A New DBT Strategy Could Be a Big Win for Bioinformatics if Done Right

The National Biotechnology Development Strategy makes a lot of the right noises. However, at this point, it is silent on how its programmes will be implemented.

The NCBS campus in Bengaluru. Source: NCBS

The NCBS campus in Bengaluru. Source: NCBS

The Department of Biotechnology (DBT) of the Government of India announced a National Biotechnology Development Strategy (NBDS), covering the period 2015-2020, on December 30, 2015. The overarching goal of NBDS is to set in place processes that will result in the growth of the Indian biotechnology sector into a $100 billion industry by the year 2020.

The policy lays substantial emphasis on developing skilled human resource at various levels; a push towards the development of high-end research infrastructure; and funding for collaborative and interdisciplinary research in “basic” as well as “translational” research in certain frontier areas including the study of the human genome and its relevance to genetic diseases, the biology of infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance, stem cell biology, biomaterials, sustainable agriculture and environmental biotechnology.

This comes along at a time when the attitude of the present Government towards basic sciences has – justifiably or otherwise – come under the press’s scanner. The purported intention of the Government to encourage research institutes for the basic sciences to find their own money, and to emphasise on marketable research, has already come under fire. That the NBDS underlines the Government’s commitment to promoting basic research and education at the highest level should allay some of these fears.

While a selection of the features of the NBDS are discussed here, with a focus on interdisciplinary biology, it deserves to be said that the new policy bodes well for bioinformatics – in research as well as education through diplomas and modules in mainstream courses in biotechnology. Key here will be in not comprising the quality of this education.

Biology is, by definition as you’d have it, interdisciplinary. It’s not a pure science in the sense that the processes underlying life are a special case of physical and chemical principles. Though it has become fashionable in recent years to project a supposedly new image of biology as interdisciplinary, following the deployment of novel quantitative approaches, technologies and instrumentation for the study of life, we do appreciate that many of the pioneers of genetics, molecular biology and biochemistry were physicists, chemists and statisticians. The new-age buzzwords, “theoretical biology” and “bioinformatics”, which bring mathematics and computation into the world of biology, are in fact old, and have always gone hand-in-hand with the historical development of molecular biology.

The unprecedented feature of the landscape of interdisciplinary biology today is the scale and sophistication of the interface between the quantitative way of life of the physical and computational scientists and the “stamp-collecting” attitude of the biologists. This is an important development, and in light of increasing specialisation of science, requires that many minds come together, each with a deep understanding of one or a few approaches to the natural sciences.

Big data and bioinformatics: the training problem

An example of interdisciplinary biology deals with next-generation genomics. Technological developments have made sure that generating volumes of data about our genetic material – including sequencing the genomes of hundreds and thousands of humans, plants and disease causing bacteria – is straightforward if not trivial. However, the challenge of using these data to answer important biological questions requires skills in computation and bioinformatics, and importantly an attitude that bridges biology with computation.

It is often the case that this challenge is unmet. This is in part due to many biologists tending to look down upon bioinformaticians as a form of low life, who shy away from doing the hard experimentation. I remember reading an article in a respected journal that referred to bioinformaticians as scavengers of data generated by the hard work of true-breed experimentalists. Bioinformaticians for their part, often with training in the supposedly “higher” sciences of quantitation, have often dismissed experimental biologists as stamp collectors. Thus, experimental biologists have for long been divorced from bioinformaticians.

However, in recent times, the necessity of the generation and analysis of big data in biology have made them seek each other out. However, much of the prevailing training in India emphasises the use of bioinformatic software and less on the understanding of the fundamental principles underlying these software. This has resulted in a significant paucity of high-quality bioinformaticians here, especially those competent in maximally exploiting the explosion of genomic data in answering major biological questions, despite our claim to fame in information technology.

The DBT has always had a task force dedicated to handling grants for bioinformatics. Recently, this has been expanded by a task force in genome engineering, a field of inquiry in which bioinformatics plays a non-negotiable, central role. And so the importance of the new policy in enhancing the quality of education in bioinformatics.

The bench-bedside interface and the challenge of geography

The necessary push towards utilising the fruits of inter-disciplinary research in medicine or agriculture requires the further juxtaposition of new attitudes, including knowledge and aptitude for scaling-up and commercialisation. This becomes effective only in an environment with a critical mass of researchers concentrated within a localised geographical area wherein face-to-face communication is not barriered by distance along congested city roads, or by long-distance travel.

The Indian life science research community, spread across the three million square kilometres of the country’s landmass, is small; probably of a scale comparable to, if not smaller than, the size of the relevant community in a single large university in the US. Therefore, the probability at which compatible minds with distinct domains of expertise come together to pursue a coherent and large piece of impactful research is low in India. Thus, life science research in India has for long been built of small units of work possible within the confines of a single laboratory.

