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A New Skipper, A New Innings

Swetha Suresh

K VijayRaghavan
K VijayRaghavan   (Photo: Aathira Perinchery)

This article was co-authored by Geoff Hyde and Swetha Suresh

Padma Shri Prof. VijayRaghavan’s appointment as the new Secretary of Department of Biotechnology (DBT) has met with a unanimous cheer from the life-sciences community. With his rare combination of scientific reputation, cross-disciplinary background, track record in building excellent institutions and the can-do” spirit, Vijay has is bound to keep the momentum initiated by his predecessor Dr MK Bhan going full throttle. Despite his stature, setting directions for the future no doubt remains an immense challenge given the rapidly changing life-sciences scene in India. 

We at IndiaBioscience and NCBS News asked veteran centre heads, senior scientists at universities and academic institutions, industry representatives and young PIs* – What changes would they like to see Vijay’s leadership bring? If there was just one thing” that Vijay could do to make a big change, what would it be?

The wishlist included (in no particular order)

1. Promoting collaborative models and fund multidisciplinary/​scientists from other disciplines to work on problems in biology. Promoting foreign collaborations and academia-industry dialogue.

2. Balancing funding to ensure that bioscience works to address problems of mass-benefit at the same time encouraging cutting edge science. Support risk taking, innovative and path breaking projects.

3. Improve the quality of teaching, infrastructure and human resources in all set-ups whether a research institution or university by attracting talent and managing resources. Encourage in-depth subject training with cross disciplinary exposure.

4. Encourage entrepreneurship and innovation by bringing in new policy measures. 

Strikingly amongst all the replies we got, there was one common wish — Streamlining DBT’s administrative processes to ensure timely actions to ensure transparency of funding and, closing the gap between grant sanction and release of funds.

In his response to the community’s comments, Vijay outlines his plans for the future

Thank you all for your generous best wishes: They mean a lot. Even more important is your wish list about what needs to be done. This is really of incredible value and I will get the main points of it printed out and we at DBT will not only go through it, but we will focus on addressing the list in a prioritized manner. I have been at the DBT for the third day now, as I write this. I have also been working to collect views from within about what can and should be done. If we look at the urgent needs of the scientific community and the nascent biotech industry, and if we look at the boundary conditions from within, we get a list of problems which need attention and we can move to working on solutions.

The state of the Life Sciences in India

Before we see what directions the solutions could take we need to get an idea of the initial ‑and boundary- conditions, and our limitations. India has a modestly sized scientific community, but for a country of our size this is clearly far too small. We have already established foundations in many areas of biology, yet we need to develop the depth and breadth of these foundations if we are to nurture excellence. There are pockets of excellence: Individuals who have done well in globally competitive areas. But for the Life Sciences in India to enjoy significant international recognition, we also need to define new problems, perhaps from our context, that the world recognises ‑through the quality of our work- as problems of importance. Amongst us there are excellent basic scientists, who see red when they are asked about the practical benefits. And, there are others who feel that working on an applied question is a sufficient metric of quality. Then, there are yet others who have worked to solve problems through quality science, not worrying about the labels they wear. Industry for its part is exponentially growing, yet innovative entrepreneurs feel hamstrung by obstacles of every kind. The University system feeds the best into research, yet it justifiably feels neglected. Finally, despite a growing budget for science, we are going through a tough patch which will last for a year or so.

The DBT, till now

The picture I have outlined above is fuzzy, it’s the view from outside the government, where I was until three days ago. For some it seems depressing, but that would be the wrong attitude to have. From within, one is exposed to the harsh reality of performance indices and budget numbers. When we sit and analyze these in the offices of the quintessentially early 20th century-style bureaucratic abodes of New Delhi, you might expect even greater pessimism: You could not be more wrong. It is simply amazing what a can-do set of officers the DBT has now, nurtured by its past dynamic Secretaries. You all know Dr. M. K. Bhan, and his predecessor, Dr. Manju Sharma too. They have developed a cadre of Scientist-officers who have a sense of responsibility and pride in the tasks they have. Led by them, DBT has built and expanded its foundations hugely: Lesser people could have let things be. The optimism, capability and hard-work of DBT officers deliver what good we see. The listing of problems that we as users write down is also seen by those at DBT every day. An approximately 20-fold increase in the budget of the DBT since its start has not been matched by an improvement in management structures and office infrastructure. Despite this background, the DBT’s efforts over the past 25 years have transformed Indian biology and biotechnology.

The future

If the DBT now transforms its internal processes and facilities it can do 100 times more. All of us at DBT see this. We are working hard, I assure you to define our goals for the coming 18 months to fix ourselves to serve you better. So, patience for a while, impatience then, but please, constantly hit us with your views, suggestions and feedback. The fix cannot be done by bunkering down but only by working with you all. This fix will also involve the granting process. Here, while the main roadblocks are obvious, the solutions too are blindingly obvious. We can list what we want to see: Better quality proposals, better reviews, better analysis by the task-force, followed by timely approvals and timely release of funds. Our officers work within the existing systems and do the very best they can. Who then are the ones to improve and update processes? If we are swamped by the chores of the day, we can never attend to important tasks well. If DBT’s granting mechanisms are to be transformed and the working environment modernized, we must have a dedicated team from within for this task. The good news is that such a team can be formed from the DBT’s own officers and from the Information Technology ministry working at the DBT

And what about the finance procedures specifically? Some would call them the elephant in the room. All of us love to blame them for our woes. But, the finance systems at DBT were designed for a small budget organization. Here too, within the Government Financial Rules many structural changes are possible.We will work on these. Finance regulators play a key role: They approve the expenditure of public money, following the rules in place. The team at DBT is small, excellent, approachable and responsive and they are our partners in making processes smoother.

Major efforts in restructuring the granting processes had begun and, with feedback and testing, important lessons have been learnt from the efforts of the past year. I think is reasonable to expect changes across the board in about 18 months, again, through a very interactive process with you.

Finally, my colleagues and I are determined not to let a tight budget keep us down. By trimming fat and re-prioritising we will ensure that there is support where it is needed. As our partners in a shared purpose, we ask that each of us, in our institutions and labs, do the same. Doing this calmly and properly, partnering with others here and abroad, my colleagues at DBT are sure that Indian Life Sciences can demonstrate innovation in adversity. We can even take on new projects ‑that some of you have listed- despite the trying times. In sum, there are opportunities for transformation on the foundation that has been built by you, by DBT and through the efforts of publicly funded science. We need to have a system of interactive functioning to address our pressing concerns: But we have no cause to let these concerns press us down.”

Thank you all again!

Cheers,

Vijay

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