Nishigandha Naik, the director-in-charge at Haffkine Institute in Parel, speaks to The Indian Express about an infrastructure upgrade.
What were major challenges you faced in Haffkine when you took up director’s post?
The major concern was the structure of our institute. I had to ask for immediate structural audit. Manpower was another issue… I realised we need more qualified manpower. We conducted six-month-long in-house courses and 40 staffers and students participated. Most of our employees have been here for decades and there is no knowledge upgradation. The institute was earlier not funding researchers to attend conferences, which I thought was unfair. I have changed that.
What are the big projects you are aiming for?
We have proposed a viral diagnostic laboratory, for which we are going to coordinate with Tata Hospital. In India, for viral diagnostics, most reagents are imported. We are trying to get everything under one roof, for diagnostics, testing and research. In a few cases, viral samples are sent outside India for diagnosis. We hope this will be prevented, so will imports. Also, we have requested to be considered as a centre of excellence for toxicology. We can do toxicology tests for Ayush medicines, and present a report as per global standards to allow exports of Ayush medicines. We are also proposing to create a start-up at Haffkine, our institute is ideal for that. Researchers will get support through laboratory access if they have a start-up idea. So far, IIT-Bombay has started a similar concept.
Haffkine has seen a steady decline in the number of researchers and scientists. Most are opting for private research institutes.
In 1974, there was a division in Haffkine. Haffkine Biopharma took charge of production and our institute focussed on research. Specialised services are being continued. We still do alcohol beverage testing for excise department, vaccine research and production. I agree the quality of research has gone down. But norms set up for recruitment are old. For a scientific officer, the eligibility was earlier BSc, later it was changed to MSc, but globally we see that at least a PhD holder is needed for such a post. We are proposing certain reforms. The Mashelkar committee, formed by the state government, has submitted a few recommendations. Salary is also a factor that has driven away researchers. Haffkine’s salary scale is half of what central research institutes pay. With this committee’s proposal, all these issues will get resolved to a huge extent.
Does the heritage tag become an impediment in developing the Haffkine institute?
The building has been repaired in patches but it is a 300-year-old building and requires major repairs every few decades. A structural audit was done for all buildings, and in the last budget, we got Rs 10 crore for repairs. This is a Heritage-B type building, so we can do internal changes, but major changes to structure are impossible. We have now suggested that a new building be built in the campus for expanding our laboratory, because that scope is limited in the existing building.
Your appointment has been controversial, with allegations that you superceded four others
The institute had advertised for the post in 2015 and then in 2016, but nothing had happened. I had applied. In 2017, I got a circular for appointment. Probably the government thought the charge must be given to someone with a scientific background. Earlier, directors were either clinicians or IAS officers. I just got an additional charge of director, there is no permanent appointment. It is not a question of superceding anybody.
Globally, the scientific community protested in 2016 and in 2017 against lack of funds for research. In India, there were two rallies. What are the concerns researchers and scientists have?
Research that is happening here goes on a shelf. This is unfortunate. We also complain that we do not have enough budget, but at same time, we have to find other resources for funding. Unfortunately, most research in India has not converted into practical approach to impact society. Research is important, and that is why now the Department of Biotechnology and Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) are taking up projects that will have a direct impact on society. There is definite progress I feel in research temperament in our country. Why scientists took to the roads is not something I could understand.
Very few women had occupied the top position in Haffkine. Is it gender bias or shortage of women in the workforce?
To some extent it is right. But most of the times, I have observed that women, due to their family commitments, take a back seat in research. Though they always resume work. The government also has a special Women Scientist Scheme to encourage their participation in science. Though there remains a gap, women are allowed in mainstream research projects. In biological institutes, I see ICMR’s former director is a woman, Parel-based National Institute for Research in Reproductive Health head is a woman and Tata Memorial Center’s ACTREC has a women director. Policywise there is no discrimination.
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