Society

Why Can't India Win More Nobel Prizes?

Winning a Nobel Prize can't be the only criterion by which we measure a nation's scientific achievement — but it is a matter of pride, like winning a gold at the Olympics. Lower funding on R&D alone doesn't explain India's abysmal show at the Nobel Prizes. Some key elements seem to be missing, beyond funding and infrastructure, vis-à-vis our scientists' ability to produce path-breaking work.

Does India need to spend more on scientific work?

Suprakash Chandra Roy

NEW DELHI — As expected, Indians are euphoric about their country's success in the recently concluded Tokyo Olympic Games, and for all the right reasons. However, India's share of seven medals – including the first individual gold in athletics by Neeraj Chopra – has stirred the hopes of many towards a similar accomplishment in another area of human activity: winning Nobel Prizes.

The Olympics and the Nobel Prizes have similar historical significance. Modern-day Olympics started in 1896 in Athens, Greece, while the first Nobel was awarded five years later. India first participated in the Olympics in 1900 in Rome – and won the first Nobel Prize in 1913. Both the Olympics and the Nobel Prizes are the highest awards in each of their categories.

While the Olympics are held every four years, the Nobel Prizes are awarded every year. The number of active academics pursuing science and other subjects related to the prizes in India is far higher than the total strength of athletes competing at the international level.

According to the Research and Development Statistics published in 2019 by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), science workers in India numbered 27.8 lakh in 2018, being the sixth largest scientific workforce worldwide. The number of athletes according to the Athletics Federation of India was a little more than 30,000. Mathematically, we have a higher chance of winning a Nobel Prize than a gold at the Olympics. But history hasn't borne this out.

The Nobel Prizes were initially awarded for work in five disciplines: physics, chemistry, literature, medicine and peace. Winning a Nobel Prize in science and a medal at the Olympics are both investment-intensive. In addition, a Nobel Prize can be shared by more than one person, while this happens only in special circumstances at the Olympics.

Indian sportspersons have won 35 medals of the 18,876 medals awarded thus far. The US has won the most medals (2,963). And of the 6,187 gold medals awarded, Indians have won 10. So the historical probability of India winning a gold at the Olympics has been 10/6187 = 0.16%.

Similarly, since 1901, 337 Nobel Prizes have been shared by 624 laureates in the sciences (physics, chemistry and medicine). The first and only Nobel Prize for an Indian scientist – C.V. Raman – was awarded in 1930.

(NOTE: There have been winners in other categories, such as peace, Kailash Satyarthi, 2014; and economics, Amartya Sen, 1998)

But why we haven't produced a single Nobel science laureate in another 90 years is a question worth dwelling on.

The first and only Nobel Prize for an Indian scientist – C.V. Raman – was awarded in 1930.

Keystone Press Agency/ZUMA

The historical probability of an Indian winning a Nobel Prize in science has been 1/624 = 0.16%, the same as winning a gold medal at the Olympics!

Many commentators have said that one major reason for our poor show at the Nobel Prizes has been the inadequate expenditure on scientific work. It is true that, in general, countries that spend more on R&D have won more Nobel Prizes in the sciences. A simple comparison of 2014 GDP data and the number of Nobel laureates from different countries reveals the following:

  • 4 – laureates from countries that spent up to 0.5% of GDP on R&D
  • 28 – laureates from countries that spent 0.5-1% of GDP
  • 183 – laureates from countries that spent 1-2% of GDP
  • 468 – laureates from countries that spent 2-3% of GDP

However, countries that spent 3-4 % of their GDP on R&D have produced only 50 laureates. South Korea and Israel, which have spent more than 4% of their GDPs, have none and six laureates, respectively. India has spent 0.81% of its GDP on R&D and produced only one Nobel laureate in the sciences – while 11 countries that have spent less than India have produced 22 laureates.

More money won't guarantee the outcome we seek.

As we can see, India's 'performance' at the Nobel Prizes for science has been dismal, and requires introspection. The data suggests that we can improve if we spend more on R&D – but it also says that more money won't guarantee the outcome we seek.

The Union Ministry of Science and Technology has been allocated Rs 14,793.66 crore for 2021-2022 – an increase of Rs 9,517 crore from 2015. According to DST data, while spending on science has increased over the years, each allocation's fraction of GDP has been almost unchanged.

India's sports budget is about 10-times lower than that spent on science. The expenditure was increased twofold in five years, from Rs 1,200 crore in 2015 to Rs 2,636 crore in 2019. The sports budget for 2021-2022 didn't increase.

The Sports Authority of India (SAI) is the country's apex body responsible for developing sports. SAI has two sports academies, 11 regional centres, 14 centres of excellence and 56 training centres. In science: the DST and the Department of Biotechnology have 20 and 17 autonomous research institutes, respectively; and 38 research laboratories (CSIR), 65 research institutes, 14 national research centres (ICAR) and 31 research institutes and centres (ICMR). So there are many more science institutes than there are sports centres.

In conclusion, some key element seems to be missing that is beyond funding and infrastructure. Is it a fire in the belly that's missing? Do we have a leadership vacuum that fails to motivate scholars to think out of the box?

Winning a Nobel Prize can't be the only criterion by which we measure a nation's scientific achievements – but it is a matter of pride, just like winning a gold at the Olympics. And while this year's Olympic Games raised the expectations of 135 crore people in the sports arena, it has also renewed their expectations in other arenas – science being one of them.

Can we set a goal to win a few Nobel Prizes in another 25 years, when India will celebrate its 100th year of independence?


