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<p style="text-align:left;">In 1944, Homi Bhabha informed A.V. Hill, then Secretary of the Royal Society, that the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust had agreed to sponsor his proposal for a fundamental research institute in physics. Hill replied with a prescient remark. “I think you had better take biophysics under its wing, too,” he said. “I am sure many of the most important future applications of physics will be in biology.”</p>
<br /><p>The history of NCBS is tied to this broader quest for building a name for biological research in India. The Identity theme has four chapters of stories that explore this: from the ways in which people made the case for a separate space for biology, to weighing the pros and cons of doing science in India. Identity is about building a recognizable brand of research. And it is about contemplating on the scientific method itself – picking research questions and probing what distinguishes biology. Reflections on science is a selection of comments from researchers at NCBS and beyond.</p>
<p>"We are now entering into an age when scientists begin to function like the high priests of old, who looked after the sacred mysteries; we all bow down to them in reverence and awe, and sometimes, with a little fear, as to what they might be up to." <br />– Jawaharlal Nehru, TIFR inauguration, 1962.<br /><br /></p>
<p>Nation building in the decades after Indian independence came with this patina of worship. The process included large scale science projects like dams and power plants, schools and universities. And it included new research centres.<br /><br /></p>
<p>It was in this environment, at the time of the Third Five Year Plan (1960-1965), when the government was looking for gaps in the national outlook on science. There was no national space for biology, like, say, the National Physical Laboratory and National Chemical Laboratory. The Third Plan addressed this gap with a mention of a National Biological Laboratory (NBL). To know what came of it, click on the audio slideshow below of MS Swaminathan, who was then at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Delhi. <span>1-Space-A0</span></p>
<span>1-Space-PS4</span><br /><p>The NBL never materialized. The idea kept resurfacing through the 1960s and 1970s. What did come up over the years was a <a href="" target="_blank">Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB)</a> in the late 1970s. And then, later, a <a href="" target="_blank">National Institute of Immunology</a> and a National Centre for Biological Sciences. Listen to P Balaram’s unique description of the precursor, NBL, and these institutes that followed. <span>1-Space-A1</span></p>
<br /><p>In the extract below from a 2012 TIFR documentary on Homi Bhabha, Obaid Siddiqi talks about the time in the early 1960s of working with Bhabha to make a space for biology in TIFR, including the construction of additional labs in the TIFR building for the new discipline.</p>
<span>1-Space-V1</span> <br /><br /><p>Biology was an add-on at the TIFR centre, which was built around physics and mathematics. Over time, it needed more space for its research. Listen to a clip from Siddiqi’s oral history interview where he talks of his interactions with S Ramaseshan, then director of IISc, which then led to the first TIFR-IISc joint centre for biological research. <span>1-Space-A3</span> (That, like the NBL, didn’t go far). Also listen to Vidyanand Nanjundiah as he talks of the time he moved from IISc to TIFR in the early 1980s. Nanjundiah worked with Siddiqi to write yet another proposal for a biology centre. This one would eventually become an actual centre. <span>1-Space-A2</span></p>
<span>1-Space-P1</span> <br /><br /><p>The Planning Commission’s approval for the future NCBS came in July 1985, with the suggestion of setting the biology centre as a National Scheme. Look at the first slideshow to read extracts from the 1980-85 and 1985-90 Plan proposal for the biology centre. (Also see the Identity – Science in India theme for related stories).</p>
<span>1-Space-PS2</span> <br /><br /><p>Homi Bhabha would often draw connections between AV Hill’s advice in 1944 to consider biology in the TIFR program, to his hiring of Siddiqi to start molecular biology in 1962. The second slideshow brings out documents that highlight reflections – both at an individual as well as institutional level – on a home for biology. It is pertinent to point out that the Tata Trust’s support for biology preceded even the formation of TIFR, given the commissioning of the Tata Memorial Hospital in 1941.<br /><br /></p>
<p>The proposal for a biology centre was built around an expressed need for separate space. But such a need may also come from having to navigate institutional resistance. This has been a common theme through TIFR’s history. The molecular biology unit faced opposition in 1962, when faculty at Trombay pointed to an already existent biology division there. And a similar counterargument – of duplication of efforts – was heard in the 1980s when it was NCBS’ turn. In his audio excerpt, K VijayRaghavan shares his opinion of that 1980s atmosphere, seeing what he calls an “extraordinary absence of institutional dynamism”. <span>1-Space-A4</span></p>
<span>1-Space-PS1</span><br /><br /><p>For more, including 1970s conversations with Siddiqi in TIFR’s West Canteen, step into the Gallery.</p>
