Columns Opinion

Do we always need big money” for quality research?

Subhash Chandra Lakhotia

Most of the young investigators aspiring to set up their new laboratories seem to be looking for big grants”. Having high aspirations is a plus point, which has been prompted by the variety of attractive and prestigious” fellowships/​grants available for the beginners. Those who do not succeed in competing for such grants, often begin to sulk. In the process, they also lose their enthusiasm. The question that I wish to ask is: is a big grant” really necessary to start one’s research career? Is the slow and steady wins the race” dictum wrong?

As discussed in earlier blogs, most of the biologists today have an obsession with so-called molecular biology”, which of course generally needs more money for equipment as well as consumables. However, even if one were to really pursue molecular biological approaches to the questions being addressed, does one need all the equipment present in the previous doctoral or post-doctoral lab to start? Additionally, does one need all the small and big facilities within one’s own possession? These issues need serious thinking. Even if the host institution does not provide a central facility, culture of sharing the facilities existing in the neighboring lab has to be developed. Culturally, we seem to literally follow Ravindra Nath Tagore’s Ekla cholore ..” (move ahead alone): unfortunately, this literal meaning is not in the right spirit! Most of the university departments and even the research institutes have suffered because everyone wants to have exclusive facilities. The young investigators also get drawn into the same vicious circle. It is in their own long-term interest that the new labs being set up by young faculty start with the philosophy of sharing. As is well known, knowledge is a commodity which increases by sharing and likewise, sharing of the facilities does not make most of them limiting for the owner”.

While discussing with the young investigators the facilities that they require, I have often been baffled by their insistence on a particular model/​s of common lab equipment. I think that such insistence reflects a lack of clear vision of what the young person really wants to do! The same equipment of a different make can often be obtained at much lesser cost, without compromising quality. However, the strong, albeit mis-placed, faith” on the earlier used model, makes them take a rigid stand. The other reason of requiring a variety of equipment to be readily available from the very beginning is perhaps because much of the current research is technology-driven” rather than curiosity-driven”. Consequently, many researchers ask a question because they are familiar with a technology rather than asking a question out of curiosity and then deciding what technology to use for the purpose (see Lakhotia, Bioessays, 2009, 31: 1370 – 1371).

If we can free ourselves of the molecular biology obsession”, a large variety of very important research areas are readily available and, which may also not need a high initial set up cost. This is not an escapist” suggestion, but in my view it is essential to take up good studies in general biology: the bonus of doing this in India is that one can easily become a pioneer” if good and comprehensive approaches are planned and followed. Taking up such studies in the university system has the additional advantage that some of the basic biology disciplines like biodiversity, systematics, form and function etc, which are fast losing quality teaching, would also get revived.

There is yet another draw-back of big money” for research. Although one can claim that since in our times we did not have such big grants, we do not feel happy with the younger generation getting these, I would still state, based on my own experience with relatively better funding in recent times, that bigger grants do not necessarily generate better original research. A casualty of the rich grants is innovativeness; one tends to become slave of the automated machines. We should look at the remarkably detailed 1882 drawings of mitosis by Fleming, the discoverer of cell division (see Rieder and Khodjakov, 2003, Science 300:91 – 96) or the unbelievably precise drawings in any of Th. Boveri’s papers (see Satzinger 2008, Nature Reviews Genetics 9:231 – 238) in the beginning of 20th century. All these were hand-drawn and observed through monocular microscopes, something of the like that most of the biology students would use in school or college class rooms. With the advent of confocal and other advanced imaging systems, we seem to have lost the faculty of seeing a cell with our eyes; we now seem to believe that without the modern imaging gadgets and markers”, nothing can be seen in a cell! It is true that the modern imaging methods have indeed revolutionized cell biology, but let us not forget that study of molecules outside the spatial and temporal contexts of cell and tissue structure is of limited consequence. 

The conventional university system, submerged as it is under the weight of its own mediocrity, has obviously not been an attractive ground for those aspiring to start research career with a rich platter. If quality science has to develop and thrive prosperously in the country, the university system needs young people with innovative ideas and who are willing to work even under unfavourable conditions: their efforts would indeed bring the change. A beginning has to be made now than later – small or big grant would not necessarily make a great difference if originality, perseverance and some help from peers exist. I still believe that slow and steady wins the race”.