IISc is not working on terminator genes

Goverdhan Mehta , director, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, talks to N Raghavan on the need to sharpen the institute's focus and his efforts to catalyse major initiatives in areas of national concern

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

The IISc seems to be preoccupied with basic research as distinct from application-oriented research. Much of the institute's work is today removed from the concerns of the common person. Do you agree this is true?
This is not true. Fundamentally, I do not care for labels like basic and applied research. I would rather term them as new knowledge and application of knowledge for the well-being of the people, particularly our own people. At the iis c, individual creative efforts in science -- as distinct from engineering -- have got more publicity. Research endeavours get mentioned in journals and eventually become part of the literature in that discipline. However, our efforts to address the problems of industry rarely get the same kind of publicity.

Has there been a change in the focus of the institute in the wake of the economic liberalisation?
Over the last six years, the Indian industry has become more cognizant of the need to upgrade technology. This has prompted many entrepreneurs to approach the institute for assistance.

Many structures have been created to promote better interface between the institute and the industry. The institute's Society of Innovation and Development, for instance, was established two years ago for this purpose. We have plans to establish a patent facilitation cell which will guide the institute in matters pertaining to safeguarding Intellectual Property Rights.

My immediate concern is to ensure that while individual creativity within the institute is not stifled, the onus shifts to a team or collective effort.

Your predecessor has said that most of your facilities and services are being utilised by multinationals rather than Indian companies. Do you agree?
I am not sure in what context the remark was made. It is true that among sponsored projects multinationals pay more money. But in terms of the number of projects, we have more Indian projects than foreign. Indian industry has still not understood the concept of sponsored projects. Projects that local enterprises sponsor, tend to be insignificant in monetary terms. Therefore, a number of projects sponsored by local firms may be equivalent in monetary terms to one or two multinational projects. In the sponsored section, we are trying to strike a healthy balance between Indian and foreign projects.

What are the areas that the IISc-industry interface has been particularly fruitful?
Communication, information technology, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and to some extent metallurgy. But this is just an indicative list. At any time, the institute has over 500 on-going projects, of which more than a hundred are from the industry. As for addressing the problems of the rural areas, the work of the Centre for Application of Science and Technology to Rural Areas has been well received. One index of this is the continued support, in terms of funding, from the United Nations Development Programme.

The Sustainable Transformation of Rural Areas' programme is also doing well. But considering the size of the country and its sheer diversity of culture and tradition, promoting sustainable technology is not easy.

Isn't it a matter of concern that most students who pass out of your institute prefer to work abroad?
That is true of all reputed educational institutions in the country. I would say we are comparatively better off for the simple reason that we do not offer undergraduate courses like those offered by the Indian Institutes of Technology. I do not see how we can stop people from going abroad in search of jobs.

How would you like to see IISc five years down the line?
iis c is already a well-established institute which trains the future leaders in the field of science and technology in the country. Soon, it must become a major international Research and Development ( r&d ) centre.

The terminator gene project undertaken by your institute in collaboration with Biotech giant Monsanto has evoked considerable controversy. In retrospect, do you think it is a mistake?
The controversy has been needless so far as iis c's involvement with Monsanto (India) is concerned. The joint research and development programme is not even remotely contemplating to work with terminator genes or any other project which may have potentially detrimental effects to the interests of the farmers of this country. In fact, the whole issue is irrelevant since the Union government has issued clear instructions not to entertain patents for the terminator gene, and that all the quarantine stations would get the imported seeds analysed for the terminator gene using molecular probes to guard against the entry of such material into the country.

Your opinion on the restrictions imposed by the us on American firms dealing with Indian government departments and science and technology establishments including the iis c.

It was unjustified. iis c is an educational institution. I do not see why an educational institute should be subjected to a political decision. It makes no sense. The restrictions do pose some problems to us as we source our supplies of equipment, hardware and software from all over the world including, of course, the us . But the institute has the resilience to get around all this. Our r&d work will not be affected.

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