Friday, December 08, 2006
Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty
Yesterday I attended a lecture by Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, senior professor of microbiology and genetics at the University of Illinois, and biotech guru.
Prof Chakrabarty shot into the limelight in 1979 when he applied to patent a bacterium that would digest oil spills, the first person ever to seek to patent a life form (which was subsequently upheld).
I was a university student at that time. And we were filled with pride that a scholar from Calcutta, a Bengali, an Indian, had achieved such eminence. So I was delighted to learn about his lecture and made it a point to attend.
Prof Chakrabarty spoke about his current work, to develop capavi bacterium, i.e. one that would attack and kill carcinogens, malarial parasites and viruses like HIV.
He also highlighted the importance of patent protection for knowledge and innovation, as well as the need for technology transfer mechanisms, in order to stimulate application of innovations for human ends through market forces, thus boosting economic growth.
It was a fascinating introduction to the field of biotechnology, from one of the leading scientists of the world today.
However, I was not so gung-ho about protection of intellectual property rights being the means to human progress. As Kate has pointed out:
Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty has changed the food world, even though he has never worked in the food industry. Without him, Monsanto wouldn’t be as powerful or profitable. Without him, Archer Daniels Midland wouldn’t have a stranglehold on corn. Without him, countries world-wide wouldn’t have to fight for their own food supplies.
I was also left reflecting on how it was that the dedication, seriousness, persistence and support with which people like Prof Chakrabarty work, and the awe with which this is celebrated – is not to be found as far working with the people to attack problems like illiteracy, public health, housing, social injustice are concerned. Of course many, many people are working on such matters, including several with that very dedication. But such work is only seen as feel-good “charity” or “social work”. Any and everybody thinks they can do such things if they want. Anybody can say what they want about such matters – though they wouldn’t express their half-baked opinion in a discussion with Prof Chakrabarty on bio-tech!
Working with the common people to transform society – is also magnificent and heroic, but alas, doomed to meet perpetual frustration in India.