Monday, August 6, 2007

The Double Helix

I’m sorry sir, but you’re application for medical insurance has been rejected, since your genetic profile suggests a high chance of contracting Huntington’s disease by 2030. I made up this scary story, but the discovery that made this scenario conceivable occurred in early 1953 when James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA. Noel Lobo wrote an excellent article in the Times of India (May 24 2003) on the 50th anniversary of this event. The story of the discovery of DNA has become part of science legend. The best account of the events is James Watson’s Double Helix. I recommend Francis Crick’s What Mad Pursuit for events and details of Crick’s career post double helix. Media reporting on science tends to be on the dramatic side, far too often over-hyping the significance of a piece of research. But Watson and Crick’s double helix moment deserves all the hyperbole one can lavish upon them.

Absolutely great! But what lessons for Indian science? Why have our research institutions and universities not produced science that is talked about by peers and public alike? For the last several years I have been scanning science news portals on a daily basis and there have been few if any press releases about an important piece of research conducted by Indian scientists working in an Indian institution. Is it because all the bright minds have fled abroad, or maybe Indians are just not good at pure science. I don’t believe either of these theories. It would be instructive to imagine what would have happened if Watson and Crick had showed up to work not at Cavendish Lab’s in Cambridge but at an Indian research institution. Would they have succeeded? The answer I feel is a depressing no. Not because of a lack of funds or instruments but because the Indian institutional system would have either turned them into “career scientists” or forced them to quit. Think of the events that lead to the discovery. Two brash, some would say arrogant loudmouths expressed a desire to solve a problem in an area in which they had no expertise. An Indian lab would have immediately told them to tone down their enthusiasm, to “find their place” in the natural hierarchy and to work on the problem assigned to them. In contrast, Cavendish Lab gave them a separate room so that they could talk without being disturbed. By their own account Watson and Crick stumbled and bumbled towards their objective. Crick twice flooded the corridor outside the lab director Sir Lawrence Bragg’s office because he forgot to secure his suction pump; and Watson knew so little chemistry that he once used a Bunsen burner to warm some inflammable benzene. This would have caused an institutional meltdown in India even possible expulsion. At Cavendish, Bragg told them to stop working on DNA but changed his mind once he realized that there was no stopping them. That they had ignored his orders not to work on DNA was not taken as a personal insult but an indication that these bright young researchers really believed they were on to something big. There was no attempt at Cavendish to interfere with their work. Colleagues generously gave them expert advice, with no expectation to be included in the final paper, their boss never demanded that they take his permission for every little experiment or expense.

The high-energy free intellectual climate spurred them on until the day of the revelation. This scenario is unimaginable here in the bureaucratic Indian institutions, with its obsession for conformity, its contrived and exaggerated respect for seniority and its political interference in research. All these factors contribute to a lack of motivation and commitment and stifles creativity among the scientific staff of these institutes. I talk quite often to friends and colleagues who are now faculty and scientists at various research labs and universities all over India. Yes, the grant money has increased, there is new instrumentation and infrastructure but this problem of a politics ridden, inertia-bound research atmosphere remains. Until that change occurs we will keep awaiting our own Watson and Crick moment.

No comments:

Post a Comment