Surprise of failure could be the key to new discovery in the long run, says Sir William E Moerner, Stanford University Professor
Abhay Anand, 03 May 2017
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Careers360 interviews Sir William E Moerner, the Stanford University professor who shared the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry ‘for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy’. In his interview with Careers360 he speaks on why India lags in research.

He also shares his views on what Indian institutions need to learn from their US counterparts.

Read the full interview of the Nobel Prize recipient.


Careers360: The US has so far produced more than 350 Nobel laureates while there are very few of Indian origin. Why is it so?
Sir William: The exact reason will be very difficult for me to state as I don’t understand all aspects of the society but the important thing is that many of the laureates that have come from the United States have worked in a situation where they have the freedom to explore something that has not been explored before. They had the freedom to work on a problem that they were not told before and had to identify it themselves. In my case, I started detecting individual molecules when I was at the industrial research labs and it was like trying to ask fundamental questions about the ultimate limits of the new kind of optical storage. So, we have to have the freedom to measure something, it is also very important that if the structure is rigid then there might not be individual freedom and I am not saying it is like that in India. The other thing that is important is stable funding, state funding over some time that doesn’t change much.   


Careers360: Does India lack manpower to conduct quality research? How can we change this?
Sir William: Having very large numbers bring in young minds, great resources for building science achievements in future. So the bigger question is why don’t they stay and do that and what are the incentives to stay? In my group, there is one post-doc who is from India. He is now trained with me and has been talking a lot about coming back to India. So, at my personal level I can try to train people but I can only do a few at a time to be able to address this problem. So, it’s hard to change the society very quickly but there should be some incentive for young people who are working abroad and are willing to come back here and work like they can be guaranteed smooth funding for let’s say five years, and things like that. 


Careers360: How do you compare Indian higher education institutions with that of the US? What do Indian institutions need to learn from them?
Sir William: I went to give lecture at some of the institutions in India and what I observed is that there was complete silence. This was very strange because generally before I speak, there is chat in the audience; and I am not generalizing things; but you need to have fire in the belly for science, it has to be more flexible and interactive. There are students who get very good training; they get to learn basics and fundamentals very well. It’s just that if the system thinks that they fit into a specific mode, then they might not be able to achieve as high as possible. The other thing that might be helpful is to give exposure to students in university or college, give them exposure to great research centres here. The Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and other organizations too have very impressive and excellent people.    


Careers360: You talked about IISc, an institution that has a certain level of autonomy. If institutions are given full autonomy, will they perform better?
Sir William:
What I learnt at IISc is that some people there are frustrated by their funding system and you are given money for one year and you must finish in the same year. Then, you must wait at the start of the year to get next year’s funding started, there is no reason for that, there is no reason for the huge gap, it is purely an administrative problem. In the US, for example, we spend 85-90 percent in a year and can keep rest of the money for the next year to keep things moving and in addition, new money comes at the starting of the period, so we are not waiting for the agencies to fund. These are small things but it can screw up the research work.


Careers360: It is said that Indian higher education system is different from that of the West and so they are not properly represented in international rankings. Do you agree?
Sir William: There are excellent people at multiple places and there could be pockets of excellence but ranking is done by taking a whole institution or university into consideration. So, they are not able to figure among the top.


Careers360: What suggestions would you like to give to Indian scientists and researchers working in the field of Chemistry?
Sir William: Though I have a prize in Chemistry, there is great deal of Physics associated with it. The advice that I would give to all the people, including the ones in Chemistry, is that to continue to do great work, essentially to explore beyond the edges of what’s not, to select problems that are hard. Those working on such problems should learn how to embrace failures, to learn to recognize that if they are doing something new, there will be time when the experiments will fail. They might fail because they didn’t quite understand what happened, that might be the key to a new discovery. The surprise of failure could be the key to new discovery. We saw a lot of surprises when we started doing studies of individual molecules and those were the surprises which led to the Nobel Prize, some 20 years later.


Careers360: Is it true that industry-academia collaboration is important to improve funding?
Sir William: That’s not quite true. In terms of paucity of funding, there have been a number of times when there has been limited funding as when IBM started having losses in 1993, I was not allowed to hire a post-doc so I had restricted resources. Since 1995, there have been grants that have been funded, there were others that were not funded. In the year 2008, one grant was not funded and I had to wait for the entire year before I could get replacement money. So, there is a continuous juggling act that we have to go through. Since Nobel Prize, things have improved for a long time but I had to ensure I have enough money to pay people working in my group. So it was a challenge.  


Careers360: India plans to establish 20 world-class institutions. Do you have any suggestions for the government?
Sir William: That sounds very exciting and I would suggest that they make sure that very good people are put into these institutions and the time-line over which they judge people is long i.e how many papers they get over five years; it should not be yearly, three months etc. That was the issue at IBM, as when things were tough for the company, quarterly profits became important and that’s not the timescale on which you do research. The long time-line allows for failure and it should be like, even judge people on how much they tried some things that might fail. Giving them stable, predictable funding and freedom to explore these things will go a long way. It will be good if their fundamental work is directed in some area that is within some problem area because that tends to provide stimulation to mind to innovate things.


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