Is India’s Gold at the Olympics, an inspiration for a Nobel Prize?

India is basking in the glory of their country’s success in the recently concluded Tokyo Olympic Games, and for all the right reasons. However, India’s share of seven medals – including the first individual gold in athletics by Neeraj Chopra – has stirred the hopes of many towards a similar accomplishment in another area of human activity: winning Nobel Prizes.

The Olympics and the Nobel Prizes have similar historical significance. Modern-day Olympics started in 1896 in Athens, Greece, while the first Nobel was awarded five years later. India first participated in the Olympics in 1900 in Rome – and won the first Nobel Prize in 1913. Both the Olympics and the Nobel Prizes are the highest awards in each of their categories.

While the Olympics are held every four years, the Nobel Prizes are awarded every year. The number of active academics pursuing science and other subjects related to the prizes in India is far higher than the total strength of athletes competing at the international level.

According to the Research and Development Statistics published in 2019 by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), science workers in India numbered 27.8 lakh in 2018, being the sixth largest scientific workforce worldwide. The number of athletes according to the Athletics Federation of India was a little more than 30,000. Mathematically, we have a higher chance of winning a Nobel Prize than a gold at the Olympics. But history hasn’t borne this out.

The Nobel Prizes were initially awarded for work in five disciplines: physics, chemistry, literature, medicine and peace. Winning a Nobel Prize in science and a medal at the Olympics are both investment-intensive. In addition, a Nobel Prize can be shared by more than one person, while this happens only in special circumstances at the Olympics.

Indian sportspersons have won 35 medals of the 18,876 medals awarded thus far. The US has won the most medals (2,963). And of the 6,187 gold medals awarded, Indians have won 10. So the historical probability of India winning a gold at the Olympics has been 10/6187 = 0.16%.

Similarly, since 1901, 337 Nobel Prizes have been shared by 624 laureates in the sciences (physics, chemistry and medicine). The first and only Nobel Prize for an Indian scientist – C.V. Raman – was awarded in 1930. Why we haven’t produced a single Nobel laureate in another 90 years is a question worth dwelling on. Surprisingly, the historical probability of an Indian winning a Nobel Prize in science has been 1/624 = 0.16%, the same as winning a gold medal at the Olympics!

Many commentators have said that one major reason for our poor show at the Nobel Prizes has been the inadequate expenditure on scientific work. It is true that, in general, countries that spend more on R&D have won more Nobel Prizes in the sciences. A simple comparison of 2014 GDP data and the number of Nobel laureates from different countries reveals the following:

  • 4 – laureates from countries that spent up to 0.5% of GDP on R&D
  • 28 – laureates from countries that spent 0.5-1% of GDP
  • 183 – laureates from countries that spent 1-2% of GDP
  • 468 – laureates from countries that spent 2-3% of GDP

However, countries that spent 3-4 % of their GDP on R&D have produced only 50 laureates. South Korea and Israel, which have spent more than 4% of their GDPs, have none and six laureates, respectively. India has spent 0.81% of its GDP on R&D and produced only one Nobel laureate in the sciences – while 11 countries that have spent less than India have produced 22 laureates.

As we can see, India’s ‘performance’ at the Nobel Prizes for science has been dismal, and requires introspection. The data suggests that we can improve if we spend more on R&D – but it also says that more money won’t guarantee the outcome we seek.

The Union Ministry of Science and Technology has been allocated Rs 14,793.66 crore for 2021-2022 – an increase of Rs 9,517 crore from 2015. According to DST data, while spending on science has increased over the years, each allocation’s fraction of GDP has been almost unchanged.

India’s sports budget is about 10-times lower than that spent on science. The expenditure was increased twofold in five years, from Rs 1,200 crore in 2015 to Rs 2,636 crore in 2019. The sports budget for 2021-2022 didn’t increase.

The Sports Authority of India (SAI) is the country’s apex body responsible for developing sports. SAI has two sports academies, 11 regional centres, 14 centres of excellence and 56 training centres. In science: the DST and the Department of Biotechnology have 20 and 17 autonomous research institutes, respectively; and 38 research laboratories (CSIR), 65 research institutes, 14 national research centres (ICAR) and 31 research institutes and centres (ICMR). So there are many more science institutes than there are sports centres.

In conclusion, some key element seems to be missing that is beyond funding and infrastructure. Is it a fire in the belly that’s missing? Do we have a leadership vacuum that fails to motivate scholars to think out of the box?

Winning a Nobel Prize can’t be the only criterion by which we measure a nation’s scientific achievements – but it is a matter of pride, just like winning a gold at the Olympics. And while this year’s Olympic Games raised the expectations of 135 crore people in the sports arena, it has also renewed their expectations in other arenas – science being one of them.

Can we set a goal to win a few Nobel Prizes in another 25 years, when India will celebrate its 100th year of independence?

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