Director's Report (2008-2009)
Three solutions and a problem.
The National Centre for Biological Sciences of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research will be 20 years old in 2012. That’s still a while away, but immersed as we are in dealing with our daily science and its management we may forget to remember anniversaries except in hindsight. We forgot about our tenth and fifteenth birthdays, even if we occasionally mumbled about doing something. Which is just as well. Anniversaries, if celebrated too well can have the lulling finality of a funeral.
Before we pat ourselves on our work ethic, dedication and aversion to partying it may be about time to shake ourselves and wake up about 2012. A strange scourge is sweeping India and one that can sweep us into irrelevance in a couple of years. This is the scourge of plenty. Plenty of resources and plenty of new institutions. India’s demographic distribution is uniquely bottom heavy. To address the higher-education and research demands of a galloping economy, topdown initiatives have resulted in a mind-boggling number of new institutions. These institutions are also being funded amazingly well, at least right now. Lets do some simple math: Each of these 50 or so places will need about 200 faculty members of quality. Let's assume many manage this well over the coming decade. On a shorter time-scale, within the next couple of years, the trajectory of each of these new institutions will be evident. It is already clear that some are growing well, exponentially, and that the others are merely linear. The nonlinear ones are rather interesting. They attract excellent faculty students and postdocs who are eager for the new. They have fresh ways of looking at science and they have the daring and excitement that only the naive and sentimental lovers can have. The typical older ‘successful’ institution, which the excellent new ones will overtake, will be brilliant at telling us what not to do and why something will not work. Brilliant at not choosing the next steps as a mere incremental extrapolation of one’s own experience. The best at doing more about less, while being dismissive of the buzz around us.
In 2012, we begin our next five year funding cycle, but far more important, that year can be a great one-time opportunity to choose which fork in the road to take. Do we take the well-charted route of the typical good 20 year old institution that may guarantee to take us linearly to becoming the typical 60 year-old good institution? There are many such institutions around, they are good and we can be in their image. Look around, not just in India, and take your pick of a staid unchanging place. We can be it. This comfortable route has a trap.The generous flow of resources available to Indian science may not last: an ever-open undiscriminating tap can never be. Heaven forbid, some science mandarin may even demand that Indian institutions, particularly the older ‘good’ ones, be expected to be internationally top-class if they are to be funded well. Another may ask us to do something applied or wither away. Linear incremental growth of quality will not help withstand such pressures, legitimate and otherwise. In a nonlinear world, to merely survive, we must be off-scale in our quality and its perception by others. Survival without excellence is akin to the living-dead and does not count (no pun intended).
Here, then, we come to the problem. For our next steps, we would like to combine our maturity and the quality we have so patiently developed with the daring and engagement with the best of science that is so obviously needed and which the naive so charmingly have. We would like to use the foundation we have built and have the daring to define challenging problems and tackle them better than anyone anywhere. Yet, the problem comes if we are unable to grasp the uncertainty of this route and prefer the near-certain. We see one route at the fork of 2012, the obvious ‘safe’ one. The other route is hidden in dense jungles of the unknown. As a mature institute we see, unlike the new ones, these choices as real and have the choice of not taking routes where only naive fools will venture.
Its all very well to urge ourselves to be adventurous and choose the uncertain. A map of what to specifically do may help in making the choice. Here are three solutions, vehicles in the convoy that can lead us through the jungles of the unknown.
First, we need to make our graduate, postdoctoral programme and recruitment far more effective, far more international and far more collaborative. Only by being a place where the very best of the young in each area want to come can we hope to succeed. We have started new steps in this direction. Our students and postdocs are part of the engine of change and we will amplify their reach effectively and soon.
Second, we have to ensure the completion of our new laboratories and core facilities to use them in a manner where we bring in the best in the world as young investigators, collaborators and faculty. We need to make our space a conduit through which the best flow. Our new laboratory must not become a high- quality dead-end but one for continuous intellectual renewal. We need to have the courage to put in place mechanisms that will make this happen. We have started discussions in our faculty in this direction and once done, we will announce and put in place invigorating programs.
Third and most important, our foundations in the breadth of basic biology, and our size, gives us an unprecedented and unparalleled opportunity to define and address the most important questions in biology. As opposed to making pedestrian or imitative choices, our investigators are defining the best questions from any global perspective rather than taking on ‘safe’ projects. We need to amplify this trend and draw hugely on interdisciplinary interactions and, on theory and modeling. We are making attempts in this direction. In a different way, some of us have taken on challenging questions that come from our immediate environment. For example, today more than ever before, epidemiology and human biology are fertile ground for intervention by cellular and molecular tools in the best intellectual traditions. More of us need to examine if this direction offers questions of interest to us. The growth of inStem, the institute for stem cell biology and regenerative medicine, in our environment allows opportunities for collaboration and benefit in this regard, bringing in complementary and shared resources, mechanisms and intellectual threads. Such collaborative, team-driven approaches offer the value of defining a niche question made by the uniqueness of the collaborating expertise in addressing world-class questions. As in human biology, perhaps even more so, ecology and evolutionary biology offers a trove of exciting questions where too our molecular and cellular foundation give us unique advantage. We need to rapidly establish and have access to field stations and get the best people from the world to join hands with us and work here. This is happening.
Here is the good news. We are already well on our trajectory with the three solutions to our problem. We are already in the jungle after choosing the road of uncertainty and adventure. Its too late to go back and the choice has been made. So, having reached 2012 a bit early, was the problem we are discussing a straw-man designed to fill a page with words? Not really. Success comes from an anal worry, not about the distant future, but just about the next step. In 2012 it will be time to worry about 2017!
To end, we are only as good as our science and by our ability to renew by attracting the best. Since our last report, I am very pleased to welcome several new colleagues. Shachi Gosavi, Raghu Padinjat, Vatsala Thirumalai, Sandeep Krishna have joined us very recently and Aswin Sai Narain Seshasayee will be here very soon. With them and our already embedded investigators, we have all the energy and talent to grapple with the any future and survive well.