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Indian Science Rising

by Rudy Baum, Editor-in-chief
March 20, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 12

This week's cover story-actually, five related stories-is on the dynamic chemical enterprise that is emerging in India. The stories present a fascinating portrait of advanced chemistry that in some cases is thriving and in other cases is struggling in this vast and complex Asian nation.

C&EN Deputy Assistant Managing Editor Amanda Yarnell spent more than a month earlier this year traveling throughout India. She attended the two-part conference focused on organic chemistry and chemical biology sponsored by the American Chemical Society and India's Council on Scientific & Industrial Research in Pune and Hyderabad (C&EN, Jan. 16, page 7). She visited more than 20 university chemistry departments and government and industry laboratories, and she talked to dozens of Indian scientists.

In the general media's coverage of high technology in India, the emphasis is often on software engineering and the outsourcing of such engineering jobs from the U.S. to India. Other areas of science and technology, including chemistry, are also highly advanced in India, and C&EN's Business Department editors have written numerous stories on India's vibrant fine and custom chemical and pharmaceutical industries in the past several years.

Yarnell echoes the themes of those stories in the introduction to the cover stories: "Fueled by a highly trained workforce of synthetic chemists, India is seriously challenging the U.S. and Europe for supremacy in producing active pharmaceutical ingredients, advanced intermediates, and other fine chemicals. It now hopes to do the same in innovation-intensive sectors, including drug discovery, biotechnology, and materials science."

However, Yarnell also found that, while "India's academic scientists are finding it easier than ever to fund their research ... creative, groundbreaking science continues to be hindered by feudalism, bureaucracy, and a scientific culture that encourages submission and discourages risk-taking."

Yarnell examines a number of trends in the Indian chemical enterprise. In the story on "Building R&D For Drug Discovery," she looks at efforts by Indian pharmaceutical companies to lure top expatriate chemists back to India to fuel their drug discovery efforts. She talked to a number of such chemists who have returned home, among them Pradip K. Bhatnagar, who had spent more than 35 years in the U.S. before leaving GlaxoSmithKline last summer to head up new drug discovery at Ranbaxy, India's largest drug company.

"Indian pharma is on the cusp of exponential growth," Bhatnagar told Yarnell. "The facilities offered here are excellent, and the opportunities are unparalleled."

On the other hand, many Indian academic institutions struggle to remain at the cutting edge of research. Yarnell reports that significant barriers to effective interdisciplinary research exist in Indian institutions. "India's scientists are forever worried that people will steal their ideas," says M. N. Gupta, a chemist at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology. "We need people who will take chances," says Gautam Desiraju, a chemist at the University of Hyderabad, who adds, "The Indian system is strangled by fear and mediocrity."

Other problems facing the Indian chemical enterprise that Yarnell examines include the difficulty in attracting first-rate postdocs to Indian academic labs, archaic laboratory facilities in many institutions, and a divergence of undergraduate education and scientific research in most Indian universities. "The symbiosis between teaching and research sadly has been lost here in India," physicist Sushanta Dattagupta of Calcutta's Bose Center told Yarnell. "We've deprived our young students of access to our brightest scientists."

Despite these problems, the sense one gets reading these stories is of a chemical enterprise that, like China's, is determined to become a force on the world stage. I think you will be impressed by the energy and enthusiasm expressed by the Indian chemists, chemical engineers, and other scientists who talked to Yarnell.

DISCLAIMER: The series of five stories on the chemical enterprise in India is illustrated with numerous photographs taken by Yarnell on her visits to a variety of chemical laboratories. In many of the photographs, the chemists pictured are not wearing protective eyewear that would be required in the U.S. C&EN does not condone this inattention to appropriate safety standards. However, C&EN, as a newsmagazine, has a responsibility to portray situations as they exist, not as we wish they might be.

Thanks for reading.


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