Amit Roy


Cambridge, Sept. 17: Indians should focus more on getting a good education, especially in science and technology, and cut out “all this sectarian squabble about who eats what kind of meat”, Nobel-winning scientist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan has said.

“Venki”, speaking in Cambridge at the new headquarters of the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology, expressed concern that “unless India invests in innovation, science and technology, it’s going to lose the race”.

“It’s already quite far behind China, and if you consider (that) 50 years ago the two countries were really pretty much comparable…. In fact, I would have said India was probably slightly better off than China.”

He was not commenting on any specific incident but said in general terms: “Another problem I see in India is that it is still a country that has all the sectarian squabbles. If they don’t say, ‘Look we are not going to be fighting with each other but rather we are going to get on, become more tolerant with each other and get on with the task of modernising the country,’ if they don’t do that, they will simply keep losing ground.”

Venki, who will complete two years in December as president of the Royal Society, the most prestigious gathering of the world’s top scientists, is by nature a modest, unassuming man but seems determined to speak out on certain key issues even if his message is not universally popular.

“All this sectarian squabble about who eats what kind of meat and all this religious antagonism between different groups is harmful to the country,” he emphasised without any kind of prompting.

“People who do it, maybe they think they are being very patriotic, but actually they are hurting the country. Either they don’t realise it because they are too ignorant or they realise it and are hell bent on doing it anyway.”

Venki, who shared the 2009 Nobel for chemistry with two others, is grappling with several big ideas.

One is that all children should do four core subjects — mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology — right through school, and later have some element of science built into their college courses even if they are specialising in the humanities or the arts.

The reverse should also apply: those studying the sciences should be familiar with literature, history and the arts.

Venki also believes that countries — and this applies especially to India — cannot progress unless there is adequate investment in science.

He set out his reasoning: “In the modern world, you can’t be a leading, prosperous country based purely on labour costs or raw materials. In fact, there is a thing called ‘the curse of resource’. Countries that are resource-rich but knowledge-poor end up being fairly poor countries or less developed.”

By way of contrast, he held up Switzerland and Singapore as countries that are “resource-poor and knowledge-rich”.

He stressed: “Knowledge and innovation always trump natural resources.”

So far as India is concerned, “we need to win the race to the top, not the race to the bottom”.

What he wanted was to express his worries that “for a country its size, India has much less investment in science and innovation than Britain”.

“India currently is using this model that it has cheap labour and so it can attract companies for manufacturing based on labour costs. But if they’re not careful, they are going to miss the boat completely — because manufacturing is going to become largely automated,” he said.

“The number of jobs in manufacturing is not going to be what it was in the 20th century, let alone the 19th century when it was all manual…. And so, this idea that ‘we are going to compete on labour costs and become some big manufacturing hub’ may last for the next few years but eventually that’s going to be superseded by robotics.

“I would have said (that) India was probably slightly better off than China, say, when Mao took over, but now especially after Xi Jinping, China has embarked on this huge programme of modernisation and industrialisation. They have made artificial intelligence and machine-learning a huge priority. They are investing in robotics; they are investing in renewable energy — all of the things that are going to make a big difference. And if India is not careful it is going to simply get left considerably behind.

“India needs, first of all, better education — it’s still only a small fraction that gets educated. It needs a huge and much greater investment in science and technology if it is to compete in the future. And then it needs to incentivise investment in R&D by private companies. The government cannot and really should not do it all alone but should have incentives to build up their R&D. Generally, focusing on education and training and investing in science and technology is the only way to go.”

Venki’s life is split between London, where he attends to his duties at the Royal Society, and Cambridge.

The new location of his lab, previously situated on the Addenbrooke’s Hospital site, suits him better. It is now slightly quicker for him to cycle home — in Cambridge, where he has been happily settled since arriving from America in 1999, he has never actually owned a car and until relatively recently not even a mobile phone.

Now 65, he has been away from India since the age of 19 but has remained strictly vegetarian.