NCBS TODAY AND TOMORROW
NCBS has navigated yet another year of uncertainty, and while this appears to be becoming a matter of routine, we need to confront the realities facing us. We are also in a year that will culminate in our first (ever) quinquennial review by an external review board, set upby the TIFR Director and the Council of Management. This has allowed us to reflect on what makes NCBS what it is, and make recommendations on what it may become.
NCBS started its life as a small institute with a big vision about biology. As a centre of Tata Institute for Fundamental Research (TIFR), dedicated to the biological sciences, NCBS was an experiment aimed at building a research centre that would address all scales of biology, and a hiring mandate and strategy to recruit excellence in any area of biology. Research at NCBS spans the molecular to ecosystem scales and nanosecond to evolutionary time scales (www.ncbs.res.in). Today, NCBS is a 35-faculty strong institute with a spread across all scales of biology. It has had to chart a uniquely collaborative model to achieve what is the outcome of its 25 plus years of growth in this fashion. It has also recruited an extremely multidisciplinary faculty, and has evolved a uniquely interdisciplinary attitude towards biology. Numerous collaborations between individuals are evidence of the transdisciplinary nature of our research.
To develop certain areas of biology, NCBS has also created new structures. To engage in field biology, NCBS has set up one of India’s finest Masters programmes on Wildlife Biology and Conservation, and developed a network of field stations. The Masters programme was generously supported by the Tata Trusts as well as the Department of Science and Technology, with core support from TIFR. This brings into NCBS, a perspective from the ecological sciences and also wildlife biology, thereby encouraging field research in our laboratories. A deeply-felt need to embed a more theoretical approach to biology has driven the creation of a Theory Centre. Subsequently, endowed by a grant from the Simons Foundation, the Simons Centre for Living Machines has emerged. Here, physicists and computer scientists engage with biological problems either in collaboration with experimentalists or inspired by questions raised by contemporary biology.
Addressing the need for translation of its research, NCBS-TIFR(a DAE-funded Centre) has set up two institutes in its neighbourhood by collaborating with the Department of Biotechnology. One, the Institute for Stem Cell Science and Regenerative Medicine (inStem; www instem.res.in), a theme-driven institute whose mandate is research on the biology of stem cells and its effective translation, and two, the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms (C-CAMP; www.ccamp.res.in). The latter focusses on providing an environment for incubation and entrepreneurship, and is rated one of India’s finest biotech incubators. NCBS has helped establish a very broad spectrum of core facilities, augmented by the requirements of inStem and C-CAMP. C-CAMP provides a portal as well as a mechanism for researchers around the country, and beyond, to use the excellent resources and core facilities set up on the campus.
NCBS has also spearheaded the Bangalore Life Science Cluster,along with inStem and C-CAMP, to create a synergistic, geographically localised site for research and innovation. This has been very successful and we have a vibrant set of activities as a consequence of this structure. Several national and international multi-institutional collaborations distinct from individual collaborations have also characterised the Cluster’s research ethos. The Chemical Ecology Programme (https://www.ncbs.res.in/ChemicalEcology/ChemicalEcology AndNCBS), and the programme on Acceleration of Discovery in Brain Disorders using Stem cells(https://www.ncbs.res.in/adbs/about-adbsprogram) are but some examples. In these flagship programmes, we see NCBS as nucleating exciting science on a scale that has been extremely rare in India, and developing a new culture of highly ambitious, multiinstitutional projects. The Cluster has also enabled the setting up of the National Mouse Facility, the National Facility for CryoEM, and Big Data Analysis under this umbrella.
The cover page of this report celebrates our excellent Core Facilities, its heroic facility colleagues, and their tireless Head, Krishna, who have helped establish an extraordinary suite of facilities on this campus. These have served us well and we salute our staff who have worked through thick and thin to put this campus on the map. Our Research and Development Office has been instrumental in catalysing the process of finding and securing grants, and has grown in its capabilities under Vineetha. It started as an experiment in research administration and has now become an important motivator for the same to be created in other places. We have begun a Resources and Planning Cell headed by Navin Sharma to tap into multiple sources of funding—philanthropic, industrial, and others—to broaden our institutional funding framework from an almost completely governmentdependent mode to a more diversified one.