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<span>1-India-P1</span><br /><br /><p>The ducks were all in a row. Or they seemed to be, anyway. Obaid Siddiqi and Vidyanand Nanjundiah, two members of the molecular biology faculty at TIFR, had written a proposal for a new biology centre outside of the main campus. It was September 1983, part of a book of proposals for TIFR’s 1985-1990 Five Year Plan. BV Sreekantan, then director of TIFR, had approved it. JRD Tata, chair of the TIFR Council, liked the idea, too. The Institute assured the chair of the Atomic Energy Commission that it was okay for the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) to support three biology centres – the existing ones at TIFR and Trombay, and in addition, this new centre. Things were good.<br /><br /></p>
<p>But then there was the Planning Commission, which assessed the whole TIFR plan, not just the biology centre. The ambitious plan included a huge radio astronomy project, the Giant Meter Wavelength Radio Telescope. It also requested an expansion of the Balloon Facility at Hyderabad and the TIFR-BARC Pelletron Facility. It sought money for permanent buildings for the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education. And it charted out the plan for a Centre for Fundamental Research in Biological Sciences. Summed up, here was an institute with an annual budget of Rs. 8-10 crores, proposing projects that would cost around Rs. 50 crores. It was a trifle hard to swallow.<br /><br /></p>
<p>However, if you take a step back, these projects tell a different story. They point to something bigger than one Institute. This was about building up science in India. Listen to BV Sreekantan recounting this episode to learn how they went about justifying their five-fold budget. <span>1-India-A8</span></p>
<span>1-India-V1</span> <br /><br /><p><br />Making a case for science in India has been central to the history of TIFR and NCBS. The video and one of the slideshows in this chapter track historical recordings and documents that mull over this, from early TIFR proposals by Homi Bhabha, to SN Bose’s 1961 letter to Siddiqi suggesting places that he could return to in India. Another slideshow moves forward in time. It brings excerpts from a 2009 special report in the Journal of Cell Biology on "Biological Sciences in India".</p>
<span>1-India-PS1</span><br /><br /><p>The 1983 biology centre plan envisioned a space that would “specially address itself to the biology of higher organisms”. This would include work on the organisation of genetic information, developmental biology, neurobiology, biochemistry of multi-cellular plants and animals. And in the future, they imagined, even higher level systems – ecology, social behaviour and evolution.</p>
<span>1-India-PS2</span><br /><br /><p>At the ecology level, especially, doing science in India becomes more contextualized. The photo of Aditi Pophale at work in the Lakshadweep Archipelago is one example of over 40 field sites for the MSc Wildlife Programme, which started teaching "evidence-based conservation" in 2003.</p>
<p><br />Listen to Sumantra Chattarji as he discuss how being in India played a role in his 1998 work on chronic stress in the amygdala <span>1-India-A7</span>, to Shannon Olsson’s decision making process for taking up a faculty position in NCBS rather than any other part of the world <span>1-India-A6</span>, and to Satyajit Mayor musing on how NCBS could leverage its India setting in future areas of research. <span>1-India-A5</span></p>
<p><br />Want more? Head to the gallery below for more video clips. And check out the Research theme, to see the clinical and agricultural connects.<br /><br /></p>
<p>Here is the thing about being inside Bangalore’s Indian Institute of Science – or Tata Institute as it is commonly called – and setting up a satellite biology centre of Tata Institute – no, the other one in Bombay; and then relocating to an agricultural sciences university known more commonly as jikay-vikay (GKVK). It gets confusing.</p>
<p><br />This was the environment that PP Ranjith joined in 1995. He talks about this lack of recognition for NCBS in his audio excerpt. <span>1-Recognition-A12</span> To be a recognizable brand, NCBS had to, of course, do decent science. And over time, it started to establish a name for itself. Sumantra Chattarji discusses the process of changing the letterhead and coming up with logo features that symbolized the nature of work at NCBS. <span>1-Recognition-A9</span></p>
<p><br />Names carry meaning. The two slideshows give a glimpse of the evolution of a brand. For instance, in 1988, PK Maitra assured Jayant Udgaonkar that the new biology centre was likely to be a “good place in the coming years”. Between 1990 and 1992, NCBS removed the “fundamental” word from its original name, partly to avoid the awkwardness of two ‘fundamentals’ once TIFR’s name was included. (As it turns out, Homi Bhabha suggested in a 1944 letter that the word ‘fundamental’ should be replaced with ‘advanced’.)</p>
<span>1-Recognition-PS1</span><br /><br /><p>In 1992, NCBS is listed as K VijayRaghavan’s institute affiliation, the first known time in scientific journals. But the NCBS address on papers persisted to be a problem, as seen by the action item at a November 1999 faculty meeting. In parallel, the molecular biology unit at TIFR changed its name to be the Department of Biological Sciences. The name, DBS, reflected a more holistic view of the research at the time, though some did not take to the new name well, with quips of it sounding ‘dubious’.</p>
