In developing the National Centre for Biological Sciences we were guided by Abraham Flexner when he proposed the creation of the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton. Flexner pithily expressed his views that the Institute "... should be small, its staff and students or scholars should be few, the administration should be inconspicuous, inexpensive and subordinate; the members of the teaching staff while freed from the waste of time involved in administrative work, should freely participate in decisions involving the quality and direction of its activities; the living conditions should represent a marked improvement over contemporary academic conditions... its subjects should be fundamental in character, and it should develop gradually...". The founder of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research , Homi Bhabha, looked upon the Institute not merely as a place for doing good physics but as an instrument for growing science and scientific culture in India. TIFR’s research activities in physics, mathematics, biology and other areas are well known. Somewhat less known is the fact that it has helped to create a number of other institutions. In the last 15 years alone,
TIFR has directly or indirectly catalyzed the formation of six other institutions, the National Centre for Software Technology (NCST, Mumbai and Bangalore), the Society for Applied Microwave Engineering and Electronic Research (SAMEER, Mumbai and Chennai), the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (Pune), the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (Mumbai), the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (Pune) and the National Centre for Biological Sciences (Bangalore). The last three in the above list have been set up directly under the umbrella of TIFR and are governed by its Council of Management.
The idea that TIFR should start a Centre for Biological Research was mooted in 1982, following a suggestion by Prof. S. Ramaseshan, then Director of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, that a joint TIFR-IISc Centre could be located on the IISc campus. This move did not materialize but, in 1984, the Planning Commission of the Government of India agreed to fund a centre for fundamental research in biological sciences at Bangalore. The Centre was to function as "an autonomous unit under the aegis of TIFR and conduct fundamental research and teaching in areas of biology at the frontiers of knowledge". It was to be grown around a group of outstanding individuals and not according to a "rigidly preconceived plan". Its program was to be broad-based, dealing with all levels of biology: cell biology, development of
animals and plants, brain research, behavior, ecology and theoretical biology.
Several years were spent in search of a suitable site, until the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS) at Bangalore offered an attractive site on their campus. A memorandum of understanding with UAS was finally approved by their Board of Regents and signed in February, 1991. The university agreed to recognize NCBS as an institution of excellence and its members as post-graduate teachers. NCBS, on its part, undertook to help the University strengthen basic research in biology and biotechnology and to extend facilities for research and training to UAS staff and students.
Four years before NCBS formally came into existence, a core group of three members, O. Siddiqi, Gaiti Hasan and K. VijayRaghavan was constituted and search for new staff members was begun. The Council approved a plan to locate NCBS temporarily in the TIFR Centre at IISc in the space occupied by the Radio Astronomy Group which was moving to Pune. Prof. C. N. R. Rao, then Director IISc, readily agreed to this proposal. It was decided to construct additional laboratories for NCBS at Mumbai and at the TIFR Centre in Bangalore so that scientists joining NCBS could begin to work without loss of time.
The first new appointments were made in 1988. J. B. Udgaonkar joined in February 1990. M. Ramaswami and M. K. Mathew came in early 1991, followed by M. M. Panicker and S. Krishna in 1992. The new groups started their work in Mumbai. K. VijayRaghavan moved to Bangalore in August 1991. Sudhir Krishna and Panicker followed in October, 1992. T. M. Sahadevan, who had left for Pune, returned to Bangalore as Administrative Officer. NCBS, thus, began its activities well before it was formally constituted in October, 1991. The first meeting of its Project Management Committee was held on the 27th of July, 1992.
In the five years of its existence, NCBS has grown into a vibrant and lively institution. It has over ten active research groups. The Centre has developed a vigorous program of post-graduate teaching and training. It admits research scholars who work towards a Ph.D. It also has a special program of M.Sc. by research for talented Junior Scholars who join after B.Sc. [This has since been superseded by the integrated Ph.D. programme which admits students after their B.Sc.] Both Ph.D. and M.Sc. students can audit courses taught at the Indian Institute of Science. The emphasis in
both programs is on independent research. NCBS Scholars can obtain degrees from Bombay University, Mysore University or the Manipal Academy of Higher Education.
The Campus at UAS has been designed by the well-known architect Raj Rewal. It is spread over an attractive 20-acre plot surrounded by forests and green fields. In the first phase of construction, executed by Mr. Koteshwara Rao and his team of engineers from the Department of Atomic Energy, a laboratory of over 50,000 square feet and some residential buildings including staff housing, hostels and a canteen have been built. It is expected that by the end of 1997, NCBS will begin to function, at least partly, from the new Campus.
The vibrant atmosphere that prevails in NCBS is the creation of those that work for it: students, scientists, administrators and all the other employees. It would be superfluous to thank them. I would however like to acknowledge the help that NCBS has received from its well-wishers and friends. Their support kept the idea of NCBS alive when the proposal was grinding through the mills of government and the going was rough. Among those who lent a strong helping hand are Prof. M. G. K. Menon, Prof. B. V. Sreekantan and Prof. V. Singh, former Directors of TIFR, Mr. J. J. Bhabha, Chairman of the TIFR Council; Prof. R. Ramanna, Dr. P. K. Iyengar, Dr. M. R. Srinivasan and Dr. R. Chidambaram, successive Chairmen of the Atomic Energy Commission; Dr. R. V. Ramakrishna and Dr. K. Krishnamurty, successive vice-chancellors of UAS; Dr. B. S. Keshavmurthi formerly of the UAS; Mr. T. R. Satish Chandran, Mr. K. S. N. Murthy of the Indian Administrative Service; Prof. C. N. R. Rao, and Prof. G. Padmanaban, successive directors of the Indian Institute of Science, Prof. Satish Dhawan, of the Department of Space; Dr. S. Z. Qasim of the Planning Commission; Dr. Manju Sharma of the Department of Biotechnology, Dr. P. J. Lavakare of the Department of Science and Technology and Prof. H. Sharat Chandra of the Indian Institute of Science.
Prof. O. Siddiqi was the Director of NCBS from its inception until February 1997.