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Reversing Brain Drain: City has Best Critical Mass of Neuroscientists

BENGALURU: Harvard professor Venkatesh N. Murthy, one of the foremost neuroscientists in the world, was amazed by the state of-the-art laboratory at Bengaluru’s National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS). The place seemed better than his own lab at Harvard.

“My lab is pretty well settled but my colleague Sumantra ‘Shona’ Chattarji’s laboratory is fantastic,” he says. For Murthy , that only reflects the position Bengaluru has taken in neuroscience or brain research. “Bengaluru has the best critical mass of neuroscientists in India,” he says.

Murthy is in the city for a two-week workshop to introduce neuroscience to engineering students. This is under the Boston-Bangalore Biosciences Beginnings (B4) programme funded by the Centre and Karnataka.

“In honest and direct terms, the research being done is world class. The qualifier is that it’s still very small. NCBS has maybe 5-8 people and the Indian Institute of Science has 10-15 people who are card-carrying neuroscientists,” he says.

Other institutions such as Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad and the National Brain Research Centre at Manesar are “somehow not as prominent,” the 43-year-old says.Even a premier institute like Nimhans has no identity outside India because “clinical people are not doing basic research, unlike in the US where graduates aspire to be both doctors and scientists.”

Tamil Nadu-born Murthy studied mechanical engineering at IIT Madras. At Harvard since 1999, his research focusses on understanding odour-guided behaviour in terrestrial animals.Indian engineering students are, he says, asking the right questions unlike in his time. “I wonder if it has to with the startup culture. Scientifically though, I’m not sure if they are as mature as US undergraduates, who are deliberately exposed to a variety of subjects requiring critical analysis. And biology here is still a lot of memorisation and less of quantitative skills.”

Brain research in India, and Bengaluru in particular, received a fillip with Infosys (BSE 1.60%) cofounder Kris Gopalakrishnan’s Rs 225-crore grant for a brain research centre at IISc. Murthy, however, is cynical of private funding. “It’s good that money is coming in for research. But, for instance, a multi-billionaire might fund research into autism because he has an autistic child or something. However, what we need is much basic research to understand the brain and how it is wired,” he says.

Murthy believes India can bring back scientists who were part of brain-drain to the West, by making research attractive.”I’m one who drained,” he laughs, adding: “It rarely works when you try to prevent people from leaving. Now, it seems to be the right time to come back because, I’m told it’s not a huge problem to get grants and resources. Even if it’s not as extravagant as NCBS, it can be attractive enough to do good science.”

Written by Bharath Joshi for The Economic Times (source)
Updated: Jan 12, 2017, 11.54 AM IST