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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« A Word to the Wise | Main | "Better Educated" in China? »

May 26, 2010

India's Research Culture

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Posted by Derek

R. A. Mashelkar of India's National Chemical Laboratory has a provocative opinion piece in Science on the research culture of his country. And it brings up a point that I don't think anyone could deny: that the attitudes of a society can affect (for better or worse) its ability to participate in scientific research:

Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman believed that creative pursuit in science requires irreverence. Sadly, this spirit is missing from Indian science today. As other nations pursue more innovative approaches to solving problems, India must free itself from a traditional attitude that condemns irreverence, so that it too can address local and global challenges and nurture future leaders in science. But how can the spirit of adventurism come to Indian science?

The situation has deep roots in Indian culture and tradition. The ancient Sanskrit saying "baba vakyam pramanam" means "the words of the elders are the ultimate truth," thus condemning the type of irreverence inspired by the persistent questioning that is necessary for science. The Indian educational system, which is textbook-centered rather than student-centered, discourages inquisitive attitudes at an early age. Rigid unimaginative curricula and examinations based on single correct answers further cement intolerance for creativity. And the bureaucracy inherited from the time of British rule over-rides meritocracy.

He points out that India's greatest scientific names (and there are some heavy hitters) got there in spite of such pressures, not because of them. It's not like this issue hasn't been aired out in India before; I've had Indian colleagues say much the same things to me. And these attitudes can be found in many countries, of course - you can find them here in the US. Mediocre researchers the world over keep their heads down, avoid projects that make their bosses (or themselves) nervous, and keep within the bounds of the literature.

The key, though, is to make sure that people who want to try risky ideas are able to do it. If they're inhibited by pressure from their bosses or their peers, the productivity of a whole country's science can suffer. Not everyone is capable (or willing) to go out on the edge, but it's crucial that the people who can and will are able to do so. That's where we've excelled in the US, where we have an entire infrastructure (the venture capital system) for funding things that are probably not going to work. It's not like we're perfect at this process, but we're better than many others.

But India appears to be moving in the right direction - Mashelkar goes into some details on the way that scientific education is changing. The next step will be to give risk-tolerant investors ways to back the good ideas that emerge. That's a tough one, and a lot of countries have been unable to quite get there. Sometimes the needed investors aren't there, or aren't quite well-capitalized (or willing) enough, or there aren't enough good ideas floating around, or there are no good ways to get the ideas and the money together. Personally, I think India's going to get there, and that it'll be a good thing for the country, and for the rest of the world.

Comments (22) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets | Who Discovers and Why


1. noname on May 26, 2010 7:40 AM writes...

The exact same point could be made about China. For 2000 years, advancement in the civil service was based on memorization of classic texts. Respect for authority is paramount.

That is why I don't worry so much about outsourcing. In the end, innovation is the only thing that will "save" pharma. Not cost cutting, not lean sigma, not M&A. And nobody does innovation like the US. Even if our math & science scores are low, we are brash, creative, risktaking, and not afraid to fail. In the long run, that's how we will succeed.

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2. HelicalZz on May 26, 2010 8:32 AM writes...

It is an interesting perspective, but perhaps not such a bad thing industrially. Where a healthy irreverence may be key to a flourishing innovative academic community, I can see where a culture of reverence would better serve large segments of the industrial function.

After all, isn't GMP / GCP an effort to exclude irreverence as much as possible?


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3. Retread on May 26, 2010 8:54 AM writes...

Susumu Tonegawa (Nobelist for his work on immunology done at MIT) said much the same thing about Japan over 20 years ago. Certainly it any lack of innovation over there (but not here) isn't due to any lack of intelligence in the Japanese, Chinese or Asian Indians of my experience.

There may be something to what you say. Jews, to hold on to their religion and culture, have had to reject the dominant religion and thought pattern of wherever they've found themselves for the past 2 millenia. The amount of innovation coming out of Israel is incredible. Ask Intel or Microsoft about the innovations coming out of their research shops there.

