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Life Sciences in India – on the right track

The past twenty years have seen tremendous changes in the life science sector in India. New initiatives have helped to build basic science, establish laboratories, set up funding and recruitment programmes for postdoctoral researchers and faculty. India’s challenge now is to improve the flow of funds, to retain or bring back their best brains and to become more competitive internationally.

 

As in many other fields, India has become a worldwide hub for science and technology. It participates in mega-projects such as the International Rice Genome Project, Large Hadron Collider and ITER – one of the biggest international collaborations to produce electricity from nuclear fusion. Indian government spending on research and development (R&D) has grown by seven per cent each year between 2007 and 2012. By contrast, in Europe it fell by 0.5 per cent and in the United States by 2 per cent a year. [1]

 

The focus of research in India traditionally lies on engineering and IT – sectors that are easy to commercialise. The country also hugely invested in nuclear R&D and the national space programme. “Astronomers and physicists made excellent cases for investments of large sums of money in major intellectual quests that may have collateral practical benefits,” says EMBO Associate Member VijayRaghavan, who is a professor at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore and head of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) under the Ministry of Science and Technology.

 

Science – a historical effort

 

The quest for knowledge is deeply rooted in India’s identity as a nation. The country began to build a strong foundation in modern science during the first days of its independence. In the 1950s, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru expanded support of the nation’s institutes of science and technology. In the sixties, India led the “green revolution,” which served as the basis for its efforts to feed its citizens and which set the stage for economic growth. Traditionally, there is a deep appreciation for learning. Academics who spend their time in research and teaching are highly valued.

 

The life science sector is gaining ground. Innovative national research centres have been founded, including five new Indian Institutes of Education and Research, nine new Indian Institutes of Technology, a new National Institute of Science Education and Research and 28 new Central Universities. Several career-development and recruitment schemes for postdoctoral researchers have been set up. The rapid growth of India’s economy makes for a dynamic job market with many new job openings.  New research projects help to understand how the immune system works against disease, and how nutrition and brain development are linked. Clinical, agricultural and biotechology research is steadily gaining momentum.

 

Main players

 

The government support for creating new research centres, for funding and science infrastructure has been tremendous. “India is much better endowed in terms of research support than it was twenty years ago,” says VijayRaghavan. NCBS, where he still has a laboratory, was set up in 1988 and gave new impetus to the development of modern biology in India. In a partnership with the UK-based Wellcome Trust, DBT offers fellowship schemes to basic biomedical scientists, clinicians and public health researchers who wish to pursue academic research in India. The aim of the schemes is to provide flexible and generous funding to allow for internationally competitive science.

 

IndiaBioscience (IBS) is another example of an initiative created to help the life science sector get out of its niche existence. IBS functions as a catalyst organization to strengthen recruitment, networks, collaborations, research-oriented education and science communication. The initiative grew out of the annual Young Investigator Meeting that started in 2009. The meeting brings together India’s best young life science researchers, senior faculty, representatives of grant-funding agencies and science policy makers.

 

EMBO is a regular participant at the annual Young Investigator Meeting. The organization has contributed to the life sciences in India in many ways. A number of scientific meetings, lecture series and keynote lectures were funded by EMBO in recent years. In November 2013, an EMBO–India Young Scientists Networking meeting in Bangalore brought together thirty European and Indian young group leaders to discuss joint collaborations and funding options. Further lectures and a workshop are planned for 2014.  

 

The opportunities for doing research are tremendous. Yet there are several challenges. “While our foundations in modern biology are good, we will slip back rapidly if we do not keep pace with the changing world,” warns VijayRaghavan.

 

How to bring back the best brains?

 

According to EMBO Associate Member Inder M. Verma, professor at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, United States, India has not succeeded in attracting its diaspora as effectively as China. Chinese politicians have made it much easier for their researchers to come back. Their salaries at home are internationally competitive and they receive a strong personal support.

 

The Indian government needs to make its top scientists feel they are in the same advantageous position as their colleagues abroad. “Scientists do not want to take a chance to go back to a system where they are afraid they will not succeed. And I do not blame them, I did not do that myself,” says Professor Verma, who left India in 1967 to pursue his scientific career, first in Israel and then, in 1971, in the United States.  Since 1983, he has been involved in improving the country’s basic science infrastructure. He visits India regularly and was also one of the founding fathers of DBT.

 

The good news is that this structural problem is slowly reversing. The younger generation of scientists is especially eager to return to India. For a reason: The Wellcome Trust-DBT Indian Alliance gives up to 200,000 thousand US dollars per year to outstanding returning scientists to help them set up their own laboratories. Other prestigious schemes include the Ramalignaswami Re-entry Fellowship also run by DBT.

 

A critical mass of scientific leaders

 

The Indian government has just announced more than twenty new research centres. Most of them are lacking scientific leadership. Large grants of up to millions of dollars are available for people who decide to take the helm. Yet there have not been many takers. The country does not have a sufficient number of science leaders who are willing to go to these new places and mentor young faculty.  The Indian system of family, close colleagues and of being established in one place is difficult to break. “In the United States, people go where the best science is done. In India, family seems to be the strongest magnet,” explains Verma.

 

A huge challenge is institutional support for scientists. Decent housing and unlimited access to the laboratory are required to keep scientists happy. There is a need for more flexible support for international travel. The flow of funds has to improve. Indian science still suffers from excessive bureaucracy. The purchasing system for supplies is full of problems created by distance, customs and duties. At every level, a small percentage of time and quality is lost. Resources per se are often not a problem, yet their distribution is one.

 

The same is true for other practicalities. India does not have proper animal facilities. There has hardly been any development of transgenic or knock-out mice – an essential component of modern biology. The country is still suffering from lack of substantial equipment, which elsewhere is taken for granted.

 

“These are serious problems and we are all working together to push changes. There is tremendous enthusiasm here,” summarizes VijayRaghavan. “The foundation and very strong competence we have in clinical and agricultural research and in ecology can be brought to basic biology in a wonderful way. If we manage to piece all the components together, great things can happen.”

 

“I think the government is on the right track,” adds Inder Verma. “It is tremendous compared to what used to be twenty years ago. They have a reasonably good idea that basic science is still the fundamental path along which the clinical and translational research will stand. The government has realized that you need to invest a lot initially in order to have a lot of gains much later.”

 

[1] Source: J. Chakma et al. (2014) 370: 3-6 New England Journal of Medicine
doi: 10.1056/NEJMp1311068