Friday, Nov 21, 2014

The fifth Metro letter from Bangalore: Science of giving

Kris Gopalakrishnan’s donation could spark off a trend of private funding for scientific research in a country where public resources are meagre. Kris Gopalakrishnan’s donation could spark off a trend of private funding for scientific research in a country where public resources are meagre.
Written by Saritha Rai | Posted: August 12, 2014 1:51 am

A development some months ago electrified the science community in India. It was reported that billionaire Infosys co-founder and executive vice chairman Senapathy Gopalakrishnan, better known as Kris Gopalakrishnan, was giving a sum of Rs 225 crore to fund brain research at the Indian Institute of Science. Around the same time came unrelated reports that thousands of Indian researchers in over 100 top institutions, including the IISc, were agitating for better and timely stipends. Providing further context, last week, Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani stated in Parliament that India invests 0.81 per cent of GDP in research and development compared to China’s 1.84 per cent (2011 data). These disparate incidents capture the extremities of science and technology research in India.

At one end is Gopalakrishnan’s giving, which is remarkable for several reasons. It is the biggest individual philanthropic donation towards pure sciences in the history of India. It is also the biggest funding received from an individual by the century-old IISc, the country’s paramount research institution, since it was founded with the active support of Jamsetji Tata in 1899. Scientists dare speculate that this could spark off a trend of private funding for scientific research in a country where government resources are meagre, even nonexistent.

The money will go towards establishing a Centre for Brain Research at the IISc. The centre will be an independent entity within the institute, with an international advisory board consisting of neurobiologist and Nobel laureate Torsten Wiesel and several other eminent scientists from the United States and Europe. The centre will work to understand the functioning of the human brain, an area where little serious research is taking place in India, as well as focus on Indian genetic and environmental linkages in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Gopalakrishnan has since committed a further $1.8 million to Carnegie Mellon University to add a collaborative element to the research but has said little about his philanthropic act. “I want the centre to start before I talk about this,” he said in an email.

The technology tycoon has pledged funds for a decade of research activity and to bring in distinguished specialists who work in the field of brain-computer interfaces. The money could help Indian expertise in the highly specialised neuroscience niche grow, and seed future research. The timing is fitting. With increasing life spans in India, neurodegenerative diseases are expected to be widely prevalent and become a huge drain on national healthcare resources.

“Kris Gopalakrishnan’s funding has seeded a unique idea and we neuroscientists are thrilled,” said Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath, chairperson of the Centre for Neuroscience at the IISc. In the West, private endowments and individual generosity have fuelled research. But, in India, that has simply continued…

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