How can science be popularised in a country like India?
First, you must have good teachers. As a profession, teaching cannot be the last resort. Also, you have these elite higher education institutions that everybody wants to get into, and so the schools are teaching for that. People take entrance exams to get into a coaching school which prepares you for the next entrance exam. It’s ridiculous. Children have to work all day in school, then they come home, maybe have a quick snack, and they’re off until 9 pm or so in a coaching school. Where is the time to think about science? There should be much less homework, because excess homework kills the imagination. Amartya Sen goes a step further — he says there should be no homework at all, so that they’re free to think, read, pursue hobbies and so on. Sen also says coaching schools should be abolished, as they widen the difference between rich children and poor children. I never went to a coaching school, and I’m perfectly happy.
Do you think entrance exams should be done away with?
If you have a large country, there is bound to be a limited number of seats. There’s also much variation amongst different schools and states. In such a situation, there’s no alternative to entrance exams. But coaching classes must be discouraged... Maybe the exams could be redesigned so that the coaching centres are of no use.
What do you think about interdisciplinary research?
You can never force interdisciplinary research. What you can do is not have barriers against such research. Interdisciplinary research comes when two people who have complementary skills but a common interest come together. For example, a geneticist and a biophysicist may come together. It happens all the time in bioinformatics — people who understand metabolism, or microbiologists who understand microbes, are coming together with mathematicians so they can collaborate. You can’t force such collaboration but only foster it by ensuring there are no barriers.
Do you see any difference in the ways research is done in developing countries and in developed countries?
If you had asked this 20 years ago, I would’ve said there’s a big difference because the amount of resources people had were very different. In my father’s department (at MS University, Baroda), there was only one spectrophotometer and everybody had to use that. Then, it was a big deal to have a UV spectrophotometer. On the other hand, in the West, every lab had spectrophotometers. But all that has changed. When I first went to LMB (MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology at Cambridge, UK), I found it was not very different in terms of equipment. In fact, it was very crowded. There were freezers and centrifuges in the hallways, and so on. Of course, it had almost every equipment you would need, but everything was shared. I think the resource crunch is more of a psychological problem. Indian scientists 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.’ But I see a lot of that going on in India. And I don’t think that’s going to lead to important breakthroughs.