Director's Message (2004-2005)
LOOKING AHEAD, UPON LOOKING BACK
Being perceived as successful, even very modestly, has its problems. It begets long-term complacence even though others' perceptions can be extraordinarily fleeting. Everyone knows this except those who are temporarily labelled as doing well. The result is that established, older, institutions soon lapse into constantly talking about their past while neglecting to sense the dangers of stasis and failing to worry about their place in tomorrow's world. How can a near middle-aged institution such as the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), a part of the much older Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) avoid this fate and deal with failures and successes in our own past and in those of others to decide our future directions?
We need to answer this question clearly for three broad reasons. First, we have reached about half our professed steady-state faculty size: this is a good time to ask at what rate, direction and extent we would now like to grow. Second, many new opportunities have presented themselves, both as a natural consequence of how we have developed and because of new resources and opportunities - national and global - becoming available. We need to decide to what extent and how we want to access these opportunities and resources. The third reason, alluded to at the start, is the requirement to plan before it is too late to do so: our next round of five-year funding starts in 2007 and we should have a growth plan in place now.
The third point - the need to proactively have a plan in advance of a crisis, yet often denying it - is something individuals and institutions share in similar situations. Faced with the proverbial mid-life crisis humans sometimes act on impulse: they throw away all that they have strived to achieve, label their past as ordinary and without meaning, their present as secure but boring and decide they have only one life in which to achieve something significant and embark on an inspired road to glory. This road is littered with failure, but the mid-lifer in crisis will say that it is better to fail trying than to lead a safe, boring and insipid life. The person will cite examples of success that comes only to those who dare and how great things come from small beginnings. Thankfully, not many mid-life institutions dare to follow this model of a 50 year old on a bull run in a red Ferrari. Regretfully though, most institutions stay at the other extreme and behave like the majority of humans. They continue without change and, much later, constantly regret that they did not choose to change or plan for the future at the right time. Reforming such institutions is a super-human task and has been attempted by the brave. While spectacular turnarounds have happened, usually such efforts meet with only modest success. In other words, address the future now or stay forever in the past and regret it.
The 'ship refusing to change course' syndrome - is widespread in institutions around the world. Many places see themselves as doing well and see no need for reform. But, the world changes rapidly while their success is entirely due to its anchors in the past and it is this very success that prevents them from being pulled by the winds of change. Institutions in the west, particularly America, deal with this in a simple way. Pouring better money after good, they start a new and vibrant department or activity in a once great place and ensure that form and content are in sync. New departments do well and create a tension that stimulates the old. This approach is not one that India can usually afford, though it can afford even less to ignore the need for measures to prevent stagnation.
Well, what then must we do? Over the past two years, since our activities at NCBS were reviewed, we have embarked on several diverse ventures whose aim is singular: to leverage our comparative advantage and enhance the possibility that we will, by any global measure, do far better in the near future. In choosing what to do, we have tried to implement the suggestions of our review committee and Management Board: views that came after much t hought and discussion. Here are six measures we hav e undertaken or programs we have enhanced.
To stay young forever (well, close) we have started a young investigator program. Do see their reports here and on our website. This program will result in a renewable flow of vigour in the system by bringing in driven, focused young (at heart) scientists who can kick us and kick-start their careers.
A stand-alone biology institute with no connection with physics, chemistry, computation, etc. will die soon or will be part of the living-dead. To prevent this, and to be part of the excitement of interdisciplinary research, our colleagues have started the iBio programme, which aims to bring in creative talent from all of science to address questions in biology. This program hinges on the ability of our faculty and students - with their own diverse backgrounds and training - to interact with researchers in institutions nearby and all over the world.
A product of the iBio networking is a nanobiotechnology collaboration that brings in substantial research support from the Government of India, Department of Science and Technology's nanoscience initiative. One aspect of this research will develop the tools of micro-fluidics and microscopy to image cellular compartments at high-resolution. Other aspects will continue to focus on our core strengths in membrane biology, cellular trafficking and gene-regulation. A large collaboration with the Japanese ICORP programme, between the groups of Aki Kusumi at Nagoya and Jitu Mayor at NCBS brings new inputs here.
Clinical research in India is a relatively under-developed area. This situation, interestingly, provides an opportunity for basic science and medicine to interact. In collaboration with the Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore, we have started a collaborative program in regenerative medicine with emphasis on the use of bone-marrow derived stem cells. The CMC is one of the best medical colleges and research centres in the country, and we have great expectations from this collaboration. In collaboration with, and the leadership of, the neighbouring Jawaharlal Nehru Centre (JNC) we have already begun the establishment of a stem-cell resource and training centre. Both ventures are with the generous support from the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India.
We have started to broaden our graduate program substantially. Collaboration with clinicians will have as its pivot a new MD-PhD program and a clinician-training scheme that we will aim to have in place by the next academic year. The Academic Council of TIFR has approved this venture and we look forward, with much enthusiasm, to launching it soon. This too is in collaboration with CMC, Vellore. In another effort we have greatly diversified the inputs to our graduate program and will continue to increase the number of students and research fellows we admit. The importance of our graduate program and the need for developing and maintaining the highest standards here cannot be overemphasised.
Finally, our national and international interactions are the stars and compass by which we measure our position and direction. These must constantly grow and strengthen. We have a meetings and workshop program that is strong but needs constant attention - as it deserves. Like the graduate program, it has an impact that can be disseminated and is therefore most valuable. We have a regular stream of short and long term visitors who have made NCBS their home. We value them and must make sure that we have all the infrastructure and wherewithal to attract them to stay longer and come more often. We have new collaborative arrangements with several laboratories and some, particularly with the TLL in Singapore and the RIKEN-CDB in Kobe are functioning well. The Asia-Pacific Developmental Biology Network, of which NCBS is a part, allows easy interactions with laboratories in the region and we have begun collaborations to generate knock-out mice at the RIKEN-CDB.
There are two components to good science. Necessary, indeed critical, is an intellectual atmosphere where the individual investigator is protected and can flourish to go wherever her aspirations take her. Institutions must make sure that they are such a place. However, the inward looking attention to detail that this requires can close the institution from change and ferment so valuable to creativity. All institutional efforts then must balance scepticism, thoughtfulness and the ability to address questions in detail and over time with openness and the wide-eyed grasping of the new. This balance is only as good as the investigators we hire and who renew our zest, focus, capability and curiosity. This time we have an amazing number of new additions of the usual superb quality. Mrinalini Puranik, Yamuna Krishnan-Ghosh, Uma Ramakrishnan and Sandhya Koushika are our new faculty members. Kaustubh Rau, V. Sriram and Mukund Thattai are the founders of our Young Investigator Programme. Azim Surani from Cambridge is our new Dorabji Tata Professor who has been very supportive in promoting out stem cell initiatives. The previous occupant of this chair, Michael Bate continues as an adjunct Professor. Jim Spudich from Stanford and Francisco Barrantes from Bahia, Argentina also join us as adjunct faculty, strengthening their ongoing collaborations at NCBS. A very warm welcome to all of our new colleagues: NCBS is extraordinarily fortunate to have them join us.