<span>1-Recognition-PS2</span><br /><br /><p>Names carry meaning. A good “brand” opens doors, and this is true for people, too. Awards and nominations usually come as an after effect of good work. But over time, they, too, become shorthand for one’s work. Robin Holliday alludes to this in the featured 1984 letter to Obaid Siddiqi after Siddiqi was nominated to be a Fellow of the Royal Society. An individual’s nomination process to a scientific society, in itself, can be a way of building the value of both the individual or, as Pontecorvo’s letter to Siddiqi suggests, of the society.</p>
<span>1-Recognition-P1</span><br /><br /><p>Another way to build brands is to hire luminaries into an institute. In the featured video extract from 2012, Utpal Banerjee cautions against this method, discussing the need to instead hire “people who are willing to come here and develop this place as their own.”</p>
<span>1-Recognition-V1</span><br /><br /><p>In the end, the measure of success of NCBS, to paraphrase a comment by K VijayRaghavan, is simple: whether you want to come and work at the Centre, and whether you are valued when you leave. That kind of a brand is sustained by science and the culture in which it is conducted. Satyajit Rath shares his views on the “intellectual benchmarking” that the TIFR/NCBS brands have done in Indian science over the years. <span>1-Recognition-A10</span> And Vidyanand Nanjundiah assesses the NCBS culture as being reflective of the TIFR culture in its early days, both in the quality of science and in the risk-taking mentality that an abundance of resources offers. <span>1-Recognition-A11</span></p>
<p><br />More? See more views – past and present – on name recognition in the gallery.<br /><br /></p>
One of the romantic ideas behind much of science is that the different disciplines are connected to each other, and that the boundaries we draw only illustrate our inability to see the fluidity across the sciences.
<p><br />But that idea is also a case of ignoring some clear distinctions between disciplines, as Obaid Siddiqi remarks in a 2003 oral history session on the scientific method. “The point is that every science has its own characteristics; especially for a working scientist – he learns the characteristic of science, which are his/her trade over a long period of time,” he says. “Some of it is skill, some of it are [sic] ways of thinking and the last part is intuition that he develops without any sort of rule of thumb method.” Listen to the rest of the excerpt where he talks about how the complexity of organisms distinguishes biology. <span>1-Reflection-A15</span></p>
<p><br />One approach to parsing this complexity in biology has been the extensive use of model organisms, with some yearning to develop broader truths. In his audio clip, Sanjay Sane discusses the use of model organisms, and more importantly, the blinders one has on while being confined to a model organism. <span>1-Reflection-A16</span></p>
<span>1-Reflection-P1</span><br /><br /><p>Every now and then, a fleeting phrase sticks in the mind and becomes one to share for generations after. Jacques Monod’s statement at the 1961 Cold Spring Harbour symposia on quantitative biology that “anything found to be true of E. coli must also be true of elephants” is one such example. The featured image and some in the slideshow are a selection of reflections from a variety of researchers within NCBS as well as other historical figures. Also listen to K VijayRaghavan, Gaiti Hasan and Ajith Kumar as they share their longer views in audio excerpts on intuition in science <span>1-Reflection-A13</span>, finding research questions <span>1-Reflection-A14</span> and the bridge between biology and society respectively. <span>1-Reflection-A17</span></p>
<span>1-Reflection-PS1</span><br /><br /><p>These kinds of thoughts get to the heart of building any new institution. They are reflected in the language of the 1985-90 NCBS proposal document, where the authors imagined the future progress of biology would lie in building on the complexity at each level of life, and finding and making connections at “yet higher levels such as ecology, social behaviour and evolution”. It is a view that does not dismiss the interdisciplinary nature of life, as it were, but one that insists that each discipline has a depth waiting to be explored, and that only after building a characteristic outlook within a discipline does one start to see the connections.</p>
<p><br />One of Siddiqi’s long-time collaborators and friends, Martin Heisenberg, wrote a 2012 Journal of Neurogenetics essay that began with an exploration of the differences between biology, physics and chemistry. An excerpt can be seen in the slideshow. “In order to be taken seriously by physicists and chemists, a biologist has to formulate his findings as objective facts,” he wrote. But that is difficult in biology, and experiments may not always have the same results. “To understand why, we have to consider the process of life. There is only one such process on earth. It has been going on without interruption for about 4.5 billion years. From very early on it had the three features of biological evolution: variation, reproduction, and selection. Due to this property — we might call it the Darwinian principle, life on earth is a continuously changing process that allows biological phenomena to appear de novo and others to disappear forever.”<br /><br /></p>

