Director's Message (2001-2003)
The Establishment is a notoriously available punching bag. And so are the established. The National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) has moved from the convenient position of having a future to the troublesome one of having to account for its past. It is just over ten years since we started, in a very small way. We are now established and a willing target for close and critical examination. How have we done?
The correct answer to this question is simple, but gets us off the hook. The best way to judge success or failure is through the eyes of history. That requires, except when failure is strikingly obvious, an existence of fifty to a hundred years. And, if a fifty or a hundred year-old institution derives its excitement, primarily, from the successes of its founding years, we need not say too much more. But, how does one assess a small, young, institution?
Or course, as scientists, we must be objective. This desire, coupled with appropriate technology, has made reviews instant, quantifiable and comparable. How long have you been here? How much money have we spent on you? How many papers have you published? How many collaborators have you had? How often were you the corresponding author? What is the citation index of each of your papers and the impact factor of the journals in which you have published? If you get all these numbers – and of course they are not meaningless – and divide the square root of their mean by 6.3, add 18, sprinkle some garlic sauce on it, you have the number with which you can hoist your institution,
or another, up a pole of derision or pride. You can also use this number to write a report on the state of the institute. Of course, a report is a serious matter that can affect people and their lives. So the report is suitably moderate, in other words, subjective – throwing all the precision of quantitative garlictherapy to the winds. While this cynical view of reviews may often be justified, we still must provide a reasonable answer to the question, “How has NCBS done?” Can we summarize this without beating around bushes, no pun intended, of our own creation? There are two ways in which this question can be answered. The first is by a view from within, with all its dangers of exaggeration or breast beating. The second is a view from outside. While I will give a brief summary of the view from within, I must first elaborate on the outside view, or more precisely, how we hope to have one soon.
Our Management Board recently considered and agreed with the proposition for an external review of Professor NCBS. The review committee will be chaired by P. Balaram of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and will have as its other members – Professor Utpal Banerjee (University of California, Los Angeles), Professor Gautam Desiraju (University of Hyderabad), Professor Sankar Ghosh (Yale University, New Haven), Dr. J. Gowrishankar (Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, Hyderabad) and Dr. Shahid Jameel (International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biology, New Delhi). This committee’s mandate is to review all aspects of NCBS’s functioning. The committee will
have access to all our records and decisions and will also meet with the members of the NCBS community in a variety of different ways, including at a research symposium. The members of the committee are non-NCBS members of our Management Board and are therefore already familiar with our workings, but they are likely to seek inputs from other reviewers and our international scientific advisors. The review committee will submit its findings directly to the Chairman of the Management Board, Professor Shobo Bhattacharya (Director, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research).
This committee will take a hard look at us. What will it find? We will know their views soon but here is an insider’s summary, an internal and subjective report, moving from the easiest to the most difficult topic. Our campus, its buildings and infrastructure, is reasonably conducive for doing good science. Our management of utilities – water and electricity, is good considering the context. However, we need to plan our energy requirements of the near future well and with attention to alternative and environment friendly approaches. Our administration works hard and well and hopefully computerization will make it even better. We have much of the major equipment to do modern biology well – as much as can be expected of a small institution anywhere in the world. These are, by and large, used and maintained well. We have relied little on permanent scientific staff, deciding to follow the principles that the users operate and maintain these facilities themselves. This approach has its drawbacks, but we do not see ourselves moving away from the philosophy easily as we do not want to develop an unsustainable and obsolescent work force. We are comparatively under-equipped for workshops in many areas – although we do have an excellent small one. We rely on the many excellent facilities available in other nearby institutes although distances make this a non-trivial effort. Our faculty size is small, we will add only about once every year and a half, thereby exercising some control on our chronological age. Our faculty, drawn from the best laboratories around the world, is extraordinarily motivated. We support them generously at startup, now more so than ever before, but expect them to generate substantial outside research support after the first five years. Which, they usually have. We expect them to do well, by any reasonable measure, and have a tough and fair tenure policy. We encourage collaboration across all geographical and disciplinary boundaries, seeing that a stirring of diverse intellectual and experimental talent can often lead to an unusually stimulating brew. This has indeed happened, more often than initially seemed likely. Our students, postdoctoral fellows and short-term visitors constitute the bulk of our members and, indeed our quality.
All of this is very well and no one will, in all likelihood, grudge us the conclusion that NCBS is a place where good science is eminently doable. Has it happened? Has our output matched the investment in talent and facilities? Before answering this, I should make a special plea that although we are legally ten years old; the bulk of our growth is closer to five years. In this period, if you go through our research publications, and read them, it is reassuring that many groups have done very well. This, combined with an ambience that encourages good work is something all of NCBS should justifiably be proud of. Could we have done better? Certainly. Given the talent and drive of our students and faculty, we could have – at a crude guess – done one and a half times to twice as well, by any measure of ‘wellness’. I feel that one important reason why this did not happen is because our Meetings and Workshops program, although growing, is at its infancy. We need to have more students and other researchers from all over the world regularly coming to our campus. This will help us see our work in perspective and also further stimulate the vibrant environment that Bangalore already offers. Another way in which we could be more effective is by greatly increasing the level of our collaborations – with clinicians, human and mouse geneticists, with physicists and chemists – within the country and outside. All of these collaborations are indeed happening and increasingly so. These are good signs whose effects may only be seen in the next couple of years.
A third way in which we can be more effective is by starting a program that will attract young investigators, free them of the need to seek funding, and allow them to develop their careers rapidly, before they move elsewhere or compete for positions at NCBS. Disproportionate to its small size, NCBS has also had a very positive impact on the development of what is known as the biotechnology industry in Bangalore. Our faculty have advised companies or served in various state committees, but far more important, our students, faculty and their research have greatly increased the confidence of the starting entrepreneur.Before an institution is built, building it seems an end itself. With the success of building well, comes the complacence that robustness brings. Being a part of the world of science, collaborating, getting more young investigators into the campus and being evaluated by outsiders are all activities that are designed to shake complacence and the sloth that it can bring. Will we choose this? Will we choose the stability and calm of the backwater or the uncertainty, instability and difficulties involved in trying to be a place that can attract the best minds, keep them here and challenge them to do their best? Only the future will tell, but in today’s world the future is measured in years, perhaps, and not in decades. So, we will know very soon!But, enough of introspection and reading tea leaves! There is, hopefully, good science and fun to be had in reading our report and I shall conclude by warmly welcoming the latest addition to our faculty, Quasar Saleem Padiath, a medical doctor and a Ph.D. in human genetics who works on the genetics of complex diseases. Talented new colleagues are the best assurance of a future and as long as we continue to add them, we shall have a great one.