Indian-origin scientist honoured with knighthood

London: Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, India-born US citizen whose pioneering work in molecular biology won him the 2009 Nobel Prize in chemistry, has been honoured with a knighthood by the royal establishment here in a rare recognition of achievements by foreigners based in Britain.

58-year-old Ramakrishnan, known to most as Venky, is based at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. He has been conferred knighthood "for services to molecular biology" in the New Year Honours List 2012, according to an official announcement here.

After the list was released early today, Ramakrishnan said that honouring him with a knighthood reflects the contribution made by immigrants to British society.

In a statement to PTI, he said: "In the current debate about immigration, it is worth noting that this award is yet another example of the numerous contributions that immigrants make to British society. Indeed, many of the founding members of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology were immigrants themselves, and they helped to revolutionise modern biology."

Ramakrishnan said: "This is an honour that reflects the quality of science supported by the Medical Research Council, in particular at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. In my case, credit should go to the numerous dedicated postdocs, students, associates and colleagues who made crucial contributions to the work."

It is rare for foreign citizens to be honoured with knighthoods. Such individuals do not use the style `Sir`, but are often called `Sir` in popular parlance, such as `Sir Garfield Sobers` in the case of the legendary West Indies cricketer.

Besides Ramakrishnan, two other foreign-born Nobel Prize winners based in the UK have been conferred knighthood in the 2012 honours list. They are Russia-born Professors Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov based at the University of Manchester, who were involved in the creation of graphene, a sheet of carbon just one atom thick. They won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010.

Unlike foreign citizens who were conferred knighthood in the past such as Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany, President Francois Mitterrand of France and Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York, Ramakrishnan, Geim and Novoselov are based in the UK.

Born in Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu, Ramakrishnan studied at Baroda University, Ohio University and the University of California, San Diego. Ramakrishnan was awarded Padma Vibhushan in 2010.

In the 2010 New Year Honours List, Indian-origin Mota Singh, Britain`s first Sikh judge, was honoured with a knighthood. Other Indian-origin individuals to be honoured in the 2012 list include Professor Dinesh Kumar Makhan Lai Bhugra, lately president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, for services to Psychiatry.

Anant Barodekar, founder of Club 25 for Young People, has been honoured for services to young people, while Kulvinder Bassi, Community Rail Team Leader, Department for Transport, has been honoured for services to Transport.

Also honoured are broadcaster Surjit Singh Ghuman, founder of Panjab Radio, Dr Hasmukh Joshi, Dr Raman Kapur, Madhurika Patel, Harbans Kaur Singh, Bakhshish Singh Sodhi and cricketer Umesh Valjee (for services to Deaf Cricket).

The royal recognition to Ramakrishnan, Geim and Novoselov, all immigrants, comes in the backdrop of the David Cameron government tightening policies to curb immigration from India and other non-EU countries.

The government`s measures to curb immigration by placing annual limit on non-EU professionals have come under much criticism, including from Nobel prize-winning British scientists, on the ground that it deprives Britain`s science and industry of talent.

In a letter to The Times in October last year, Geim, Novoselev and six Nobel-winning scientists said it was a "sad reflection" that scientists and engineers could not be afforded the same exception to the rules as Premier League footballers.
Besides Geim and Novoselov, signatories to the letter were Sir Paul Nurse, Sir Tim Hunt, Sir Martin Evans, Sir Harry Kroto, Sir John Walker and Sir John Sulston.

In the letter, the academics wrote that the government has seen it fit to introduce "an exception to the rules for Premier League footballers. "It is a sad reflection of our priorities as a nation if we cannot afford the same recognition for elite scientists and engineers."

They added: "International collaborations underlie 40 per cent of the UK`s scientific output, but would become far more difficult if we were to constrict our borders. The UK produces nearly 10 per cent of the world`s scientific output with only 1 per cent of its population; we punch above our weight because we can engage with excellence wherever it occurs. The UK must not isolate itself from the increasingly globalised world of research – British science depends on it."