Columns Indian Scenario

As IISERs enter their 10th year, a self-congratulatory note on Biology research

L S Shashidhara

IISER-Pune 4x6p5
IISER-Pune 4x6p5 

(Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are personal and subjective too)

Indian Biology has a taken a steep upward movement in recent years. One can see visible changes in the quality of output from biologists across the country. What is more satisfying is that this has become a routine now. While scientists working in the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) etc. continue to impress the world, many from other places are also performing equally well. Increase in the size of the community, access to information, better peer-to-peer interactions at national and international levels due to ease of travel and internet connectivity, increased research funding, quality review process triggered by the Wellcome Trust-DBT India Alliance, and networking enabled by IndiaBioscience and Young Investigator Meetings (YIMs) are some of the reasons we could attribute to the recent successes. 

Many new initiatives were undertaken in the beginning of this century to expand our presence in Science & Technology, to improve the quality of our research in Science and Mathematics and, thereby, to push India from a Service Economy to a Knowledge Economy. Amongst them are the establishment of the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs). These autonomous research institutes were set up by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India by an Act of Parliament (NITSER Act 2012) with the primary goals of integrating high quality research with undergraduate teaching, improving science education in India and enhancing the number and quality of future academic as well as industrial researchers in the country. The IISER model of education is concept-based and inquiry driven, as opposed to the more traditional content-based models. There is a strong emphasis on the interdisciplinary nature of today’s science, and recognition of the importance of research experience.

As some of the first IISERs are entering their 10th year, I took look at our successes and failures (will talk about the latter later!). With the help of my colleagues from all IISERs, I collated their research publications in biology based on the work (partly or wholly) done in IISERs. The list1 is very impressive, to say the least. The diversity of topics range from theoretical/​mathematical/​computational biology to structural biology; from cell and molecular biology to field biology. They have published in top journals in their fields of research; the kind of journals wherein referees dig deeper and deeper and, thereby, help improve the quality of publications. What is remarkable about the IISERs is the excellent performance by large number of faculty, pushing the average standards higher. 

The research output from the IISERs in all disciplines is commendable considering the fact that they are new, many don’t even have well-developed campuses and faculty spend considerable time in teaching and building their institutes. I talk about only biology here because this is being written for IndiaBioscience. Other disciplines too are doing as well or perhaps better in all the IISERs. 

It may be premature and utterly wrong to declare biology research at IISERs a big success story scripted in shortest time possible. Yet, the signs are very promising and the public, particularly young students, senior academicians and science policy makers of the country should take note of it and help sustain the progress and make it unequivocal success in the years to come. 

Here are salient features of IISERs, which I think have particularly benefited biology research. 

  • IISERs are relatively, at least now, smaller institutes. This enables better collegiality and thereby, better interactions amongst faculty. More importantly, it enables interactions across disciplines promoting interdisciplinarity, a necessity for modern biology. 
  • Parallel new initiatives in the country such as Wellcome Trust-DBT India Allaince Fellowships, IndiaBioscience, Young Investigator meetings (YIMs) etc provide a jump-start to IISER faculty. 

2.In IISERs, the biology or life sciences department is just one. It is not further divided into botany, zoology, biochemistry etc. This has enabled students to appreciate underlying common principles amongst diverse and complex living systems.

3.All IISERs have given much importance to theoretical biology, ecology and evolution, field biology etc. While a mix of lab and field biology is rare worldwide, its absence has been more glaring in India. 

4.In IISERs, all faculty give equal emphasis to both teaching and research. They need to satisfy the curiosity of UG/PG students, challenging them with questions on the very purpose of doing research in a given topic. Such an inquisitive atmosphere helps faculty and students to take up original and challenging projects rather than the easy ones that would lead to quick (and average to below-average) publications. 

5.Considerable emphasis is also given to training in research methodology, science communication, ethics and integrity, both at undergraduate and PhD levels.

6.All IISERs have supported their faculty well. The Indian scientific community, at large, has shown enormous and unprecedented goodwill for IISER faculty. All senior and mid-career faculty have offered unconditional mentorship to young faculty at IISERs. The credit for the IISERs’ progress goes to the entire scientific community of India.

7.Flexible and unencumbered faculty recruitment process, which is one of the greatest strengths of IISERs. 

8.An atmosphere of freedom. Good administrative support and the consequent smooth functioning of all support services.

9.Two key factors that lead all of the above factors: generous funding by Ministry of Human Resource Development and the autonomy conferred by the Act of Parliament. 

Just a few years ago, we wondered whether we would be able to hire good faculty to the IISERs. These are new institutes, with no infrastructure, and all faculty are expected to teach undergraduates. We had to compete with established research-only organizations for good faculty. Now that is past. We have had good beginning. But, it is only the beginning. It is important that the special features and strengths of the IISERs are maintained and further nurtured. Continued generous funding until the IISERs attain the maturity and financial independence is key for their future prospects.

1The list is here. It is incomplete. It is a deliberate decision not to count impact factors, as I personally do not consider these important. The list may have some errors in terms of where the work was done; nonetheless, it is indication of the kind of academic engagement the faculty have.