The fifth Metro letter from Bangalore: Science of giving

Philanthropy for medical research in India has been insignificant — until now.

Written by Saritha Rai | Published: August 12, 2014 1:51:08 am
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.

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 not happened so far. “Here, we are entirely dependent on public funding,” she said.

According to a recent report, India is home to close to 15,000 dollar multi-millionaires, individuals with net assets of at least Rs 61 crore. The country has the eighth-largest group of super-rich in the world. Yet, individual philanthropy has begun to gain currency only in the last few years, and much of this individual giving is going into the cause of education. Funding for medical research is insignificant, even nonexistent. In the West, in contrast, large projects like the human genome sequencing project were aided by private philanthropy.

“The human genome sequencing project is a brilliant example of how it can be done,” said R.A. Mashelkar, the former director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research who has helped shape post-liberalisation India’s science and technology policy. “To optimise the search for truth, we need a galaxy of private funders,” he said. Private giving towards science can only be a leap of faith. “We may have mandated a 2 per cent company spend on corporate social responsibility, but we cannot legislate individual compassion,” Mashelkar said in a phone conversation from Pune.

Gopalakrishnan’s philanthropy is applause-worthy as it is supporting fundamental research. “It is geared not towards short-term economic gains but towards long-term research goals and that is what makes it special,” said Mashelkar. Ravindranath said that she and others working on the new brain research centre are willing the entity to be successful and transformational

so that it can spur others to give to scientific causes. Who knows, what Gopalakrishnan has done could set off more giving and birth the private-public partnership model in science and research in India.

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