Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Decade later, Gujarat's ambitious biotechnology mission turns into an eyesore for state policymakers

By Our Representative
Converted into an autonomous body in 2004, the Gujarat government’s Gujarat State Bio-Technology Mission (GSBTM), which is supposed to work in three important areas – gene banking, genomics and bioinformatics – is said to be slowly turning into an eyesore for the top policy makers of the state, thanks to inertia of those running it. The reason for this is not far to seek, sources in the Gujarat science and technology department say. On each of the three sectors, one witnesses not only complete failure to carry out research activities but also inability to follow good laboratory practices.
Gene banking, which deals with banking DNAs extracted from microbes, plants and animals, is an important initiative of the mission. However, a top insider of the government department has said, “The DNAs extracted from microbes, plants and animals need to be stored at 40 to 80 degrees below zero and they need to be aliquoted (subjected to chemical analysis or other treatment) periodically and checked for consistency, which is never done here.”
Worse, the insider pointed out, “Most of the samples contain fragmented DNA, as they are not maintained in proper conditions. Space is too less for storing these samples, hence they are stacked on top of one another. The room should be extremely clean and sterile, which is never taken care of.” The result is that “the DNAs thus stored often become unusable for laboratory analysis.”
Coming to genomics, the source said, “After DNA is extracted, sequencing takes place. The sequence of DNA helps in finding out to which species or organism the DNA belongs. It is a highly sophisticated and technical process which requires utmost care and expertise. It requires high grade materials for good results.” Here, most distressfully, “expired dyes are used giving average results and the same are sent for publication.” In fact, quite often it has been noticed that the labels on the dyes are “changed” just to showcase expert visitors that they have still not expired!
As for bioinformatics, the insider said, “it uses computer models to interpret results obtained after sequencing. The mission has very few scientists or laboratory experts who can actually develop new models and interpret results correctly. Most of the scientists at work are poorly paid and freshers, who always wait for better opportunities to get out of the mission’s office, situated close to Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s residence in Sector 10 of Gandhinagar, Gujarat state’s capital.”

Poor staffing

A note prepared by the insider and forwarded to Counterview for perusal says that “the most disconcerting thing is that none of the staff follows good laboratory practices. Serious research has replaced with chatting, laughing, shouting and unprecedented use of mobile phones. The laboratory is filled with rats, and no measures are taken to eradicate them.”
In fact, no regular “cleaning work is carried out in a professional manner in order to disinfect the laboratory by following the guidelines of disinfecting and sterilizing the materials used in experiments.” Worse, disinfection is often forced upon scientists, in association other research staff, without following a regular schedule. They carry it out, often “without much care in order to finish their work early.” Worse, often scientists are made to “broom and mop the laboratory.”
Singling out two scientists because of whom the mission is able to continue its job, despite great difficulties, the note says, Dr Snehal Bagatharia and Dr Madhvi Joshi not only excel in research work but also do as much as they to take care of the dirt around. “It was under their initiative that the employees were made to wear slippers exclusively for laboratory use to avoid dusts.”
However, “these slippers are kept outside, even during the night, in the open, making them dusty and dirty. The same slippers are worn inside while working. Only when the entire laboratory is found contaminated that mopping and brooming is carried out, again, on under personal supervision of these two scientists.” Interestingly, as the laboratory does not have a kitchen area, more often than not “tea is prepared where materials kept for disinfection – mostly bacteria and fungi laden test tubes, racks and bottles.”

Lack of quality research

The note comments, “A scientist is distinguished from others by his behaviour. There is a need for proper communication between the senior scientist or head and the juniors. Science is a field where those who have the knowledge contribute, not show off.”
Yet, “Most of the time, the junior staff is tortured and torn down when they come up with new ideas. Meetings and group discussions are for everyone to learn and enhance their skills rather than losing ambitions. That is the reason that so many leave and so many are recruited from time to time.”
Adhocism rules the roost in the mission research. Refusal to have a permanent faculty is one of the major reasons why the commission is unable to carry out its research work. “Project assistants are kept on an 11 month contract basis giving just about Rs 8,000 per month. Similarly, Rs 14,000 are paid to junior research fellows, who also are recruited for 11 months. There is also a rule that after two years, the junior research fellows have to be automatically promoted to senior research fellows. But this never happens, and promotions are kept on hold.”
As for research publications, in a large number of cases they are rejected. And if they are accepted, this happens only after several revisions by correcting serious flaws. Poor language and failure to properly interpret results, carried out persons "who don't have much technical, theoretical and practical knowledge of the subject, are the major constraints.”
One such publication, “Complete mitogenome of Asiatic lion resolves phylogenetic status within Panthera”, on the origin, evolution and speciation of the lion, whose only Asiatic home is Gir forests, Gujarat, by a team headed by Dr Bagatharia and Dr Joshi, and having the name of Akshay Saxena, mission director, was received in June 25, 2012, and only after several revisions was it accepted on August 12, 2013.
Worse, “Those who haven't worked on publication and related works get credited.” On the other hand, “those who work extremely hard, getting the minutest of details without which results would not be possible, are left to rot. This is the state of the ambitious mission of the Gujarat government, which hopes to create a future of advanced science in India.”

Bleak future

Meanwhile, sources say, given such a situation, the mission’s ambition to have a gene bank with a cloning facility is likely to end up as a big fiasco. While the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, has “accepted” the Gujarat government's proposal to set up a gene bank for lions in a bid to protect them from the danger of inbreeding, “how such a laboratory is going to function in a department which is in a shambles is difficult to understand.”
Yet, the ambition is unprecedented: Gujarat's gene bank, it us suggested by the officialdom, “will be unique in India, which has world's largest gene bank for seeds.” It will be one among the world, which has “few gene banks for the wildlife.”
These include Ambrose Monell Cyro Collection, New York, the Animal Gene Storage Resource Centre of Australia, Conservation Genome Resource Bank for Korean Wildlife, National Plant, Fungi, Animal DNA Bank, Poland and Wildlife Genetic Resources Bank, Malaysia. The state government, interestingly, wants the Government of India to fund the facility for Rs Rs 67 crore.
In fact, reports say, Gujarat government has failed to keep its 2007 promise to make Gujarat a bio-tech hub by following the tenets it itself worked out in its first Biotechnology Policy 2007-2012, brought out in April 2007 amid much fanfare. While the aim was to make Gujarat a global biotechnology hub, it has remained more of an idea.
Though the policy period ended in April this year, the state government made no effort to review or revise the policy and has no such plans in the near future. "The stated objective of the policy was to make Gujarat a preferred and globally competitive destination for development of biotechnology products, processes and services, which remains an unfulfilled dream”.

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