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‘The government could do more in terms of how it sees research activities’

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The government is doing many positive things in the biosciences, but could do more, in terms of how it sees research activities, says this year’s winner of the Infosys Prize in the Life Sciences category, Dr Shubha Tole, Professor and Principal Investigator, Department of Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai. In an email interaction with Viveka Roychowdhury, she elaborates on two major hurdles faced by Indian researchers who wish to take their work to an international level. While appreciating the recent decision of the Union ministry to hike PhD stipends by up to 50 per cent, she says increases of this kind should come as a matter of course, linked to inflation

Dr Tole, congratulations on winning this year’s Infosys Prize in the Life Sciences category. The Prize endeavours to ‘elevate the prestige of scientific research in India and inspire young Indians to choose a vocation in scientific research.’ Has the Government of India done enough towards this objective? What more can be done?

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Dr Shubha Tole

The government is doing many positive things in the biosciences. The Department of Biotechnology has many schemes and funding is available for good, well-justified and well thought through research projects. It could do more, in terms of how it sees research activities.

Indian researchers face two major hurdles in order to take their work to an international level and compete on a world forum. Both are linked to ‘crossing international borders’: first, it is really time-consuming to import perishable, expensive reagents that biosciences research depends on. Clearing frozen/ perishable shipments is not something that’s automatically done on a priority basis. We have lost shipments because they thawed during transit. Yes, we get around the problem by employing efficient clearing agents, but a government policy that puts research materials in a priority clearance category would greatly help.

Secondly, I don’t think policy-makers appreciate the importance of scientists being able to engage with and interact with the international community. Regular DBT/DST grants do not have even a budget head for foreign travel, but the prestigious fellowships like the Swarnajayanti fellowship do.

Yet, it is pretty clear that one can’t play on an international field if one can’t routinely go to meetings and discuss ones work, bring out what is going on in India, engage, collaborate, etc. Eventually, when one’s paper gets reviewed by someone sitting in another country one has much more difficulty if one hasn’t had the opportunity of getting the community’ comments beforehand in a meeting. Or, one needs a particular reagent or tool to complete a study, and the quickest way to do it would be to set up a collaboration, but it is all harder if you don’t meet potential collaborators face to face at annual meetings.

Oddly, it is considered to be a weakness if one collaborates with someone abroad, to the point that committees evaluating candidates for some prestigious awards pay particular attention to whether one has ‘foreign collaborators’- and discount or undervalue work resulting from such interactions, instead of seeing it in a positive light. If you collaborate with someone, it means they consider your interaction valuable. Sometimes the intellectual ideas are yours, the collaborator has just provided some key reagents or tools. Sometimes, you are the one who provides a missing piece to a study someone else is working on. All of this international interaction makes for healthy scientific growth, something our country needs to improve on.

What is your opinion on the recent decision of the Union ministry to hike PhD stipends by up to 50 per cent? Will this encourage researchers or will it divide them?

A long awaited and welcome move. Students and post-docs need better compensation if they are to spend the better part of their 20’s acquiring research skills, so that they can go on to contribute to scientific advances when they finish their training. The work is rewarding in itself, but needs to be compensated in a manner that encourages, attracts and sustains young people who want to be in research. It is difficult for example, to support a family on a postdoc salary even after the enhancement.

Why put our highly trained personnel through such a constraint?

Furthermore, increases of this kind should come as a matter of course, linked to inflation. Each government employee gets a ‘dearness allowance’ each year, why shouldn’t students and postdocs? It is not reasonable to wait till things reach a low point and then increase things in a big jump. Rather, the government should recognise this (student and post doctoral trainee) workforce as one that is valued, in whose hands the future progress of the country lies, and one that needs to be compensated properly in a manner that is inflation-protected.

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