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4. RandDChemist on May 26, 2010 9:38 AM writes...

Interesting, and a thoughtful piece.

In college, I tutored someone who had some trouble adjusting since he was educated in a very wrote fashion in India. It seemed to help him.

The point of GxP is not necessarily to exclude irreverence. Compliance does not conflate with reverence. Conducting something under GxP can require a good amount of though and ability to discern. Things do not always go as expected, especially in early phases of development. To me, those who who are involved in GxP know how to apply their knowledge effectively and efficiently within the construct of regulations. Rigid thinking can be quite detrimental at times.

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5. Wavefunction on May 26, 2010 10:06 AM writes...

Derek, I found Mashelkar's piece to be a mixed bag. His point is well taken, namely, that excessive deference to professors and senior students common in the Indian academic culture can hamper free thinking and the open communication of ideas. It’s absolutely true that there needs to be a much more open and stress free atmosphere of communication among students and professors in India, and even fellow scientists in the Indian scientific hierarchy.

However, Mashelkar loses me in the later part of his article and in the supposed purpose of the piece. He makes it sound like irreverence is one of the dominant reasons why Indian science is faltering. Methinks he mistakes correlation for causation. Excessive deference certainly impedes progress, but I am not sure that this is really an important factor in the hurdles that Indian science faces. Bureaucracy, lack of good students, lack of access to basic facilities (although access to advanced facilities is impressive in many respects) and a general underappreciation and lukewarm attitude towards Indian science seem to be the overriding factors. As a past director of CSIR (the Indian equivalent of the NSF and NIH rolled into one), Mashelkar would especially know the hoops bureaucracy has erected for Indian science to jump through. Lamentable as the lack of irreverence is in Indian science, by focusing on it too much the article detracts from the real issues science in India faces.

In the last part of the article, Mashelkar sees cause for optimism. He cites the founding of several new institutes of science education and research. Such new institutes have always been quite fashionable in India. But Stalin’s quip about quantity having a quality of its own does not really apply to scientific research. Simply investing in dozens of science institutes is not automatically going to catapult Indian science among the front ranks, and may even dilute its effects. Nor does the development of the Tata Nano which Mashelkar cites, seem to me to have anything to do with scientific development per se. What’s needed is a concerted effort to get rid of red tape and bureaucracy and to overcome the other barriers of regionalism, the “scientocracy” where favorites revolve around treasured idols and deride others who are not members of the club, caste and funding that plague Indian science. And yes, irreverence, but that should really be a minor concern for now.

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6. CMCguy on May 26, 2010 10:08 AM writes...

#4 RandDChemist I would like to introduce you to my QA whose chief goal is to eliminate "all thinking" from GxP operations. I have used similar arguments as you regarding inflexible thinking and attitudes not promoting and even hindering GxP operations, particularly in development (for reasons you cite), but as long as certain boxes are checked does not matter. I believe QA would be pleased to have only robotic style-stereotypical Indian chemists mentioned whereas I have to try to achieve the proper balance between compliance and progress. Of course QA may be simply reflected the attitude of FDA and other Regulators who frequently talk about being driven by science/data but mainly appear to be entrenched bureaucrats.

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7. John on May 26, 2010 10:45 AM writes...

Look taking a risk in grad school comes with a huge price.
If you take a risk you could spin your wheels for 2-3 maybe 4 years, if your adviser is willing to go along with it. If your work doesn't really produce much in that time, 1 low level publication, you're looking at a longer PhD. You've got to make up for your lack of publications, so you extend your time, or you end up needing to do longer or more post docs. I think the US system really discourages innovation in this manner, I say this as someone who took a heck of a chance in his PhD work and regrets it horribly now. I see people doing really safe, but solid, science getting their degree and getting out and either getting jobs or post docs.
I think the other thing in the US that is handicapping innovation is the IP ownership rules in academia. I don't really own my ideas while I'm here, if I bring up an idea at lab meeting to discuss and expand I guess I feel my adviser could take it and run with it if he wanted. Really cutting me out, even at the level of authorship if he wanted. I keep my mouth shut when I have a new idea, if I want an independent research career I'm gonna need those to try and get a lab off the ground, I can't have another institution or lab having possible ownership of my ideas.