Table Of Contents

Space for biology, Science in India, Recognition, Reflections

Items in the Identity Collection

Satyajit Mayor, faculty member and current director, NCBS: On his projections for the potential to leverage being in India for future areas of research for NCBS.

Shannon Olsson, faculty member at NCBS: On applying to NCBS, with no connection to India or its local research environment.

Sumantra Chattarji, faculty member at NCBS: On his ability to do risky, more adventurous science in India compared to other parts of the world. He reflects on his experience from publishing a paper on stress in the amygdala in the late 1990s despite…

BV Sreekantan, former director of TIFR: The 1985 negotiations with the Planning Commission to set up national centres under TIFR to justify the scope of proposed programmes, including NCBS and GMRT.

Sumantra Chattarji, faculty member at NCBS: The formation of the NCBS logo and building an identity for the Centre.

Satyajit Rath, faculty member at NII: Assessing the effect of NCBS breaking away from TIFR and building a brand for itself.

Vidyanand Nanjundiah, faculty member at TIFR in 1980s: Reflections on the culture at NCBS today, comparisons to the climate at TIFR earlier.

PP Ranjith, early hire as lab manager at NCBS: On the difficulties in the mid 1990s of communicating to the outside world that there is a new NCBS.

Jayant Udgaonkar, faculty member at NCBS: On the actual name for NCBS, and his memories of changing the name to make it less of a mouthful.

Govind Swarup, former faculty member at TIFR: The distinction between NCBS and NCRA in how they view their autonomy from TIFR as shown in the naming.

K VijayRaghavan, faculty member at NCBS: On the outsider's perception of TIFR that he saw while at Caltech.

K VijayRaghavan, faculty member at NCBS: An encounter with Guido Pontecorvo and thoughts on the scientific method.

Gaiti Hasan, faculty member at NCBS: On her approach to finding research questions and tackling the unknown

Obaid Siddiqi, founding member of NCBS &amp; TIFR's molecular biology unit: A perspective on what makes biology unique and different from other sciences and finding ways to bridge the work across disciplines.

Sanjay Sane, faculty member and former student at NCBS: On the blinders one has on while working within a model system in biology.

