A 20-kilometre drive towards Bangalore from the Kempegowda International Airport brings you to the gates of Gandhi Krishi Vignan Kendra (GKVK), the sprawling campus of the state-run University of Agricultural Sciences. A public road lies behind these gates, lined by fields of short mango trees. Turn left at a Ganesha temple and you soon reach a pair of imposing gates manned by a large number of security guards.

Behind the uninviting gates lies a dull grey stone edifice with boxy architecture. A green lawn lies behind it with a foundation tree standing in splendid isolation at its centre.There’s also a glass-fronted building of substantial scale, a centre for fitness with a gym, swimming pool and indoor games facilities, and hospitality centres for the many visitors who walk these grounds.

The lush green landscape has an air ofleisurely indolence but is a hub of scientific activity. The open corridors of the glass-fronted building reveal the presence of an instrument that sets up magnetic fields strong enough to see the tiny nuclei of atoms; another that releases X-rays which can smash into and be reflected by atoms; machines that can read the DNA of any life form; a large number of optical instruments which help see the contents and activities of a tiny living cell. Swarms of people—Ph.D students in life sciences, their supervisors, scientists—walk around, carrying ice buckets, glass beakers, laptops and notebooks.

This is the campus of the National Centre of Biological Sciences (NCBS), a national
laboratory of the life sciences under the Department of Atomic Energy’s Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), headquartered in Mumbai. This 25-year old institution, alongside the much younger Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regeneration (InSTEM) with which it shares space, is one of the few bastions of basic science in India, and one that I am most familiar with, for I lead and run a laboratory in NCBS as a member of its faculty.

Science is commonly classified into basic or applied. This isn’t merely of academic interest, but of relevance to policies that determine government funding priorities.

Basic, or fundamental, research is typically defined as the generation and testing of theories leading to an understanding of elements of our natural world and beyond. Applied research is original science with the aim of solving a problem of current vintage, which is of economic or social relevance. In the life sciences, calculating the rate at which the genetic material of an archetypal bacteria mutates is considered basic research; whereas the corresponding problem of discovering a mutation that enables the bacterium to resist killing by an antibiotic, with a view to developing a drug that can counter the mutant will be termed as original, applied research. A blind screen—using, for example, herbal extracts—which helps identify a molecule with the ability to kill the antibiotic-resistant bacterium, but does not discover the mechanistic basis for its activity, will be termed applied, though not “original”.

Basic, or fundamental, research is typically defined as the generation and testing of theories leading to an understanding of elements of our natural world and beyond. Applied research is original science with the aim of solving a problem of current vintage, which is of economic or social relevance.

It is widely believed that funding for science should prioritise applied research, especially in face of economic recession. This is prominently reflected in the closure of academic departments in the humanities, which represent extreme basic research if not “science”, in many universities across the world. While it is unclear whether such a view is prevalent in the minds of the Indian policy-makers, anecdotal stories have generated such a perception.

In recent months, there have been media reports on how the government expects research institutes to secure their own funding; that achievements, including those in research, should be measured by short-term returns over one or two years. Whether true or not, these news fragments have generated much noise in social networks online. Leading figures have also said Indian research institutions have failed to develop products that drive social and economic progress, and that this is an indication of their unsatisfactory performance.

A research institute can get private funding either by developing marketable research that provides short-term financial gain, or through philanthropy by individuals and foundations. Philanthropy directed towards research in the pure, basic sciences is uncommon in India (with a few exceptions), and this leaves only the first option.

Nothing, except ingrained attitudes, prevents research institutes from pursuing marketable research, but the question is whether they should be actively exhorted to push themselves to emphasise such work.

The Ministry of Human Resources and Development, in setting the scene for a discussion of a new education policy, asks whether it should “focus its resources on research universities, including liberal arts and social sciences”; but appears to offer the rather politico-economic reason of “improving the country’s position in the global rankings” for doing so. In light of this, it’s imperative we ask whether a clear line exists between basic and applied sciences, and if this can inform the nature of government-funded research.

The problem of demarcation is troublesome. Karl Popper, the philosopher of science, worried over the problem of demarcating science from non-science. In his view, science can be distinguished from non-science only by refutation. In other words, science should be defined as an activity that propounds theories falsifiable by experimentation. Ideas into which everything can be fitted—irrespective of whether they are right or wrong—cannot be called scientific.