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8. JRnonchemist on May 26, 2010 10:53 AM writes...

There seems to be a formating issue with the end of the block quote, making everything below it italic.

I think that America's traits that make it America include irreverence and other things which improve its economic aptitude and that other countries might have difficulty matching. Still, these do not ensure the other prerequisites for success, and also cannot be relied on if America is dying/changing into something entirely different, which is always an open question.

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9. Anonymous on May 26, 2010 4:37 PM writes...

I was born and grew up in India some 40-odd years ago. I went through the education system from elementary and middle school through college and medical school. I've been in the US for almost 20 years now, working at a university where I continue to teach as part of my work. I've seen both educational systems up close.

I think Mr. Mashelkar exaggerates the extent of deference to one's elders in education, but he has a point. The issue is more complex than it would appear though, specially to a western reader who is not familiar with Indian culture.

There is indeed some deference to elders but this is not the real problem. It becomes a problem when there is a lack of opportunity and a lack of other options. If a junior Indian scientist defers to his Chairman against his better judgment more than a junior American scientist would, it's not so much respect for elders as it is the realization that his career depends upon such deference. India has a lot of people but not many resources, employment is hard to obtain, and you don't want to upset the apple cart. It doesn't help that corruption is endemic and legal systems often fail to see justice done. A junior scientist is very much afraid of putting an end to his career if he steps out of line, and he cannot expect much sympathy or justice from university officials or the law. This same Indian person, once established in a western country, would not be so afraid to challenge his superiors. He has not suddenly lost respect for his elders. He just feels more free to say what he wants.

This situation is changing quite rapidly, as I can tell from having visited India numerous times since moving to the US. Educated Indians can be extremely ambitious and motivated people, and when there is something strong pushing you, the barriers tend to fall. The fading of Nehru-style socialism is producing this effect. Suddenly, people see a lot of money flowing around, a lot of newly rich people, a lot of rags-to-riches stories. This sort of thing has changed the goalposts for a lot of people, and they are not easily denied.

We are starting to see this change in education as well, because people are less convinced that the world will end and their one opportunity in life will come to nothing, just because they upset their professor by questioning him.

I think the US and India have a lot in common, despite having such different cultures. More so than Europe (which to me seems to have a more pessimistic climate), I think Indians share the American view that it's good and natural for people to get what they want, if they work hard enough. At least, I know a lot of educated Indians who share it.

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10. Shantanu on May 26, 2010 4:43 PM writes...

I actually think the quote is correct. The idiom "You are wise beyond your years" could be viewed upon as tantamount to the Indian expression. The simple fact is that the idiom represents a simple belief: Elders are wise, so you should seek advice from them.

Unfortunately, I think culturally people have misinterpreted this saying to hold a form of dictatorial power in the community, stunting any type of growth. I think it goes without saying that for quite a long time, India was the center of the world and I highly doubt "unimaginative sayings" such as this contributed to that.

Maybe it's a better idea to redefine, culturally anyways, what this saying means rather than throw it out the window.

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11. Anonymous on May 26, 2010 5:43 PM writes...

CMC - I agree; I used to work in a GMP QC lab, and I recall the Indians were much better suited to that kind of work - the Americans were all angry and bitter about having spent 4+ years earning BS or MS degrees to do a job that doesn't involve any thinking!

RandD chemist - when does thinking go into GMP work? I honestly think a robot could have done my job back when I worked in QC.

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12. provocateur on May 26, 2010 5:49 PM writes...

