As India’s economy grows, we will have more support for science

Nature India Special Volume: Biotechnology — An agent for sustainable socio-economic transformation

doi:10.1038/nindia.2016.26 Published online 22 February 2016

Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan, Secretary of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), speaks to Archita Bhatta, on DBT's completing 30 years and the path ahead.

Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan
Q. At 30, what according to you are the most significant achievements of DBT? 

A. The simple way to answer that is if you ask what would have happened if DBT did not exist. In genetics this is called the law of functions test. By that test DBT has done extraordinarily well. It has built foundations in life sciences and biotechnology education, extraordinarily good individuals, extraordinary institutions and extraordinary interactions with society and industry. 

In terms of life sciences education, it has done really well in pushing extraordinarily good masters and PhD programmes, doctoral and post-doctoral fellowship programmes and built a base of people who are really well-trained in life sciences, molecular biology and genetics. Many of these people have gone on to become institutional leaders. DBT has not only supported the development of fully aided institutions but also aided institutions, supported institutions outside its own core network in universities and research institutions in the private sector. These institutions have resulted in the development of quality people who have gone on to build a solid vaccine industry in the country, a thriving generics industry and a bubbling biotech entrepreneurship system. 

In terms of specifics, I think we must see that India is recognised as being at a high level in life sciences and biotechnology research today and that is in no small measure because of DBT. 

However, we must also look at what is called the gain of functions in genetics. Supposing we were to expand DBT into areas where it is not present now, would it have a positive impact? The answer is yes. DBT will have a tremendous impact if it now expands its human resources training into interdisciplinary areas, brings in engineering and medicine, particularly looks at being inclusive about carrying social science interactions and builds up a new era right from the foundations of basic interdisciplinary biology to institutional building and interactions with the society. So there is a lot more to do now but the strength of DBT allows it to embark on these new ventures.

Q. How did this evolve over the years? 

A. When people look at the so called success of institutions, they assume that putting in place robust structure and resources is sufficient, but people often forget that it is the core culture of the organisation which is most important. The DBT was extraordinarily fortunate to have as its starting leadership team Dr S. Ramachandran who came from the industry but also brought a team from the Department of Science and Technology. Dr Manju Sharma, particularly, and others who worked to develop an institutional structure, trained people not only to do specific things but also to think and be daring in whatever they do within the government system. It has been an extraordinary effort and thinking out of the box is now the core culture of DBT along with a culture of helping each other. 

Our major challenge is to keep in mind that we have to have a spirit of adventure and not to assume that we are the way we are because it’s natural. Preserving this culture is very important while changing our processes in the new world, as is being adventurous to grasp new things. I would particularly like to mention Dr Ramachandran, Dr Manju Sharma, Dr Bhatia and the foundation that these people laid. Following Dr Manju Sharma’s long tenure, Dr M. K.Bhan made an amazing effort to consolidate and build new structures, new systems, new institutions and particularly new interaction with industry and society. So I think we have a huge responsibility going on from here.

Q. From responsibilities to adventure, how do you see DBT’s journey forward?

A. It is very important for us to keep in mind that the government cannot do everything. However, wrong intervention by the government can easily prevent good things from happening. So it’s very important for us as government not to prevent good things from happening. Therefore,when we develop policies we must make sure that they are enabling and not so complex that they can’t take us through the regulatory path. And this is doable only if we keep our constituency in mind. Besides this, the government can do two things. The first is to ensure that the foundation of high quality science and technology is in place. This needs a huge focus on training programme targetted towards all sections of society. This is a big challenge with small resources. But it is doable with public and private resources. The second is to provide core infrastructure of high quality at the largest number of places in a context development method. So, if we can proactively train quality people, provide resources and have an enabling environment, the whole world is ours.

Q. How has the 30-year experience helped in formulation of the new National Biotechnology Development Strategy?

A. The experience is very valuable – firstly because you learn from it and you know how you can manage the system and do interesting things despite all the constraints. But experience, particularly if you are modestly successful, is dangerous because it can make you comfortable doing the same things. So the new strategy is unusual because it builds on the positive aspects of our learning. It went through an extraordinarily good consultation process both nationally and internationally to try and be disruptive and to do new things in new generations. But the problem with these strategies is that while we can outline our general directions, when we sail in uncharted territory we don’t know what will happen unless we get into the sea. Therefore the strategy also has a huge level of flexibility. It says we will do certain kinds of things in new emerging technologies but it is not wedded with a specific detailed path. It gives you a broad outline and we will have to work out ways in which we can attack our problems and that flexibility is what this strategy is all about.