The DBT has in recent years provided what are called glue grants to promote interactions between research laboratories and hospitals. However, the physical distance between collaborative partners remains a hurdle. For example, a cluster of hospitals in Bangalore, including NIMHANS, the Kidwai hospital and the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Chest Diseases are not physically close to the leading research institutes in the city. And research collaborations between the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in North Bangalore and the St. John’s hospital in the other end of town have had to negotiate the dense jungle of road traffic.

This is why geographically localised institutional clusters make sense, a concept which has been explored on the NCBS campus, as well as at the developing cluster of basic science and translational research institute Faridabad in the NCR. Recent developments in the Indian Institute of Science, such as the establishment of new centres of interdisciplinary sciences, are also exciting.

However, a localised cluster of research institutes and hospitals with shared ideologies is still uncommon in India. This is in contrast to centers in the US and in Europe. For example, the Addenbrookes hospital is part of the University of Cambridge, offers joint research and degree programmes with the basic science departments, and is only minutes away from the research departments on foot, bike or bus.

The NBDS envisages setting up centres for regenerative medicine and bioengineering within existing medical schools, which appears to be a step in the direction of physically bringing together research and the clinic. While welcome, it’s not clear whether this move is large enough to be effective across the board. That said, something at this scale should be more than feasible within a five-year timeframe, making the suggestion practical rather than visionary. There is also a push towards the setting up of basic research facilities in medical centres; but facilities are facilities, and how this will be supported by research personnel of the highest standards remains to be seen.

In summary, the NBDS does acknowledge the need to bring together distinct expertise via collaborative ventures, and attempts to address the challenge of geography albeit with a few gaps.

Infrastructure for cutting-edge biology

Having the right core facilities, providing researchers access to cutting-edge, shared infrastructure is crucial in this day and age of “big science”. Leave alone individual labs; even research departments and small companies will find it financially unviable to own and maintain such facilities. The DBT’s Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms in Bangalore is a flagship organisation providing academic researchers and industries in India and abroad access to platform technologies. A similar development is underway at Faridabad. The NBDS promises to set up more such facilities, including centres for providing clinical bioinformatics services, across the country.

Buying platform equipment is one thing, easily done with money. But ensuring their effective use is a greater problem requiring highly skilled workforce. There is also a fundamental difference in the nature of human resource that attempts to answer the most important questions about life, and which provides the technological platforms and services that enable such research. Both require the best talents, but different mindsets. Therefore, the well-tested model of recruiting the best young faculty members to research institutes does not apply well to organisations offering platform support. Addressing this has remained a major challenge for Indian institutes, and it remains to be seen how the proposals in NBDS will help fill the gap.

Human resource development for access to technology

The problem of promoting inter-disciplinary science is not merely a problem of institutional systems, but also one of personnel training and attitudes. The NBDS rightly acknowledges this and proposes various schemes for personnel training. Broadly, the NBDS promises to evaluate the feasibility of setting up a “Life Science and Biotechnology Education Council to coordinate, network and implement education, training and skill development activities from school to postdoctoral level”. Such a system, if implemented well and under the aegis of the right people, might be the best outcome of the present policy, in light of the abysmal state of biotechnology education in India.

More specifically, the NBDS lays special emphasis on bioinformatics training. Additionally, there is a promise of new fellowships for postdoctoral researchers. New fellowships for PhD projects under industry-academia collaborations seem to be on the anvil. Programmes for enhancing the skill set of faculty at our universities and institutes are also discussed. Support for various undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in biotechnology and management relevant to the life sciences have been promised. A DBT-funded international conference covering the frontier areas of biology has been promised.

These are exciting proposals. However, the mode of delivery of these programmes remains unclear. New “EMBL-like” centres have been proposed. With EMBL being the flagship pan-European research institute, funded by well over 20 states of the EU, it is unclear what the Indian version of an EMBL will be.

From policy to implementation: the big question

So, the NBDS makes a lot of the right noises. However, at this point, it is silent on how these programmes will be implemented. There is no indication of what the financial outlay will be and how the funds will be channeled in a streamlined manner. These are probably not quite within the scope of the NBDS but are nevertheless important.

We all do know that the road from policy to implementation is riddled with the biggest potholes in India and this is no less true for science policy. I’m not competent to comment on why this should be so and how this might be corrected – but until we see action on the ground, not only on the new schemes of the NBDS but also in cleaning up the numerous teething issues that scientists face with respect to science administration in the country, we can only wait with bated breath.

The full text of the NBDS can be accessed here.

Aswin Sai Narain Seshasayee runs a laboratory researching bacterial biology at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru. Beyond science, his interests are in classical art music and history.

  • Sam

    The reason for poor performance of india in interdisciplinary sciences is lack of collaboration, one individual wants to do everything and d’t appreciate the person with complementary expertise.