Ajith Kumar, NCBS faculty member and co-ordinator of MSc programme in Wildlife Biology: On the intent of the MSc programme in Wildlife Biology, to do evidence-based conservation research.

MS Swaminathan, member of Planning Commission in 1980: Reflecting on a 1960s proposal for a National Biological Laboratory, and seeing the TIFR-IISc joint biology centre proposal while in the Planning Commission in 1980.

P Balaram, professor and ex-director, IISc: On the unknown links between an idea -- National Biological Laboratory -- and three institutes, NCBS, CCMB and NII.

Vidyanand Nanjundiah, faculty member at TIFR in 1980s: On his move from IISc to TIFR, and reflections on the newly proposed (c 1981) IISc-TIFR joint centre for biology.

Obaid Siddiqi, founding member of NCBS & TIFR's molecular biology unit: Memories of conversations with S Ramaseshan, then director of IISc, to set up a separate centre for biology at IISc (c 1978).

K VijayRaghavan, faculty member at NCBS: Remarks on the reasons for the push in the early 1980s for an indepent centre for biology

Sudhanshu Jha, ex director of TIFR: On his memories of conversations with Obaid Siddiqi in TIFR's West Canteen in the 1970s. And reliving the talks on needing a space for biology

1944 Apr D-2004-00019-63(1-4) HB to Sorab handwritten.pdf
Homi Bhabha's hand witten draft of a letter to Sorab Tata in April 1944. Bhabha informs him that the Dorabji Tata Trust had agreed to sponsor his scheme of setting up an institute for advanced research in physics.

1944 Apr D-2004-00019-63(1-4) HB to Sorab handwritten.pdf
Homi Bhabha's hand witten draft of a letter to Sorab Tata in April 1944. Bhabha informs him that the Dorabji Tata Trust had agreed to sponsor his scheme of setting up an institute for advanced research in physics.

1944 Apr D-2004-00019-63(1-4) HB to Sorab handwritten.pdf
Homi Bhabha's hand witten draft of a letter to Sorab Tata in April 1944. Bhabha informs him that the Dorabji Tata Trust had agreed to sponsor his scheme of setting up an institute for advanced research in physics.

1944 Apr D-2004-00019-63(1-4) HB to Sorab handwritten.pdf
Homi Bhabha's hand written draft of a letter to Sorab Tata in April 1944. Bhabha informs him that the Dorabji Tata Trust had agreed to sponsor his scheme of setting up an institute for advanced research in physics.

1944 HB to Dorab Tata - TIFR proposal letter 3.jpg
Copy of Homi Bhabha's letter to Dorab Tata on March 12, 1944. Bhabha mentions that institute of advanced research in physics will have parallels with the Kaiser Wilhelm (later Max Planck) institutes in Germany, which are built around outstanding…

1944 HB to Dorab Tata - TIFR proposal letter.jpg
Copy of Homi Bhabha's letter to Dorab Tata on March 12, 1944. Bhabha raises the possibility of setting up a new institute of advanced research in physics in Bombay.

1944 Jun D-2004-00019-64(1 of 1) HB to Sorab advanced instt.pdf
Homi Bhabha suggesting in a letter to Rustom Choksi in June 1944 that the word 'fundamental' should be replaced by 'advanced' in the title of the institute's name.

1945 HB speech at TIFR inaug_1.pdf
Homi Bhabha makes the case for fundamental research at the inauguration of TIFR in 1945

1962 HB to OS - TIFR Offer First Correspondence.tif
The first direct correspondence between Homi Bhabha and Obaid Siddiqi, after Bhabha received a letter from Leo Szilard, with recommendations for Siddiqi from Alan Garen and Guido Pontecorvo. March 12, 1962.

