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Science as a community enterprise: In conversation with Mriganka Sur

Shreya Ghosh

Mriganka Sur is the Newton Professor of Neuroscience and Director of the Simons Center for the Social Brain at MIT. He has also acted as the jury chair for the Infosys Prize in the field of life sciences for the past several years. IndiaBioscience recently had the opportunity to chat with him about the current status of life science research in India, some of the common challenges, and the road ahead for the community. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Mriganka Sur
Mriganka Sur 

In your opinion, what are some of the most significant achievements or contributions of the Indian life science community in the last 20 years or so? 

I think there are lots of achievements and some important milestones. If the COVID-19 vaccine made by Bharat Biotech holds up to peer review, I think that’s a major achievement. There has also been work on rotavirus, which affects infants. I must say that what I am mentioning is the tip of the iceberg. Underneath, there are many smaller achievements that may go unnoticed by the media, but nonetheless form the backbone of progress in science. The Indian life science community has built capacity, as well as a knowledge base along with a technical base over the last 20 years. I think it has been very impressive in this regard.

Can you tell me some ways in which the Indian scientific ecosystem has grown and changed over the last few decades?

While my scientific life, for the last 46 or so years, has been in the US, I have tried to stay engaged with India. And so, my view is from that very limited perspective. I do see major changes at many levels. I see changes in the way that Indian science has matured. Indian science needs critical mass in many different areas, but in certain areas like molecular biology, structural biology, virology, infectious diseases research, neurobiology, there has been major progress in the last 20 or 30 years. 

This has happened mainly by bringing in talented researchers and by expanding the base of people who are doing their PhDs and becoming independent researchers in their own right. This has been enabled by a number of institutions dedicated to different components of life sciences research that have come up recently, as well as by entities such as the Infosys Science Foundation and public-private partnerships like DBT/​Wellcome Trust India Alliance. 

The results are now emerging in terms of significant growth and progress in the Indian life sciences community as well as in the discoveries and maturation of the field in India. There was a time not too long ago when almost all life sciences research was related to medicine, which is completely understandable for a country like India where the need for medical professionals is so high. At the same time, we need to build a base of fundamental research on which the translation or understanding of medical conditions can be built. And out of that, comes therapeutics that are rational and mechanism based. This fundamental base of knowledge and basic life sciences research has received a major boost in the last 20 – 30 years. I must say there is still a ways to go and there are areas in India that I think would benefit from more concerted attention or bringing in more people. But that’s an issue for almost every country and India is no exception.

Ideas don’t necessarily just come from one individual and their brain, but from a community in which there is conversation, there is discussion, there is critical evaluation, and there is sifting of evidence regarding what things are worth studying and what can we solve using our collective knowledge and genius.

Could you elaborate on the concept of Critical Mass”?

Science is, in many ways, an enterprise of a community. An individual working in their garage or in their individual laboratory can perhaps achieve a lot — but increasingly, science requires collaboration. Science requires technologies that are not necessarily available in one laboratory or one institution. And science requires knowledge that often goes much beyond a single person’s expertise. This is demonstrably true for the life sciences, perhaps more than the physical or mathematical sciences. Life itself involves fundamental mechanisms from the level of genes and molecules to the level of organisms. The process of enquiry thus involves not only just knowledge of life sciences, but knowledge of statistics, knowledge of mathematics, and knowledge of physics and chemistry. 

Here, the community plays an important role. It allows the embedding of life sciences research in a larger enterprise that builds on the understanding of life at the deepest level. It also involves the social and intellectual life of scientists, where they can talk to others who are doing similar things, in order to build ideas. 

Where do ideas come from? Ideas don’t necessarily just come from one individual and their brain, but from a community in which there is conversation, there is discussion, there is critical evaluation, and there is sifting of evidence regarding what things are worth studying and what can we solve using our collective knowledge and genius. 

So these are all the ways in which the community matters — the number of people who are in a field and around the field matter. And India has been developing that. As I said before, these are issues for every country, for every society. And given how many people India has, the more India can bring young people into the field, the more Indian science will progress.

To build these communities, we need to recruit talented individuals and get them motivated to stay in science and do good research. Do you have any suggestions for how India can do this? 

I think being able to foster scientific thinking and temper among young people is perhaps the most important thing. Out of that, and out of curiosity about the world or a desire to solve problems, a subset of young people will choose science as a career. But that is the outcome of a whole process by which a society develops scientific knowledge and critical thinking. 

