Thursday, 28 January 2016

Indian bioscience: The anti-bureaucrat

On 12 April, Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan posted an update to his more than 2,500 Facebook friends. It announced a bold plan from India's Department of Biotechnology (DBT) — the agency that VijayRaghavan leads, and the country's largest funder of biomedical research — to establish a new marine-biology institute and research stations along India's vast coastline. Within hours, 500 people had 'liked' the post and more than 60 had left comments of congratulations.

Only one offered a critical note. A graduate student said that starting programmes is all well and good, but the DBT must hold the researchers whom it already funds accountable for the quality of their science. Shortly after, VijayRaghavan replied: “Your words are very wise and correct! Thank you. We must keep your points in mind if we are to get maximum for our Rupee and have quality science.”

It is rare for a public official to be so responsive and open to criticism, especially in a country as steeped in bureaucratic hierarchy as India, says biologist Inder Verma at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in La Jolla, California, who has served as a scientific adviser to the Indian government since the 1980s. Yet almost anyone who contacts VijayRaghavan by Facebook, Twitter or e-mail gets a personal response in minutes. “Vijay is a breath of fresh air,” Verma says.

VijayRaghavan is more than that. He is a respected fly geneticist and administrator who helped to build the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore, one of India's most prestigious institutions, from the ground up. In January 2013, he left his job as NCBS director and moved to New Delhi to lead the DBT. He says that he wants to inject rigour into Indian science and train scientists to work together on tractable problems. As grand visions go, his can seem muted, almost modest. “I'm not going to be stupid and try something completely nutty; I'm going to try something within my grasp,” he says.

Researchers are optimistic about what he might be able to achieve. “It's very rare to have a scientist of Vijay's calibre heading a government department,” says Jyotsna Dhawan, a stem-cell biologist who worked with VijayRaghavan for seven years. “So I think all of us in the scientific community have very high hopes.”

But they also recognize the challenges, which include wrangling with New Delhi's murky politics — known for ensnaring plans in red tape — and the DBT's long, painful grant-review process. In the past couple of years, the Ministry of Finance has made it difficult for the agency to honour even approved grants. And although the DBT is a major funder of extramural research, the money that it actually gets each year — a little more than 14 billion rupees (about US$225 million) — is a fraction of that commanded by analogous agencies elsewhere, such as the US National Institutes of Health.

Given the challenges, even the most ardent well-wishers are holding their applause. “It's not entirely apparent to me what an individual, even one so dynamic and forward-looking as VijayRaghavan, can do to cut through the red tape,” says Dhawan.

Read the full article published in Nature