Allababad: Call it the German solution.
Indian scientists and policymakers are hoping to replicate a 58-year-old German initiative, the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, to attract—and keep—the country’s best young minds into pure science research.
At the Lindau meetings, held annually in this Bavarian city, some 25 Nobel laureates from a chosen discipline engage with students and researchers from several countries for a week at a time.
“We are trying out a version of the Lindau meetings (annually). Though we’ve been sending nearly 25 students every year to Lindau, it’s vitally important to engage a much bigger audience,” said Y.P. Kumar, who heads the international affairs division at the Union ministry of science and technology.
So, last week, the Indian Institute of Information Technology, Allahabad (IIIT-A), hosted a first-of-its-kind science conclave, where four Nobel laureates spent some four days informing, advising and advertising the perils, paths and occasional prizes of a career in science.
Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, M.D. Tiwari, Sir Harold Kroto, Florida State University
Some scientists say the timing couldn’t be more appropriate. They and government officials have often warned of a crisis in India’s science education, which, if not addressed soon, will hamper India’s ambitions to become a knowledge-based economy.
On top of that, “there’s also the obvious financial lure of careers in information technology and management, that takes away our best and brightest,” said C.N.R. Rao, scientist and professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore.
Rao, as head of the scientific advisory committee to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, has long warned of India’s declining contribution to research papers in high-impact journals as a proxy for the state of affairs. “I think it’s an idea well worth trying. I have been to Lindau as a student and I was certainly inspired... If it worked for me, I’m sure many students here would be inspired, too,” said M.D. Tiwari, director, IIIT-A.
Nobel laureates who attended the Allahabad conclave included American scientists Martin Lewis Perl and Jerome Friedman, who have won the Nobel in physics in 1995 and 1990, respectively. The two others were: Sir Harold Kroto, who won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1996, and Frenchman Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, a 1996 prize winner in physics.
“Once you are a laureate, you automatically inherit responsibilities and commitments, whether you like them or not,” said Sir Harold.
In fact, most laureates at the conclave said they “felt like the Beatles”, what with children, students and researchers jostling for photo-ops and autographs.
“That responsibility essentially means being an inspiration to young people and getting more people to science. Not only in India, but even in the US, it’s hard to attract students to the sciences,” noted Sir Harold, now a professor at the Florida State University.
Busloads of schoolchildren, teachers and college students were among the participants from some 139 universities across India and 60 schools in Uttar Pradesh.
Shrimad Reddy, a third semester biotechnology student at Hyderabad’s Osmania University, however, said most of Friedman’s talks on particle physics were hard for him to grasp. Still, he said, “I enjoyed the feeling of being there, and having a picture for posterity with a Nobel laureate. Who knows it may be the only one.”
Participants to the conclave are invited based on their academic performance.
“We called the five top-ranked students from each university and top 1% of the students from the Uttar Pradesh board (based on class X results),” said Tiwari. But organizers said the purpose of the event was only to inspire, and not to teach. Noted T. Ramasami, secretary, ministry of science and technology: “Just last week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh launched INSPIRE (Innovations in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research) and one of the innovations is this.”
INSPIRE is a Rs2,000 crore programme that started earlier this year and provides a range of scholarships to at least a million school students and researchers, to stick to basic science research. A significant component of the scholarships would be trips to science conclaves.
“Allahabad (in Uttar Pradesh) would draw students from the North. So there may be different venues over the year. The point is to ensure that all bright students, above a certain threshold of academic performance, visit at least one conclave,” Ramasami added.