A Tumultuous Year: Trial by Virus
The year started on a high with the completion of the TIFR Council mandated Quinquennial Review in January 2020. I wish to place on record, my sincere and personal thanks—and thanks on behalf of NCBS-TIFR—for the tremendous effort and time invested by the eminent members of the committee, in collecting voluminous information, analysing, and meticulously reviewing the entire gamut of activities of NCBS. This culminated in the exhaustive Review Report (https://www.ncbs.res.in/five-year-report-2020).
As the report summarises, “NCBS has developed into an internationally renowned and competitive research centre in broad areas of the life sciences, whose excellence reflects the wisdom of TIFR in creating and nourishing this aspect of its broad portfolio. NCBS has created considerable value for the TIFR system, not only through its intramural research but also through its role in creating new institutes both within and outside of the TIFR system in Bengaluru, and elsewhere in India. NCBS is open in the best sense, collaborating widely, organising both user facilities and diverse training opportunities for scientists across India and taking an important role in< national initiatives in which the life sciences and life science research are a major part. NCBS can be considered a, “national treasure” of which everyone at TIFR, indeed throughout India should be proud.”
The high praise of such an eminent body of scientists is undoubtedly a consequence of the effort of all our colleagues, from our outstanding scientists, to our scientific and technical support staff, students, post-doctoral fellows,and the untiring set of administrators who make the wheels turn around day in and day out. I also wish to thank Upi Bhalla, the NCBS Dean and the steering committee, as well as scientific members of our management and scientific advisory boards whose constant encouragement and support has been invaluable over the years. Thanks are especially due to the members who are turning over, namely Utpal Banerjee, John Kuriyan, and Anjana Rao, as well as to those who are continuing to serve us. I hope that the points being raised by this report (and there are many) will serve to guide us for the next decade at least. In particular, we should pay attention to the suggested strategic directions where further growth can be effected.
COVID-19 interrupted our moment in the sun and soon challenged almost every element of the review. But I am happy to report that the reviewers had not erred in their judgement. During the entire span of the COVID-19< pandemic—both during lockdown and post lockdown periods thus far—NCBS (as part of the Bangalore Life Science Cluster i.e., BLiSC) has continued to function. In the initial phase from March till June, we functioned exclusively in COVID-19 response mode without regular research activities. After this phase, gradually, we have opened up regular research and today we function at greater than 50% strength, and our research activities continue without much hitch on a day to day basis. This has been possible due to a series of procedures put in place to regulate entry attendance and movement within the campus. Further, the protocols for contact tracing and dealing with cases of possible infections of personnel on the campus were also prepared and operationalised. This year, we dedicate a separate section summarising our COVID-19 response from NCBS and BLiSC, and I will not belabour the same here, except to say that the campus has shown extraordinary resilience and cooperation.
Unfortunately, our finances were badly hit by the national shift in research priorities. Although core funds were extremely restricted, we raised substantial Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds to support the much needed COVID-19 response. Working in a coordinated manner, NCBS and DBT-inStem set up testing facilities for RT-PCR testing supported by generous donations from Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiative, Nuclear Power Corporation of India, and Standard Chartered Bank. The Punjab National Bank and IQVIA joined these donors to support COVID-19-related technologies for diagnostics, protection, screening, therapy, computational modelling of drugs, as well as studying disease and virus spread. Along with C-CAMP, we now serve as sites to indigenise diagnostics in a Rockefeller Foundation-funded initiative called InDx (https://tinyurl.com/bliscindx).
We salute all our supporters and thank them for the faith they reposed in us and our science. I strongly believe that it is high quality science and its eventual application that has allowed us to see such a rapid response from the local to the global scale to this pandemic. There needs to be no better reason than this to continue to support scientific research in our country with the highest priority.
In 2016, as NCBS turned 25 years old, we recognised the need to create an institutional archive. Today we have come a long way, and thanks to the dedicated efforts of Venkat Srinivasan, our Head Archivist, we have an Archives at NCBS (http://archives.ncbs.res.in/). To cap this effort, we have been able to create an Obaid Siddiqi Chair in the History and Culture of Science, and a renewed vision for the Archives. This has been made possible due to generous CSR support from TNQ Technologies. I am particularly grateful to Mariam Ram (Chairperson, TNQ) for her tremendous support for science and also for believing in keeping the vision of Obaid alive and vital in these trying times. We hope to position the Archives at NCBS as one the premier centres in the country for the study of the contemporary histories and culture of science. The Chair in the History and Culture of Science will lead the charge in a much-needed effort to bridge the sciences and humanities and foster a diverse and inclusive community of academics across disciplines.
As with any mature institute we are now approaching a steady state with retirements, liens, and renewals. Over the last three years, several of our founding faculty members have retired, Gaiti Hasan (2018), and this year Mathew K. Mathew and Sudhir Krishna. While Gaiti continues as SERB Distinguished Fellow at NCBS, Mathew takes on a guiding role at IISER Trivandrum and Sudhir moves to head up a School of Interdisciplinary Life Science at IIT Goa to drive a public health ecosystem that he has always dreamed about. We wish all our retirees success in their exciting endeavours and to Radhika Venkatesan who is on lien to IISER Kolkata. But steady state implies additions, and we are very happy to welcome Shaon Chakrabarti and Soumyashree Das to the campus and help mould the campus in the way they wish to see it grow.
We thank Ajith Kumar (Centre for Wildlife Studies) for guiding the MSc Wildlife Biology and Conservation programme at NCBS for the past 14 years and taking it to the exemplary programme that it has become. We wish him all the very best as he goes back to his true love, field biology. We look forward to Jayashree Ratnam taking over the directorship of this programme and building a consortium with Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) and other partners, and acknowledge new support from the Habitats Trust, and continuing support from the Wildlife Conservation Trust. On behalf of the campus, I thank Mukund Thattai for his role as Head, Academics for the past six years and steering this vital part of our campus so effectively, and would like to welcome Raj Ladher as our new Head, Academics.
I congratulate our colleagues who have received awards and honours, and in particular Vatsala Thirumalai for being awarded the Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar Award for Life Science.
At the end of this decade, we must look to the new one with a renewed commitment to landing on our feet, with the nimbleness that will be needed, and with the backing of all those who support the potential of our science. In an environment of change and challenge we will get by with a little help from our friends!