academicians with proven record in research. There has to be a strong focus on enabling bold and cutting edge research work to take root in labs across India. And more importantly there has to be generous government grants disbursed through autonomous, non-partisan, qualified and meritocratic governing committees. Only then can we have our own Dr Venkataraman and when that time we can truly bask in his/her glory.