*Suprakash Chandra Roy
is a former professor and chairman of the Department of Physics, Bose Institute, Kolkata, and for*mer editor-in-chief, Science and Culture.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!

A tribute to the 30,000 Iranian political prisoners murdered in Iran in 1988

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Laba diena!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Afghanistan's Taliban demand to speak at the United Nations, China takes a bold ecological stand and we find out why monkeys kept their tails and humans didn't. Business magazine America Economia also looks at how Latin American countries are looking to attract a new generation of freelancers known as "digital nomads" in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

[*Lithuanian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Taliban ask to speak at UN: With global leaders gathered in New York for the 76th meeting of the UN General Assembly, Afghanistan's new rulers say their country's previously accredited United Nations ambassador no longer represents the country, and have demanded a new Taliban envoy speak instead. Afghanistan is scheduled to give the final intervention next Monday to the General Assembly, and a UN committee must now rule who can speak.

• Four corpses found on Belarus border with Poland: The discovery of bodies of four people on Belarus-Poland border who appear to have died from hypothermia are raising new accusations that Belarus is pushing migrants to the eastern border of the European Union, possibly in retaliation over Western sanctions following the contested reelection of the country's strongman Alexander Lukashenko. The discovery comes amid a surge of largely Afghani and Iraqi migrants attempting to enter Poland in recent weeks.

• China to stop building coal-burning power plants abroad: Under pressure to limit emissions to meet Paris climate agreement goals, China announces an end to funding future projects in Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries through its Belt and Road initiative.

• Turkey ratifies Paris climate agreement: Following a year of wildfires and flash floods, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced at the UN that Turkey will become the last G-20 country to ratify the emissions-limiting accords. Turkey already signed the agreement in 2016, but has yet to hold a vote in parliament.

• Mass evacuations following Canary Islands volcano: More than 6,000 people have fled the Spanish archipelago as heavy flows of lava have buried hundreds of homes. Four earthquakes have also hit the Canaries since the Sunday eruption, which could also cause other explosions and the release of toxic gas.

• Rare earthquake hits Melbourne: The 5.9 magnitude quake struck near Melbourne in southern Australia, with aftershocks going as far Adelaide, Canberra and Launceston. Videos shared on social media show at least one damaged building, with power lines disrupted in Australia's second largest city. No injuries have been reported.

• The evolutionary tale of tails: Charles Darwin first discovered that humans evolved to lose this biological trait. But only now are New York scientists showing that it was a single genetic tweak that could have caused this shift, while our monkey relatives kept their backside appendages.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"The roof of Barcelona" — El Periodico daily reports on the latest delay from what may be the longest-running construction project in the world. Work on the iconic Barcelona church La Sagrada Familia, which began all the way back in 1882 as the vision of master architect Antoni Gaudí, was slated to be completed in 2026. The Barcelona-based daily reports that a press conference Tuesday confirmed that the deadline won't be met, in part because of delays related to COVID-19. Officials also provided new details about the impending completion of the Mare de Déu tower (tower of the Virgin), the first tower of the temple to be completed in 44 years. Although it is currently the second tallest spire of the complex, it will become the highest point of the Sagrada Familia, reaching 172.5 meters thanks to an illuminated "great cross."

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Latin America, the next mecca for digital nomads

Latin American countries want to cash in on the post-pandemic changes to the fundamental ways we work and live, in particular by capitalizing on a growing demand from the new wave of remote workers and "youngish" professional freelancers with money to spend, reports Natalia Vera Ramírez in business magazine America Economia.

💻🏖️ Niels Olson, Ecuador's tourism minister, is working hard to bring "digital nomads" to his country. He believes that attracting this new generation of freelancers who can work from anywhere for extended visits is a unique opportunity for all. Living in a town like Puerto López, he wrote on Twitter, the expat freelancer could "work by the sea, live with a mostly vaccinated population, in the same time zone, (enjoy) an excellent climate, and eat fresh seafood." For Ecuador, the new influx of visitors with money to spend would help boost the country's economy.

🧳 While online-based freelancers already hopped from country to country before COVID-19, the pandemic has boosted their current numbers to around 100 million worldwide. The Inter-American Development Bank estimates there could be a billion roaming, digital workers by 2050. Some European countries already issue visas for digital nomads. They include Germany, Portugal, Iceland, Croatia, Estonia and the Czech Republic, but in the Americas, only four countries make the list, namely Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Panama and Costa Rica.

💰 In August 2021, Costa Rica approved a law for remote workers and international service providers, intended to attract digital nomads and make its travel sector more competitive. The law provides legal guarantees and specific tax exemptions for remote workers choosing to make the country their place of work. It allows foreign nationals earning more than $3,000 a month to stay for up to a year in the country, with the ability to renew their visa for an additional year. If applicants are a family, the income requisite rises to $5,000.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$2.1 billion

Google announced yesterday it will spend $2.1 billion to buy a sprawling Manhattan office building, in one of the largest sales of a building in U.S. history. The tech giant plans on growing its New York workforce to more than 14,000 people.

📣 VERBATIM

It is sickening and shameful to see this kind of president give such a lie-filled speech on the international stage.

— Opposition Brazilian congresswoman Vivi Reis in response to President Jair Bolsonaro's inflammatory 12-minute speech at the UN General Assembly. The unvaccinated head of state touted untested COVID-19 cures, criticized public health measures and boasted that the South American country's environmental protections were the best in the world.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank & Bertrand Hauger

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