India's biotech centre gets fresh lease of life
doi:10.1038/nindia.2013.171 Published online 23 December 2013
Uncertainty over the future of the New Delhi campus of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) headquartered in Trieste, Italy, has ended, albeit temporarily. 2014 will see the centre re-launched under the umbrella of India's Department of Biotechnology (DBT).
Till now, 60% ($3 million) of its budget came from the Italian government and the rest from India. But the decision by Italy to stop its contribution after December 2013 had raised doubts over the centre's continuance as part of the ICGEB system. The two other campuses of ICGEB in Trieste (Italy) and Cape Town (South Africa) are already financed mostly by the respective host governments.
With the Italian source drying up by December end, the DBT has proposed an interim plan to run the Delhi centre entirely with Indian government funds and retain it within the ICGEB framework to take advantage of its international links. The DBT will simultaneously explore alternative sources of funding for long-term support from Japan, Sweden, Norway, UK, France and the US and international funding agencies and foundations like Wellcome Trust.
"We are working to ensure that ICGEB's scientific strengths are maintained and enhanced as we transit into the next year," DBT secretary Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan told Nature India. ICGEB director general Francisco Baralle said in an email interview that as long as the Delhi Component continued to be part of ICGEB, it will "receive fellows and run courses fully financed by the ICGEB core budget that is provided by all the 63 member countries but mainly by the Italian government."
But the centre's uncertain future had already taken a heavy toll on research and the morale of its scientists. Eight have left in the last six months including virology group leader Shahid Jameel. Chetan Chitnis, principal investigator of the malaria vaccine project, has accepted a job with Pasteur Institut, Paris, while two other group leaders have taken adjunct appointments with another institute.
"It is true that some scientists have left and others may leave but at the moment we do not foresee any stalling of the ongoing research projects," the centre's director Virander Singh Chauhan told Nature India. Chauhan had already stopped the intake of PhD students or summer fellows recommended by Indian academies. "The morale has never been so low," said one scientist who declined to be quoted saying ICGEB rules do not allow its staff to talk with media.
DBT's interim plan, intended to retain the international nature of the Delhi campus, however entails some austerity measures. Since salaries formed the major share of the centre's budget, the DBT has issued new letters of appointment to the dozen or so 'professional staff', who till now used to receive salaries in US dollars, telling them that from January 2014 they have to accept a salary cut which is as much as 50%.
Most scientists of the Delhi centre are not impressed with the disparity in salaries of 'professional staff' and 'general staff'. "Our main demand for a uniform salary structure for all scientists has not been met," the unnamed scientist said. They also complain that their other repeated demand for the appointment of a new director has been ignored by DBT as well as Baralle.
"To defend our rights and interests, we have formed an ICGEB New Delhi Scientists Union," a spokesman for the Union said adding that they have recently aired their complaints to India's science minister Jaipal Reddy. "We might go on protest or mass leave depending on how DBT decides on these two demands."