Director's Message (2017-2018)
Strategies for Future Proofing NCBS
As a Centre of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, NCBS has navigated a year of uncertainty because of a variety of reasons.Dominant among these is a refrain questioning what autonomous institutes have achieved during their existence. This question reverberates throughout funding agencies that have supported fundamental research in the pastRightfully, we who belong to these autonomous institutes of science must be answerable to those who repose their trust, faith, and money in us. For this we need to be relevant to the context that we work in, and also communicate our achievements.In the 25 plus years of NCBS’s existence we have been trying to do more of the former, and it would be good to take stock of where we stand.I list a few of our highlights. What emerges is a host of efforts that make NCBS what it is today: a site for excellent basic research with a footprint that is enabling new paths of discovery and translation based on issues emanating from our own neighbourhood.
Beginning in 2006, NCBS partnered the Centre for Wildlife Studies(CWS) and the Wildlife Conservation Society to initiate a Masters programme in Wildlife Biology and Conservation. This is one of India’s most sought-after MSc programmes today. Our MSc in Wildlife Biology and Conservation has also brought new opportunities for us: it has literally brought our large and diverse ecosystem into our laboratories. This has emboldened some of our faculty to wholeheartedly engage in shaping a potentially transformative Mission programme on understanding India’s Biodiversity and its role in human wellbeing.Uma Ramakrishnan is now a member of the Steering Committee for this Mission, along with Kamal Bawa (one of our Scientific Advisors), and partner institution ATREE. In addition, NCBS faculty in partnership with the Wipro Foundation, the CSR entity of Wipro Ltd,has helped launch The Bangalore Sustainability Forum. The purpose of this forum is to create a coalition of resource people, research institutions, and action-oriented agencies to tackle one of the most pressingissues at our doorstep,the sustainability of the urban sprawl that is Bangalore.
Partnering the Department of Biotechnology, NCBS helped nucleate the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (inStem) and set up the technology platform and incubator, Centre for Cell and Molecular Platforms (C-CAMP),almost 10 years ago. The intention was that as a combined space, we would be able to engage in more programmatic research with activities that could have translational potential. Instead of standing by and being asked to do things that we may not have the capacity to accomplish, several activities at NCBS–inStem–C-CAMP (which we now call The Bangalore Life Sciences Cluster or BLiSC) have been set up where important questions arising from our our own neighborhood have been taken on.
BLiSC is now funded by the DBT as a Cluster ecosystem, and is emerging as a role model for how a life sciences ecosystem may function. As a consequence of the engagement of NCBS-TIFR, inStem is also well on its way to standing on its own feet, as an equal partner in BLiSC. The establishment of the National Facilities for Mouse Genome Research and the inauguration of the National Cryo Electron Microscopy Facility by C N R Rao and Richard Henderson earlier this year, is a testimony of the cluster’s multi-institutional character in enabling national facilities. The development of BLiSC, built around foundational multidimensional research and excellent core facilities, has also created a supportive ecosystem for biotech startups. This has enabled a few companies to reach astage where they are in the process of going public. And we hope that in the long term this will pay back to the campus.
With the engagement of few of our faculty (Shona Chatterjee, Upi Bhalla, and Raghu Padinjat) with colleagues at the Centre for Brain Development and Repair at inStem and clinicians at NIMHANS, NCBS has helped create two valuable programmes on the study of mental disorders, the Centre for Neuro-Synaptopathies (CNS), and Accelerator programme for Discovery in Brain Disorders (ADBS). Here we look at a wide ranging set of questions ranging from understanding a monogenic disorder (CNS: Autism Spectrum Disorders) to the complex spectrum of neuropsychiatric disorders such as Bipolar Disorders and Schizophrenia (ADBS). The latter is firmly predicated on the long-term study of a cohort of patients at NIMHANS who carry this disease in familial fashion, to understand the basis of these complex mental disorders.
