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View: How new initiatives like Genome Council can take cues from Indian visionaries

When the aim is to build a research output like the Genome India initiative, the concepts of mission mode, centralisation of infrastructure facilities and network research of public health could come under one common umbrella.

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Updated: Dec 05, 2019, 02.53 PM IST
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By Moinak Banerjee

We often complain about investment in science and technology which over the decades has been stagnant at around 0.7% of the GDP. But what is even more important is how much of this investment has resulted in fundamental discoveries or in improving quality of life. Not much, for a country aiming to be the economic powerhouse of the world. The investment of 0.7% includes public and private investments, which goes parallelly, but hardly on partnership. Public and private partnerships require mutual trust, which can be built only on a strong transparent administrative and logistic framework.

What we are missing

In the pre-Independence years, with minimal infrastructure, India produced great scientific minds like JC Bose, SN Bose, Meghnad Saha, CV Raman and Srinivasa Ramanujan. Post Independence India went on to build institutions like IITs and AIIMS with the best possible infrastructure. But this resulted largely in creating a skilled knowledge community to serve the West. Then came the recent series of institutions like IISER and NISER etc. The only difference it made was that we started losing even basic science students to the West, and that too immediately after graduation.

By merely creating such infrastructure aren’t we missing the larger interests of the country? The contribution of Indian science since Independence seems nowhere proportionate to the investment.

After 1947, we did see some bright spots like GN Ramachandran and Asoke Sen who came from more humble institutions. There was also Dr. Subhash Mukopadhyay, whose pioneering contribution to IVF remained unknown to the world. So, it is not about just infrastructure, but also about the conceptual framework and subsequent administration. Yes, we have some great institutions such as IISc, JNCASR, NCBS, CCMB, NII etc; and we also have some great scientists and scientific administrators. But we need more with focus on systemic understanding of economic growth and quality of life.

When we talk about cost to benefit, what readily comes to mind is ISRO where the benefits are visible. But there has also been phenomenal work done by CSIR which published a series of publications on Wealth of India - Raw materials. Similarly, Anthropological Survey of India, Zoological Survey of India, Botanical Survey of India and many others have contributed immensely. But these institutions could not evolve with time.

It is believed that the productivity cycle of a large majority of the institutions follow a growth curve that has a lag phase, exponential phase and stationary phase and this may have a unimodal, bimodal or multimodal distribution. If one tries to evaluate the time, duration and pattern of these distributions, I can tell for sure that the reasons for failure and success would be evident. Therefore, there is a need for a strong conceptual infrastructural and administrative framework to develop the ecosystem for trust.

Globally India ranks 3rd on scientific manpower, 6th in scientific publication and 10th in patent application. Indeed impressive, but the quantum has to be translated into quality and relevance to garner faith and trust from public and private investors. While one may ask how much of these patents are translated, but what I would ask, why these patents are not marketed. One of the reasons is we do not have trust on indigenous inventions, and second is we do not have a proper business model to market these patents.

Over the years the debate on Indian science has been on basic or applied science, but now this debate is drifting from basic or applied science to relevant science with specific focus on mining country’s resources- material, manpower or knowledge - and exploiting them for the benefit of mankind. This might indeed gear up for an indigenous technological revolution, health revolution or knowledge revolution through disruptive ideas or innovative ideas. Most often in the past, focus was dictated by developments in the west, but now they have started focusing within India. Such as the Indian genome initiative or on explorations into the biological understanding of Ayurveda, Yoga and meditation. This has also generated several hyperbolic expressions of insignificant means, which happens in any democratic country, but what went unnoticed was the phenomenal growth of indigenous startups i.e from 3000 startups in 2014 to a projected 11000 by 2020. But these startups should not turn out into fly-by-night companies. Therefore, the real success of these initiatives will largely depend on the robustness of research, administrative and policy framework.

Deriving a conceptual framework

Indian science has often been criticised for lack of accountability, administrative skills, vision and accused of lobbying and unholy groupism. This may not be completely true as we did have many great visionary leaders like Dr.Vikram Sarabhai, Dr MS Valiathan and Dr Pushpa Bhargava focused on ground realities and built a conceptual framework. Dr. Vikram Sarabhai who established a very robust framework for mission mode program in space sciences. Dr.MS Valiathan built an integrated framework for health research by integrating public health research, biomedical research and biomedical engineering. Dr.PM Bhargava provided a robust framework by centralising the infrastructural needs that can never be influenced by personal choices of any individual. Their vision also provides for greater accountability and transparency.

Genome India initiative is indeed a disruptive knowledge initiative and if it has to attain its goals, then it would need a mission mode program under Genome Research Council through public-private partnership. This mission mode program should focus on integrating the conceptual framework of these three visionaries into one as it provides greater accountability and transparency. This will help in attaining the trust needed for a public-private partnership, which in turn will derive the success and viability of the research outcomes.

Space science is indeed the biggest success story of Indian science and it relies on the robustness of the mission mode program. One needs to learn how scientists from completely different streams come together debate and discuss with responsibility, accountability and outcome based measures. In this program publication or patent is not the mainstream of activity but mission for public good takes the center stage. Today it has yielded plenty of offshoots for industrial revolution.

Almost on similar lines, but in the more complex stream of health sciences, Dr.Valiathan conceptualised an institution that integrated public health research, clinical and biomedical research, and biomedical engineering research, to work under a single roof with a common theme for bed to bench and back to bed. Probably the objective had been to focus on diseases that are endemic to the region, thus deriving which disease should be prioritised for mission mode research, and accordingly develop biomedical and technological interventions. This was a phenomenal concept as far as health science research is concerned with plenty of success stories such as the heart valve and blood bags among others.

In India many research institutions fail to perform on a long-term basis as the individual pursuit of scientists change over time. This can result in friction and compulsions and thereby disturb the equilibrium of the research atmosphere. This mostly happens with the use of infrastructural facilities such as space, equipment and reagents. Understanding this, Dr.Bhargava conceptualised an institution, that can never be influenced by personal choice of an individual. He build this institute in such a way that all major infrastructural support is centralised and individual laboratories work around these central facilities. This infrastructural support helped researchers overcome the ego, inferiority complex or interference from individual researchers and also enabled proper technical maintenance.

These three conceptual framework provides a strong foundation for research. Therefore, when the aim is to build a research output that has far reaching consequences like the Genome India initiative, which requires people from diametrically contrasting backgrounds and infrastructure, it is time that all these concepts of mission mode, centralisation of infrastructure facilities and network research of public health (clinical, and biomedical and engineering), come under one common umbrella. With a greater focus on public outcome rather than on publication outcome.

The publication and intellectual property outcome can also be encouraged by developing public-centric norms rather than administrative centric norms. This is where the public-private partnership, with their respective domains of expertise can help each other in driving the wheel of economic growth. Public funded institutions have manpower and infrastructure while private institutions have the business model. They should benefit from each other by utilising these resources. Possibly this research framework might help turn the research landscape of India from islands of exception to oceans of excellence.

(The author is president, Indian Society of Human Genetics)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)
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