Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Current Science interviews Venki Ramakrishnan

V.T. Yadugiri, an S. Ramaseshan Fellow at Current Science, interviewed Prof. Venki Ramakrishnan just after he delivered a semi-autobiographical talk at IISc three weeks ago (see my post on that event). After covering his Nobel Prize winning work on ribosomes, the interview turns to his personal life as well as his views on doing science.

The whole interview is fascinating, and gives us a glimpse into the way Venki thinks and acts. It crystallizes our impression of Venki as a man who loves his science, as a man who likes to have no gap between his feet and the ground beneath, and as a man who's unafraid to speak his mind. I urge you to go read all of it [pdf].

I'll excerpt here the part where Venki offers a view on whether doing science in a developing country is any different from doing it in a developed country:

Do you see any difference in the way research is done in developing countries and developed countries?

I think, well, if you had asked this question 20 years ago, I would’ve said there’s a big difference because the amount of resources people had were very very different. They were even at different scales. I know that in my father’s department, there was only one spectrophotometer in the entire department, and everybody had to use that. That was a big deal to have a UV spectrophotometer. Whereas in a Western lab, every lab, or maybe surrounding labs, had spectrophotometers. It was a big deal to have a pH meter. But that’s all changed. So I think part of it is psychological. One thing that taught me at the LMB – when I went to LMB, I found that it was not that different in terms of its equipment. In fact, it was very crowded; it almost looked like a rundown place. There are all these centrifuges in the hallways, freezers in the hallways, and so on. It didn’t look like a posh place at all. Of course, it had almost every equipment you would need, but it was shared. It didn’t have hundreds of different kinds of equipment. It’s not that every group owned its own equipment. Expensive equipment is shared throughout the lab. So why did the LMB do so well? Why does it continue to do well? I think it’s a psychological problem. You have to say I’m not going to do boring derivative problems where I’m doing a second or third example of something that’s already been done, and I’m not going to learn that much new from it. I see a lot of that going on in India where something is done in one system and they’ll do it in another system. And I don’t think that’s going to lead to really important breakthroughs. Actually, if people wanted to, they could do particularly Indian problems. They could study specifically Indian plant diseases or even Indian biology. They could look at ecosystems and molecular biology related to it. Or they could compete on worldwide problems where all the molecular biologists are interested in it. They could go either way. And I think the worst thing is to do something where someone has established something in one, say E. coli, and somebody does it in some other bacteria. In general, it’s not going to be helpful.

As you said in your lecture, the first few proteins of the ribosome were published in Nature, the next in lower impact journals . . .

Exactly. Exactly. So that’s an example. You know, I could have made a career just going on doing that. And as long as I kept publishing papers, I would’ve gotten grants. And that’s the kind of mentality that we see more of here. But in good labs in the West, they would see immediately –- okay, this is not getting so interesting. We need to move on. Even with the 30S –- I could keep on doing a bunch of antibiotics. There are dozens of antibiotics, right? We just did six and we stopped. But if I wanted to publish a paper in say JMB or Acta Crystallogr., I could just do one antibiotic, one paper. And I could just make a career out of it. That would be the kind of thing I see more in India. But that’s a psychological problem. It’s not a problem of resources or infrastructure. I think if people had good ideas, at least my colleagues tell me, there’s plenty of funding.


  1. rajdeep said...


    There are two main inter-related reasons for low research productivity in India, Attitude and Accountability. In US system attitude is reinforced by accountability. Whereas in India the word accountability does not exists which fuels the attitude ‘its okay’ (‘chalta-hey’ in north Indian language)

    In absence of accountability (no tenure-track system), lack of processes and incentives to perform they slowly get molded onto Indian mode. Non-productivity in India has no consequences; one will regularly get scheduled salary rise and promotions and some time early promotions if you are doing reasonably well. Promotions also have no meaning as they don’t really change your take-home salary in great way. So whether you are performing or not it does not matter ‘its okay’. In such scenario a scientist who is not self-motivated looses the vigor with which he/she was performing in western countries. To justify their existence they do publish in some low profile journals or collaborate with abc lab around the world. In general they lack the attitude of a winner or a leader and hence ‘adjust’ with the scene. Its not that they are not talented people but without efforts if one can survive… ‘why not’ and with efforts anyway there is no great incentive to perform.

    The existing bureaucratic systems have processes which are just out-of-date but no one take initiatives to make new ones. Again attitude problem and no incentive to perform. Although many things have changed as many scientist who do enjoy doing what they do are trying to put some processes together but its really a Herculean task to satisfy or make a system which everyone feel comfortable with, especially when end-users are not willing to participate in the development of the process.

  2. TM said...

    VR's has stated reasons for his dislike of questions related to whether he will return back to India. I am curious to know whether he or members of his family have availed of OCI (Overseas citizenship of India) card that would allow them multi-purpose, multiple-entry, life-long visa to visit India for any lengths of time and for any purpose.