People like Mashelkar is the problem.
They talk one thing in print and another when in committee's behind closed doors.See
This guy sits on every important scientific committee the Govt. of India puts out and he he would have been finished!There he rules because he is the designated 'elder'.Bureaucrats holding on to power!He sits on private industry boards and other federal committee !Conflict of interest??? None!
I say kick out the old guard and let it be run on meritocracy!

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13. Knowthemwell on May 26, 2010 9:29 PM writes...

Add to that the fact that the national pastime is lying.

Having grown up in Canada (a country that is now half Indian) one learns very quickly the culture, and to simply dismiss anything said by someone from such a culture.

I've seen all too many times once they've become entrenched within an organziation they will only hire more Indians.

Of course this post will be deleted, and labeled racist, however anyone with significant interaction with people of this culture will concur.

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14. Human on May 26, 2010 11:07 PM writes...

Knowthenwell! Is Canada half Indian already! You start with a blatant lie to call Indians Liars. If the people from a race were not recruiting and promoting people from the same race then the white hegemony could not have existed. You are part of the problem not solution.
The culture of Research in India is lacking on account of finances and intellectual independence. If even 10% of money spent on Cricket in India finds its way to research and society views it with greater dignity then we are there!

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15. Human on May 26, 2010 11:20 PM writes...

Yes Knowthemwell! You are a racist and a compulsive liar. It seems to be your real passion. You are only trying to be an instrument in polarising teh society. Hateeeeeee yourrrrrrrr
blog since it does nothing to the topic discussed.

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16. Hazz on May 26, 2010 11:53 PM writes...

It is important to remember that the essential difference between a real scientist and a crackpot is that scientists keep an open mind, but not so open that their brains fall out.

Scientists question, of course, and if they are able to develop a plausible argument, they publish their findings in the scientific literature. Then, other scientists learn about their work, and, if it is good, it will eventually overturn the old consensus. Einstein did this, Newton did this, Galileo did this, and Darwin did this.

/In before someone brings this in some absurd direction.

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17. provocateur on May 27, 2010 5:42 AM writes...

I will not comment on the racism charge.
But I have seen what you describe in the Pakistani culture.Indians have a culture of fairness(comes from their educational culture).

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18. Snow on May 27, 2010 2:59 PM writes...

To Provocateur,

"Indians have a culture of fairness"?


I was told that Indian society/people were divided into four different classes just based on their family names. Tell me this is not the case any more.

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19. provocateur on May 28, 2010 6:39 AM writes...

Its the same as was here where the blacks were used as slaves.If you think the situation improved here it has improved there too!
A while ago they had an 'untouchable' president, the previous president was a muslim, the current prime minister is a sikh.All this for a hindu-dominated country.and the leader of the largest pary is an italian!go figure!

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20. Human on May 30, 2010 9:22 PM writes...

Say something you villain Knowthemwell. You know nothing just berating. Shows your mentality, upbringing and background!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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21. Mr. Fiddy on June 14, 2010 9:03 PM writes...

Perhaps India's educational culture is a bit
rigid and slow. As some of you may know,in Sofia
Bugaria, Viswanathan Anand, of India, upheld his
world championship as the uno numero of chess. As
for myself: I'm just a(medication resistant)
recovering Young Republican for Goldwater. Still
uptight and narrow from conflict-free monolithic
thinking during the mid 50's and early 1960s.

Ah, creative thinkers out there. You breathe
fresh optimism in my otherwise bland world.

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22. Shank on May 26, 2011 8:41 PM writes...

The point made with the sanskrit quote is nonsense. A quick look at Indian history will show that an incredible diversity of traditions formed over the centuries in India. These traditions are usually formed when a follower of some tradition finds it unsatisfactory and goes on to start a new one. The attitude implied by the quote is only while one is learning something. It doesn't preclude one from reflecting on that which is learnt and disagreeing with it.

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