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Driving, and responding to, change

Viewed from any perspective, the scientific scene in today’s India is a churning of resources and ideas whose implementation makes for foggy weather and stormy seas. The number of new institutions being announced and plans being made is mind-boggling compared to the sparse fare of the past. The National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) is a small, relatively insulated, institution that has grown slowly, adding a few carefully chosen groups each year. Should we join the expedition and risk sinking or lie low and simply miss the boat?

The critics of change, and there are many, have a point. When they view the transformations taking place they uniformly ask: Where are the people who will lead this change, where are the scientists who will staff all the new places coming up? In any given area, they argue, India has but a handful of researchers. To grow too fast, do the wrong things or to spread one’s time and effort too thin is suicidal. On the other hand, others argue that it will be suicidal not to grasp the opportunities for growth and change that are available now, that it is part of the adventure to nurture and find the human resources (as people are nowadays called) for the task. It is rather interesting to have alternative ways of suicide as one’s only choices! In the event, this is a good time to look at NCBS’s past and discuss what we should do in interacting with our environment. There are many responsibilities we could take and these come with opportunities and potential problems. We need to see through the fog if we are to avoid the rocks of trying things the wrong way, trying too many things, trying the wrong things or, equally risky, trying nothing.

Over the sixteen years since NCBS’s birth and growth to about 25 groups, its simple core values have been its strength. These include a rigorous tenure-track system and the academic freedom to take one’s science forward without having directions imposed. We have chosen to hire the best and have not grown by excluding some areas or focusing on others. our research areas range from the study of the physics and chemistry of macromolecules to ecological sciences. This breadth and, crucially, the diverse student and postdoctoral community that it brings with it, have created an environment that is stimulating, creative, irreverent, questioning and one that is constantly renewed. These features are necessary, but are not sufficient explanation for past successes or for assuring future ones. All of what is good about NCBS today is also a consequence of our perception of a few years ago on how to recognize ‘good’ science. These perceptions should not be a constant: If we were to retain today the perceptions of yesterday in making our choices for the future we are very likely to make serious mistakes. The way we have started and grown has allowed us to become good. To become excellent, simply having more of the same will not work, except to retain the ability to choose in the context of what is currently the best anywhere.

What do we need to do to position us for success in the coming fifteen years? There are tantalizing possibilities. Our forthcoming new laboratories allow us to expand our Young Investigator Programme with the aim to nurture a population of dynamic and constantly renewed researchers. Till now, we had little choice but to have these talented people find themselves a longer-term home at the end of their tenure. The growth of new institutions in India now allows them to cast their net wider. NCBS hopes to interact with these new institutions to formally embed interactions that allow movement of investigators. Closer to home, the entry into Bangalore of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) in a direct manner offers a range of new possibilities: The DBT is starting a new stem-cell institute (SCI) close to NCBS and we have been asked to incubate this laboratory and define the nature of our interactions in a memorandum of association. If formulated well and implemented better, this affords an unprecedented opportunity for symbiosis leading to the development of a critical mass of very high quality life sciences researchers in Bangalore. The DBT is keen that the SCI, in addition to its mandate, serve as a home for several satellite centres whose focus will be by no means limited to stem cell research. Interacting in this venture thus provides both NCBS and SCI with invigorating possibilities in all of biology: We can share intellectual and material resources and we can increase the size, diversity and capability of our community while constantly improving quality. This allows us to address scientific problems in new ways and develop a niche advantage or an approach that allows us to be truly innovative. In addition to working to develop these new institutional structures in a variety of ways, NCBS has the opportunity to expand on two of its relatively newer strengths: We have been fortunate to have developed an excellent band of theoreticians and experimentalists who use physics, chemistry and computational approaches to study biology. Another group has emerged in what can be broadly called ecological sciences and conservation biology. It is clear that these groupings are poised to attract even more excellent researchers. It is just this sort of growth – in an environment of cell and molecular biology – that can open the possibilities of transformation into excellence.

As always, the generalities of discussion about the future need to be moored in the reality of what we practice. Since our last report we had many changes in our research groups. V. Sriram joins the Department of Biological Sciences (DBS) at TIFR as a faculty member. Sriram’s success as a young investigator and his recruitment by DBS is exemplary and we hope the Young Investigator Programme will grow and populate more places with such excellent researchers. Kaustubh Rau, another Young Investigator, has decided to leap into a start-up company. This is the kind of move which will inspire many talented young scientists as entrepreneurship is stimulated and grows in our environment. We welcome Deepak Nair and Sanjay Sane who both study the relationship between structure and function, albeit at very diverse scales and in very different ways. Mukund Thattai has metamorphosed from Young Investigator to faculty member. Mahesh Sankaran, who studies the mechanism that governs changing ecosystems, joins us from Leeds later this year. A very warm welcome to all and a fond farewell to Sriram and Kaustubh.

Finally, the answer to the question in the first paragraph is simple: If we set sail in a vessel with a good hull and a team that can handle fair weather and foul, we can contribute to, and be part of, a great expedition without sinking and becoming history. NCBS seems fully capable of doing just this (the former, not the latter)! In any event, with marine metaphors abounding, we perhaps need a marine station too: Any takers to start one?

K. VijayRaghavan
NCBS Director