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.