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The celebrations of our 25th year have come to an end, and as we reflect back at all that was showcased about our scientific efforts in various meetings and workshops, it is apparent that the vision of NCBS as articulated by Obaid Siddiqi (see his drawing -Biology across scales) is being realized in full measure. This is indeed a terrific achievement and we would be justified in saying that we have laid a strong foundation for a unique scientific institution. However, I strongly feel that we are at a fork in our journey ahead. A number of events over the past years necessitate a reevaluation of the functioning of NCBS for our sustained growth and relevance, and to help us chart a path for our future trajectory.

NCBS began as a separate Centre of TIFR in 1992, first in the Molecular Biology Unit at TIFR in Bombay, and then at the IISc Campus in Bangalore where our own laboratories were established. The movement outside Bombay was seen as a necessary step to grow in an independent manner and be relieved from the confines of Colaba where both space and a sense of possibility were at a premium. After a short period at IISc, we moved to our current campus at the University of Agricultural Sciences in 1999, where the seeds were sown for a unique opportunity in biological sciences.

Today NCBS is a premier institute for the basic biological sciences spanning a breadth of biology from molecules to ecosystems, with an excellent set of faculty peppering this spectrum. Serious theory in the Life Sciences in the form of the Simons Centre, and a nationally renowned Wild Life and Conservation Masters Course that has spawned many activities in Biological Sciences across the campus, and in the country, are just some examples of our success stories. Major outreach in different areas, especially natural history and ecology, have also come to fruition. Critical mass is also realized, today with NCBS collaborating vigorously with many excellent international and national agencies to create genuine possibilities for its scientists at many levels. As prescient as Obaid was, it is due to our interactions and engagement with each other at NCBS that we have grown rapidly to generate the breadth and critical mass necessary for us, without feeling that growth overshadows the culture of science at NCBS.

NCBS is today also seen as establishing new benchmarks for the functioning of research institutions in India, both academically and administratively. Several institutional structures such as Science and Research Administration, Core Facilities, and substantial new Laboratory Space as well as an Endowments Cell, have also been put into place. To this we warmly welcome Mr. Pawan Pawha, our new Head of Administration and Finance and look forward to his steering our administration in the right direction to help sustain and better these efforts.

To consider a future for NCBS, we must think more broadly. A close look at standalone biological research institutes the world over, outside University structures (and some within university structures), reveals a simple fact- many bastions of ‘fundamental’ research now engage their faculty in translational research to ensure their survival. Thus far, we have been able to escape this pressure, shielded behind the large folds of TIFR’s skirts since funds for our research were a miniscule part of TIFR’s kitty. But now we are very visible; we are now more than a quarter of TIFR’s research budget, and expect this to grow if we want to sustain our science. So we are called upon to justify our science in terms of its ‘translation or translational potential’. Whilst this is genuinely desirable, we must plan for this very seriously, rather than doing more of the same.

It is in this backdrop that we must make some choices: we have the possibility of teaming up with the ecosystem that we have helped to put together in Bangalore, in a more formal way where it is recognized that our fundamental science is a driver of a vibrant and thriving environment that also delivers on translation, alternatively, to go it alone we must build ‘applicable’ into our research, and in our hiring, and we need to discuss how this may be done.

This ecosystem for biological research that spans scale [from single molecules to ecosystems (NCBS)], thematics [from basic mechanisms underlying how cells chose their fate by a complex interplay of nature and nurture to the use of stem cells in translational research (inStem)], and technologies [development of core facilities and new technology necessary for Biology and innovation (CCAMP)], has emerged organically on this campus in the last ten years, thanks to the support of the Department of Biotechnology. Here we combine basic with translational research in a seamless fashion across different modes of doing science, PI-driven laboratories (NCBS), collaborative programs (inStem), and entrepreneurial ventures (CCAMP).

Several inter-institutional programmes are already emerging in the current ecosystem, a cross-campus structural biology initiative endowed with India’s first Cryo-EM, a major national effort on a transformative chemical ecology programme that leverages the resources made available by CCAMP and UAS, to name a few. A major effort in looking at neuropsychiatric disorders is also ongoing, driven by scientists from NCBS, inStem and NIMHANS. A few of our NCBS colleagues have also used the inStem/CCAMP structure to diversify and expand the scope of their research.

All the above efforts are enabled by obvious synergies of the different institutional approaches to the biological sciences. These are positive developments but will require respectful cooperation between the entities on this campus to be sustained. An important ingredient of these initiatives is the ability to work together to leverage the benefits of scale without losing sight of the common purpose of doing excellent science. The distinct cultural values of each institution enable this environment, but their sustainability requires an enlightened mechanism to govern the interactions of this cluster of institutions so as to optimize both scientific and administrative synergies, without compromising individual institutional identities and directions. How this will be achieved must be a subject of major discussion in our faculty and with TIFR-DAE, where a functional flexibility of operation for NCBS is an essential requirement.

There is of course the alternative model about devolving into separate parts; NCBS, inStem and CCAMP may go their separate ways into three standalone institutions. This is easy to achieve, and does not need any thinking about a governance structure and elaborate collaboration arrangements. A natural outcome of this is the creation of fences between ourselves, and a coming together for an occasional collaborative project where we think the other may be a useful partner. I strongly feel that in the long run for the kind of fundamental science we wish to do at NCBS, a vision of a shared campus is the path we should take, but we must choose the path we wish to follow collectively. This is the fork in our journey ahead. Individuals make up our culture, and open engaged interactivity and a shared concern for what is excellent science is sufficient ballast to withstand the fallouts of the path we may choose.

Satyajit Mayor
Centre Director