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'Focus on few scientists to earn big rewards'

In an interview with HT, 2010 chemistry Nobel Prize winner Ei-chi Negishi argues that India is well suited to follow the Japanese model that has seen its scientists win an unprecedented number of Nobels in past two decades.

india Updated: Apr 07, 2011 22:25 IST
Charu Sudan Kasturi

Born in Japan and currently teaching at Purdue University, Professor Ei-chi Negishi won the 2010 Nobel Prize in chemistry along with Akira Suzuki, emeritus professor at Hokkaido University and Richard Heck, emeritus professor at the University of Delaware.

They won the most prestigious award in their field for showing that palladium works as an effective catalytic surface for reactions between carbon molecules. Carbon is otherwise not very reactive, but rare earth metals like palladium catalyse reactions between carbon molecules – helping resolve a key organic chemistry challenge.

In an interview with HT, Professor Negishi explains why the finding is historic for the future of mankind. He recounts his journey – chemistry was not always his first career choice – and talks about his views on India as a growing scientific power. Negishi delivered a lecture to students at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi on Thursday evening.

Q. What is your assessment of India as a nation of science, and what should it do to improve its standing internationally in scientific research?

A. I do not think I am equipped to speak about the past but I think India has a great future in science. What I think India can do – and is ripe for – is to select a small group of top scientists and support their research. I am not saying that the bottom up approach of funding education should be ignored, but a special project to select the most likely top researchers is an incredibly cost-effective method which has worked in Japan. The number of Nobel Laureates in physics and chemistry from Japan has increased significantly over the past two decades.

Q. How can science be made attractive again to a young generation turning towards finance and management?

A. Let me tell you a story. When I joined Tokyo University, I wanted to become an electrical engineer. I remember that a friend who traveled with me by train kept complaining about how poorly electrical engineering firms paid, and that petrochemical firms paid better. That’s what turned me towards organic chemistry. Companies must hire science students and pay them better than the rest.

Q. Why is your finding – palladium-catalysed cross couplings in organic synthesis – important beyond the world of chemistry?

A. It is a great discovery for mankind. Not just Palladium, but other transition metals (elements in group 4 of the Periodic Table) can be used as catalysts. We have realized only a fraction of what we can achieve with these transition metals. Catalysts are a cornerstone for establishing a sustainable society.