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India may win a Physics Nobel Prize in the next decade?

September 16, 2012 13:34 IST

Country's scientific community may be at the cusp of securing a Nobel in the physical sciences, says Devijyot Ghoshal

After decades of losing out some of its finest minds to the West, India's scientific community may finally be at the cusp of securing a Nobel Prize in the physical sciences, widely considered as the highest recognition in the field. 

David Pendlebury, a bibliometric analysis consultant with Thomson Reuters and a leading predictor of the Nobel awards, believes that the country's track record in scientific research, particularly in the physical sciences, could mean that an Indian scientist may win the prize within the next decade. 

"We are certainly seeing very healthy signs in the production and contribution of Indian scientists to the influential international journals," Pendlebury told Business Standard. "For India, in specific, in the last 10 to 15 years, we have also seen a tremendous increase." 

Since Independence, the Nobel Prize in the sciences has been won by three Indians -- Har Gobind Khorana, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan. However, they were all foreign citizens at the time of receiving the award. 

But, between 2000 and 2010, India's world share of research papers, derived from internationally influential, peer-review journals indexed by Thomson Reuters, has risen from 2.2 per cent to 3.4 per cent. Moreover, since 2010 alone, this share has jumped to 3.7 per cent last year. 

"After the base is grown, then you see scientists who are the best come up," Pendlebury added. "There is no geographic monopoly of genius. We are going to find, especially considering the population of India and China, Nobel Prize winners from Asia." 

Almost 80 per cent of India's total research and development work continues to be funded by the government, said Vinay Singh, Thomson Reuters' India director for intellectual property and science, with private funding making up the remaining 20 per cent. 

"But in the last five years or so, with more Indian companies going global and making acquisition overseas, the focus is changing and there is more investment in R&D (research and development)," he said. In particular, India's pharmaceutical and automobile industries are big spenders in research. 

At the same time, private sector initiatives like the Infosys Science Foundation -- a not-for-profit trust set-up by the information technology firm and some of its board members, which annually awards the Infosys Prize researchers and scientists -- is helping create a research ecosystem within the country. 

International attention, too, is playing its part. In July 2012, for instance, Indian theoretical physicist Ashoke Sen won the $3 million Fundamental Physics Prize -- more than double of what the Nobel Prize brings with it -- for his research on string theory. Sen works at Allahabad's Harish-Chandra Research Institute, which is funded by the Department of Atomic Energy. 

Sen's award represents India's strength in the physical sciences. Although India's research portfolio is grounded in traditional disciples, such as those related to agriculture, the country's highest world share of papers includes chemistry, pharmacology and material sciences. 

"I think it (the Nobel Prize) is more likely in the physical sciences -- so physics and chemistry -- and the biological sciences. I can't say absolutely but based on the data that we look at, they seem to be coming in the physical sciences for India," he explained. 

What will also help India is that increasing opportunities in the subcontinent will allow scientists to conduct their research here, a crucial factor for incubating a homegrown winner. 

"I think two things will happen: you'll see top scientists return more and more (to their home countries), and you'll see these homegrown scientists who will eventually, in some years, get the Nobel Prize," Pendlebury added. "But the Nobel Prize is awarded for research done a long time ago."
Devjyot Ghoshal