Q. The strategy talks about boosting the industry to a 100 billion dollar industry. How does DBT plan to do that? 

A. It is very interesting that while the strategy is a nice, big fat document,everyone catches this number as if that is the goal. That is because, people love to have matrix. We must keep in mind two aspects of this 100 billion dollar figure. First, and most importantly, whatever the number ends up being it should be done in a responsible, sustainable manner. Industry is not about money alone. It’s about sustainability and profit in the context of responsible science and technology for the benefit of people. The other aspect is that it is not the government’s job to transform a few billion dollar industry to a 100 billion dollar industry. These are a set of goals which give a sort of direction about what the government should not do and what it can catalyse.

Catalytically, what it can do is the following: let’s take an example. We have a situation where knowledge from DNA sequencing of microbes, plants and human beings are becoming widely and relatively easily accessible. But this does not become knowledge until it is processed to make sense. It is a tremendous possibility for industries, which are intellectually/knowledge driven, to be able to collect data, whether it is from genome sequencing,RNA sequencing or mass spectrometry and analyse it in separate contexts. This is not a call centre problem, it is a much higher level of computer science. It also requires scientists from multiple scientific disciplines, particularly with domain knowledge. So if you are looking at microbial diversity and genetic sequencing you need to have microbiologists, soil experts, gut experts and computer scientists working together. These kinds of structures, both in academia as well as in industry, provide a huge new opportunity. These new kinds of investments can catalyse our modest investments and bring about huge changes as well.

Q. DBT has already done a lot to improve the human resource in biotech, but the interest in biotech is still not as desired. Is there any change in human resource strategy that you envisage?

A. The frank situation in life science is that parents prefer their kids to go into business management,finance, engineering or medicine. In a situation where these areas are perceived to provide jobs, we need to be able to attract quality people to research, academic positions, entrepreneurship or other kinds of job which require quality understanding of science in general and biotechnology in particular. So, the challenge is that people are not sufficiently keen on pursuing this field.There are two different things we can do. One is at the broad society level, and the other is a more focused DBT-oriented effort. 

At the broad society level, the excitement, the thrill of science needs to be communicated better. We are communicating it little better than we used to, but  not doing that sufficiently. One of the crucial necessities is to improve the quality of science education in schools. This is not confined to the DBT’s perspective alone. We need to discuss it in a broader way. The second thing DBT can do is given that people go into medicine and engineering and physics and chemistry as a choice in addition to biology, we need to take our human resource programme to a level that gives opportunity to people, not only in biology but also in other areas, to work on life sciences questions.  If we can get that in place, we will attract quality people into biology. 

Q. Are there any new areas you plan to focus funding on?

A. Yes, our research now has been a bit compartmentalised. We fund our institutions for big programmes and have a competitive grants programme. Research globally requires the interactions of many different kinds of people today. While foundational support is necessary and must grow, in addition, group funding of different kinds of people working together will trigger their interaction. This needs to be pushed. So we are going to have programmes which support funding of interactions between institutions and people. We need resources for this and I expect we will be able to get them.

Q. Do you see any change in international collaborations at this point?

A. I think there is no question that this will happen in a very big way. There are two major aspects which we need to change in this new era. One I already eluded to, and that is how we must be interdisciplinary and interactive with a much larger section of the scientific society through human resource programmes. But for that to be done speedily, the only way out is to work interactively. Science, like disease,health and humanity, knows no boundaries. We will have to work internationally to make sure that our discoveries and knowledge are used for the entire planet and similarly discoveries and knowledge from elsewhere come in. If this has to happen specifically in our programmes, then our international programmes must impact on the human resource programme in a big way. Also look at the huge global resources that have taken decades to build, for example telescopes and super colliders. Similarly, in life sciences we need to put to use our international interactions not just to build infrastructure and machines, but also to take on big global challenges such as vaccines against emerging diseases, discoveries of drugs for tropical diseases and so on. These may not be seen as physical entities but are very important. 

Q. Are there any 30-year gifts or promises you hold for the nation? 

A. Well, there are two kinds of promises. One we make as DBT and the other as scientists. As the economy improves we will make sure that we get more and more support for science. We need to improve our internal processes constantly and be responsible to the people. The feedback, particularly critical feedback, is very important. Similarly as scientists and as individuals we must also be more ambitious. We should move out of constantly pointing where others are wrong, to a situation where we are self-critical – where we can do better, where we can be more efficient, more ambitious. We have to define basic problems which the rest of the world finds fascinating, look at applications that will transform our society. These are challenges we need to take up as scientists. 

Q. What are the expectations you have as DBT from the government and from the people?

A. DBT is part of the government. The real expectation would be, 30 years from now or even 10 years from now,we should see directions where India leads the world. We should be demanding the kinds of problems we can solve. We should be demanding the kinds of questions we are trying to answer. And we must dare to try and grasp more directions currently beyond our reach. Only then, we will go in those directions effectively. 

A country like India with its human and intellectual resources should be reaching out and taking the lead despite its many big problems. And as the Prime Minister said, and several people have been saying, we have billion problems but we also have a billion minds. Therefore, we should actually look at solving problems for the world and not just look at our immediate minor issues.