Even in high school and certainly in undergraduate colleges, students should be exposed to scientific research, even in the humblest way, so that they can get a feel for how discoveries happen.

Scientific knowledge is defined not only by curiosity about the world, but also by being able to understand that science is not something that exists external to us — it is a part of us. We live in a world that is amazing, that is wonderful, that has rules of cause and effect. This is not a world of superstition, where things are mystical. How does knowledge get built? Knowledge gets built on the basis of discovery, which happens through experimentation, which happens through analysis. Scientific knowledge doesn’t just drop into textbooks. This is, in my opinion, a very important part of building a scientific environment. 

So even in high school and certainly in undergraduate colleges, students should be exposed to scientific research, even in the humblest way, so that they can get a feel for how discoveries happen. They get a chance to see science is the accumulation, sifting, and appreciation of evidence to build relationships between cause and effect.

So, this is all part of what I think a society needs to do. And the more our society does it, the better citizens are prepared for science and to be scientists later on. Of course, society should also make this an important value and mission for young people – it should convey that science is something worth doing. There are few nobler things a young person can do than to find out a little bit about the world and make it a better place. And scientists do that with their lives.

What do you think are the major challenges that the Indian life science ecosystem is facing right now?

Like I said earlier, I don’t have a day-to-day or a very granular knowledge of the all the problems that are faced. I don’t think that the problems are unique to India. For instance, I think that the issues of availability of resources — whether reagents or technologies — are nothing new. Many things have also become better, for instance, the integration of Indian science and scientists with the international stage is infinitely better today than some decades ago. Resources matter; science costs money. In particular, fundamental science is usually funded almost entirely by the government. So stable and sufficient funding is a very big driver of the quality and the quantity of science. And that’s certainly the case in India. So, if all of these issues are dealt with, I think Indian science will progress. It has progressed and will continue to progress.

Where do you see the Indian life science ecosystem in relation to the global ecosystem?

I think that the Indian life sciences community is definitely a part of the global ecosystem. It is often driven by the individual scientist and her/​his individual collaborations, but a lot of Indian scientists, particularly young scientists, have trained abroad, gone back to India, and set up laboratories. That itself sets up a base on which these researchers can then build to advance their scientific linkages across the world. 

I think that this should be promoted, enhanced, and strongly encouraged because science is not the province of one country. Science deals with global problems, even if they have local manifestations. For example, the coronavirus doesn’t respect national borders. The solution to the pandemic, therefore, has to be international. And that’s just the most recent example. 

So, Indian science, demonstrably, needs to be linked to global science. And that is already happening. More, certainly, can happen — there can be steps taken by institutions, by funding agencies, and even by the global community itself. It’s not just a one-way street — Indian scientists looking abroad. Global scientists also need to be aware of the capabilities and the contributions of Indian science.

Society can never progress unless science is available as a vision, as a means of participation for all its people.

You have been working with the Infosys Science Foundation for several years now. What role do you think organizations like this can play in promoting the culture of doing science in India?

My major interaction with the Infosys Science Foundation has been through the Infosys Prize. I know that they do many other things, but I’ll confine my comments to the Infosys prize. I think that the Infosys Prize is a unique prize in that it is, unequivocally, based on evaluation of merit, and on recognizing scientific contributions based on international criteria. And that is reflected in the award and the awardees. This is important because having a vision that Indian science can be on the world stage and recognizing Indian scientists who are at par with the best of international scientists makes the statement that Indian science is certainly a contributor to international excellence. So that’s the first and most important idea. And the second is that Infosys prize awardees act as a role model for young scientists. A unique thing about the Infosys prize is that it’s given to mid-career scientists, which means that some of their best work has been done, but there is more to come. And in that way, it recognizes the importance of continual progress of science as an explicit mission. Those are the ways in which I see the Infosys prize, which is an important component of the Infosys Science Foundation, as playing a role. 

Is there any message that you would like to give someone who’s just starting their career in science in India right now? 

I would offer strong encouragement to every young person who wishes to start her/​his career in science, and particularly to those from communities that have been underrepresented. The representation of women and other minorities in Indian science, I must say, has been much less than their proportion in the population. And society can never progress unless science is available as a vision, as a means of participation for all its people. And so, I would have a special word of encouragement for women and minority scientists to be involved in science. As I said before, there be few more noble goals in one’s life than to find out a little bit more about the world and to make it a better place and demonstrably, a career in science does that.

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Program Manager - Science Communication