Public health initiatives are one more example of such translational efforts, and here, Sudhir Krishna’s efforts at engaging in vaccine development against Dengue in a project generously supported by Mr. Narayana Murthy, is one exemplar. To realise this goal will require many deep partnerships with several agencies to increase the bandwidth of this initiative; NCBS could serve as one of the sites of research for this effort. Engaging in these local and national efforts with varied partners including other government institutes, NGOs, foundations, and citizen groups exemplifies organic growth, collaboration, and impact, and appears to be the NCBS way.
Another NCBS based organisation, built up over the past decade for bringing together a community of Life Science Researchers, is India BioScience (IBS). NCBS has helpedto nurture IBS during its formative years, and today IBS is supported by grants from the DBT and the Ministry of Human Resources. Led by its Executive Director, Smita Jain, IBS not only serves to disseminate best practices in research and hiring of young life science faculty all over the country, it also provides an awareness of alternative career opportunities for researchers outside the straight and narrow of academic research. We look forward to IBS providing a platform for Life Sciences researchers in the country, linking them up with the best opportunities for mobilising their most creative talents.
NCBS has also directly participated in nurturing leadership in the Life Sciences by exporting its best: we congratulate K. Vijayraghavan for becoming the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister, Jayant Udgaonkar for becoming Director IISER, Pune, and Apurva Sarin, Director inStem, and wish them all the very best for their future endeavors.But none of this would have happened without ensuring that the best possible science (Biology across Scales) is done by our faculty on our campus with the necessary resources to support these efforts. We have kept our focus on the science that we need to do to support such a multi-dimensional effort, and where the need or desire arises, individuals can realise larger goals in partnership with the most appropriate organisations. It has taken NCBS 25 years and counting, nurturing unique efforts such as Theory@NCBS in its course. Now joined by inStem, I strongly believe that we have a very fertile ecosystem where there are clear linkages between laboratory-based research, translational efforts, and questions that derive from our neighbourhood, underlining our relevance to our context.
Much of our efforts remain hiddenwithout a commitment to effective communication of our science and achievements outside our campus. To address this, here on behalf of BLiSC, I warmly welcome Mahinn Ali Khan, who has joined us to lead our Communications team. Several new initiatives with regards to the communication of our science by the use of different social media platforms have been enabled, and we look forwards to these efforts fructifying in the coming years and more robust communication of our relevance to context.
In terms of transitions, one more of our founding members, Gaiti Hasan, formally retired in November. We hope she will continue her association with NCBS in new avatars. As we gather age and wisdom, we must acknowledge more retirements; we celebrate, yeoman services of our Chief Architect, Poornima, without whom our campus would never have emerged as the excellent architectural space that it has come to represent, and N Shantakumari, the first administrative staff to be recruited to the NCBS campus, and someone who we have relied on for her dedication in several administrative departments at NCBS, from the academic office to human resources. These citizens of NCBS will be sorely missed.
But we must look ahead and remain buoyant, and for this we must listen to what the voices are saying and read the writing on the wall. One shrill sound is about the resources we must bring in to sustain ourselves. We urgently need to diversify our funding streams, beyond the GoI. We need to create a robust funding strategy for accessing philanthropic donations, grants and endowments to accessing funds from Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funding. Here we have made a small beginning, and on behalf of all of us at this campus, I would like to offer our sincere appreciation to Mr. T T Jagannathan, Chairman of TTK Prestige for his generous donation from their CSR funds, and the Infosys Foundation, both contributing towards our international outreach activities.
We also express our deepest gratitude to Sudha and KrisGopalakrish nan and Dr. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, for their constant support and inspiration, enabling major research endeavours on the campus from their own philanthropic donations. We will grow this funding effort over the next year.
Some of the programmes outlined above have needed close interactions beyond the boundaries of individual laboratory-based research at NCBS. It has required an enabling ecosystem that BLiSC now provides.A crucial ingredient to create this ecosystem, has been the flexibility to take decisions locally. Despite considerable effort from the Steering Group and our Management Board at NCBS, this is something that still requires resolution with our parent institute, TIFR. Given all the positive outcomes, I hope by the time of the next report we will have a clearer picture of how this may be realised.