1971 JRD Tata speech - TIFR 25th anniversary_1.pdf
An extract from JRD Tata's speech at the 25th anniversary of TIFR

1972 Nov 28 D-2004-01230-107(1 - 2) MR Das to MGK Virus work letter.pdf
M R Das, a faculty member at TIFR in the 1970s, highlighting the media and academic attention to his virology work to MGK Menon

1972 Nov 28 D-2004-01230-107(1 - 2) MR Das to MGK Virus work letter.pdf
M R Das, a faculty member at TIFR in the 1970s, highlighting the media and academic attention to his virology work to MGK Menon

1975 Nov 28 D-2004-01232 (10-  1-1) BARC to Sreekantan - MR Das reco.tif
1975 letter from the director of the biomedical group at BARC to BV Sreekantan, then director of TIFR, recommending the virology work of MR Das at the time.

1978 Poster_Mahabaleshwar_Lecture.jpg
The Mahabaleshwar Seminars in Modern Biology were started after an informal discussion between Obaid Siddiqi and John Barnabas in 1974. In 1975, the first seminar titled ‘Genetics and Evolution’ was held in a chapel at the Green Hill Campus at…

1980s TIFR MBU - Lab Space - Delegation Visit.tif
A German delegation visiting the molecular biology unit of TIFR in the late 1980s. Seen in the photo are Obaid Siddiqi (left) and K VijayRaghavan (third from left). International collaborations would become vital for the group to connect with the…

1984 FRS Holliday To OS - 1.tif
Letter from Robin Holliday to Obaid Siddiqi congratulating him on his nomination to be a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1984. Holliday opines that the award "would do good" for Siddiqi's group.

1984 FRS Ponte To OS - 1.tif
Letter from Guido Pontecorvo to Obaid Siddiqi congratulating him on being in the short list to be a Fellow of The Royal Society in 1984. He also congratulates the Society "for their wisdom".

1988-10-27 Fr.PK Maitra To Jayant (By air Mail Letter).tif
An October 1988 letter from PK Maitra to Jayant Udgaonkar, then a post-doctoral research at Stanford University. Maitra highlights that the new Bangalore Centre is likely to a "good place in the coming years", and an option Udgaonkar should seriously…

1990-1991 TIFR Annual Report NCBS announcement.tif
The announcement of NCBS in the TIFR Annual Report, 1990-1991.

1990 Jul 5 D-2004-01236 - 14 Gotz to Vijay OS excellent.tif
In a July 1990 letter, KG Gotz of the Max Planck Institute apologises for using "excellent" in his recommendation for an Obaid Siddiqi project, and acknowledges the international reputation of the senior Drosophila researchers of the TIFR molecular…

1990 NCBS Proposal - Cover Page.pdf
The cover page of the proposal for NCBS. The centre was named a place for fundamental research in biological sciences. Over time, it got truncated to the current form partly since the name just became too long and awkward.

1990s logo NCBS.png
Various versions of the NCBS logo and letterhead in the early days. Also listen to Sumantra Chattarji's audio excerpt on logo design changes, featured above in this chapter.

1995-96 TIFR Annual Report - Faculty List incl NCBS NCRA.tif
An extract from the 1995-96 TIFR Annual Report showing the list of faculty at NCBS and NCRA. Creating new national centres under TIFR was an important step in defining autonomy and independent recognition of the institutes.

1999 Nov - STC minutes - Branding NCBS in pubs.tif
The faculty at NCBS discussing the naming of NCBS in scientific publications and the address. Steering Committee minutes, November 1999.

1999 OS Nomination of Jitu to IAS - 1.tif
Nomination letter from Obaid Siddiqi and Veronica Rodrigues for Satyajit Mayor, faculty member at NCBS, to the Indian Academy of Sciences. 1999.

1999 OS Nomination of Jitu to IAS - 2.tif
Nomination letter from Obaid Siddiqi and Veronica Rodrigues for Satyajit Mayor, faculty member at NCBS, to the Indian Academy of Sciences. 1999.

2000s logo NCBS.png
The current NCBS logo and branding used on the website and official letterheads. Compare this with the letterhead from early days, shown in the previous image.

2001 Inder Verma To OS - NAS Nomination.tif
An email in 2001 from Inder Verma at the Salk Institute requesting Obaid Siddiqi for a summary of his accomplishment, to nominate him to be a foreign member of the US National Academy of Sciences.