At NCBS we have tried to have a small and efficient administration and here we see that there are several challenges as we grow as well as age. Recently, we have had a major assessment of the number of staff employed at NCBS, and hope that adequate staffing for our administration as well as our technical division will be met. After Mr. Pawha left to head inStem last year, we have not been able to recruit a full-time head of administration and finance, and this has been very stressful all around. For the interim, Mr. Pandian, who served as Head of A&F, during a similar change-over period previously, has stepped into the breach along with Mr. Srinidhi, our Accounts Officer, to serve as Head A&F, respectively. We remain grateful for their commitment, and to Mr. Pawha for all the heavy lifting.
We are acutely aware of the need to connect with the broader social and educational landscape around us. Communications and Archives@NCBS are milestones in Indian Centres for Science and Research Outreach. Our Archives goes from strength to strength, driven by Venkat Srinivasan, and his spirited band of interns. They have already catalysed a wealth of scholarly engagement on the campus, and built a web of interactions between similar nascent activities in India, and much more mature archival work abroad. Our Communications Office has been active in getting out the word about our science and amplifying our outreach, and must be congratulated on the numerous accolades they have received for their various pioneering initiatives: the BLiSC Science Café, and the Jigyasa Project (Sci-Comm in local languages), to name a few.
IndiaBioscience, hosted and nurtured at NCBS, is a communityfocussed effort, providing a platform for interactions with scientists and knowledge about the life science ecosystem in the country, and a soft-landing point for young scientists seeking to return to India, and many labs from all over the country have used this platform for interacting with prospective faculty
Having continuously explored new ways of doing science in India in the last 25 years, to flourish in the next 25, we will have to take on new challenges and create opportunities so that we may continue to thrive. NCBS’s recruitment strategy and broad life science mandate has created the fabric of research at NCBS, and this remains a characteristically vibrant feature of science on the campus. Is this now a limiting factor? Does it impede our scientific growth in any given area of research? These are questions we must pose as we go towards the next 25 years. At the same time, NCBS, and the Indian science ecosystem in general are at a transition point as we move from a system of steady government support to uncharted territory.
A unique contribution of NCBS has been to facilitate a new language for biology, deeply embedded in theory, and also expanding the definitions of how and where biology may be studied. This is an important contribution to the Indian life science ecosystem. Should NCBS try and influence this vision of biology outside its confines, and if so, how?
Uma Ramakrishnan and colleagues at NCBS are engaged in determining the scope and direction of a hugely ambitious National Biodiversity Mission aimed towards enhancing human wellbeing. With our cohort of ecologists, field biologists, and population biologists, we hope to play an important anchor role in this ambitious mission. This will bring new opportunities and resources for developing this area of research and application in the country.
How have other institutions managed such changes? Where are the best opportunities? How can we maintain our core personality when so much else is in flux? It is important that we build bridges with other neighbouring institutes/universities in terms of stronger collaborations, exchanges, and student training. We must become ivolved in pedagogy and curriculum setting that will facilitate sharing our vision of a new biology, changing our ecosystem, and influencing our neighbourhood. We continue to explore new avenues for multidisciplinary research by establishing centres for complex systems, computer science, imaging, mechanics, and other disciplines in conjunction with our neighbours—ICTS, CAM, and IISc—to address central questions in biology anchored by our faculty who pose these questions.
We also need a formula for continuous renewal. No institution can remain viable and vibrant unless it is renewing itself either by growth or turnover. At NCBS we are close to our maximum capacity while substantial growth is taking place in our neighbourhood (inStem). It is therefore vital that we develop a strategy for renewal that will keep us youthful, whilst maintaining NCBS’s character as an institution for biology across scales and at the forefront of biological research.