News

doi:10.1038/nindia.2015.103 Published online 1 September 2015

India's biotech centre close to finalising new head

Disgruntled scientists seek Prime Minister Narendra Modi's intervention to save ICGEB, New Delhi

K. S. Jayaraman

A section of disgruntled scientists at the New Delhi component of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) have sought the intervention of India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi to "save the New Delhi unit from dying" — a concern the ICGEB administration has dismissed as both "untimely and inappropriate".

In a letter to the Prime Minister, the scientists said,"The New Delhi unit has been pushed to a slow and painful death since 2010." They blamed this on administrative negligence by both ICGEB and Indian government's Department of Biotechnology (DBT), which has been providing much of the funding after 2013, when ICGEB reduced its share.

According to their complaint, unfair salary structure, nepotism, favouritism, non-transparent entry and promotion policy, and "complete absence of professional growth and academic activities" had led to resignation of 16 of the 32 staff scientists from the New Delhi unit.

However ICGEB director general Mauro Giacca says he was "rather surprised" to learn about this development. "I find the complaint to the Prime Minister's Office both untimely and inappropriate," he said in an email to Nature India on August 17. 

"Untimely, since the situation at the ICGEB New Delhi component is perfectly under control and proceeding according to a schedule that currently envisages the final steps of selection of a new director," he said. "Inappropriate, since the ICGEB is an intergovernmental, international, autonomous organization (and) — while funding for the Component is largely provided by the Indian Government — the ICGEB Board of Governors is sovereign in its decisions."

Giacca said that he had already informed the protesting scientists that any restructuring of the New Delhi component requires the full involvement of its new director. The hunt for a new director began in January this year and four short listed candidates are currently being evaluated by an international scientific ad hoc committee, he said.

With its headquarters in Trieste (Italy), ICGEB was established to meet the biotechnology research and training needs of the developing world. It has been functioning since 1994 as an autonomous, intergovernmental organization in the UN system with two more campuses in Cape Town and New Delhi.

Controversy is not new for this biotech centre1. A senior researcher who did not want to be named alleged that the downfall of the New Delhi Component started with DBT flouting established norms in appointments and showing bias in granting financial support to the Principal Investigators (PIs). 

According to documents obtained from the government under the Right To Information Act, one PI received DBT grants worth about one billion rupees in the last 10 years (besides $1 million Wellcome Trust Fellowship) and another got Rs. 538 million, several times more than what the less privileged PIs received, he said.

DBT secretary Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan has dismissed the allegations of favouritism. "All our grants go through due processes and rigorous reviews," he told Nature India. "So, I am sure that the concerns expressed are both misguided and rare"


References

1. Jayaraman, K. S. Voices of protest at biotechnology centre. Nature India. (2013) doi: 10.1038/nindia.2013.17