In one sense, science, by Popper’s definition, should be hypothesis-driven. This is problematic in the modern world where a lot of science is searching for patterns within big data, often not with the objective of testing a definite hypothesis or theory in mind.

A philosopher with sufficient depth of thought might still be able to place these within Popper’s definition of science. But it’s clear that demarcating between science and non-science itself is challenging, and even someone of Popper’s calibre could only come up with debatable solutions. This makes the demarcation between two supposedly distinct attitudes and approaches to science even more arduous.

There are many examples of basic science eventually fitting into our ways of life, even though their original propounders didn’t have these eventual applications in mind.

For example, the study of numbers dates back to our ancients, who were so impressed by patterns in numbers that the Pythagorean school propounded the statement, “God is number”. Today, this can be classified as a field of pure mathematics, but number theory is irretrievably interwoven with cryptography, with its vast applications in financial and national security.

Similarly, Darwin’s theory of evolution, founded on the nature of beaks found in finches, today is central to infectious disease epidemiology, which attempts to predict the trajectories of epidemics and the potential for a localised disease outbreak to develop into a global phenomenon.

In the 1920s, British bacteriologist Frederick Griffith mixed dead disease-causing bacteria with their live but benign relatives in what is now called Griffith’s Experiment. At the time, he was only interested in cataloguing properties of bacteria that caused pneumonia in Europe, towards finding ways to contain them. He couldn’t know then that his finding would result in an explosive growth of research, culminating in the establishment of the fundamental knowledge that DNA is our genetic material, which over the next 50 years led to the biotechnology revolution.

This serves as an example where a straightforward question of potential-immediate medical relevance ballooned a large field of research and industry.

NCBS and InSTEM, the two research institutes on the campus where I work, together encompass a range of research themes spanning the spectrum of life sciences: like studying the movement of atoms comprising a protein molecule give functional shape to the protein; through learning how cells became what they are today and decide which biomolecules to make when and where; figuring out how butterflies and other insects evolve to avoid predators and get the most of the available food; how embryos become complicated animals and how certain worms regenerate their bodies indefinitely; deciphering the inner workings of the brain; and understanding mutations in our genome that result in cardiac and neurodegenerative diseases.

The campus also hosts the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms, with a mandate to developing and providing technologies that enable research at NCBS and InSTEM, as well the rest of the country and beyond.

Praveen Vemula, a chemist at InSTEM, develops new materials not only to help deliver drugs to specific sites in the body, but also modulate delivery in response to the chemical environment inside the body. Praveen’s work is original, and develops new and intelligent chemical moieties. At the same time, his work is soundly founded on the objective of solving a specific clinical problem. Subject to regulatory controls, this is an example of new knowledge being immediately applicable to medical problems.

As Praveen says in a recent interview on the InSTEM website, his “method of enquiry [involves interactions] with clinicians to understand existing problems and have a targeted approach to designing a new material”.

For most other researchers on campus, including me, a career in science is a route to satiating curiosity, with no definite end-points or goals in sight. Curiosity may involve tinkering with material objects to figure out what they do and how they do it, or might be motivated by abstract thought. Sandeep Krishna—a theoretical physicist who applies physical theories to biological problems at NCBS—was inspired in his early years by seeing “how apparently different mathematical statements (and not the nuts and bolts of toys) were unexpectedly connected”.

For Sandeep and other theoretical physicists an abstract physical theory can be sufficiently general to find application in various lines of inquiry, including in the life and the medical sciences.

Many of us may work with organisms and molecules that are of medical or commercial interest. Deepa Agashe at NCBS studies the “evolutionary and behavioural processes” that makes the beetle a survivor across different environments. For an applied scientist working in this realm, beetles are a major pest and measures to keep them under control are important. Deepa’s discovery of how an acute sense of smell makes the beetle utilise diverse nutrient resources could easily meet the work of an applied sciences researcher who discovers that a beetle-controlling drug affects the insect’s sense of smell.

The motivation of my own research is to discover the logic behind how bacteria adapt to their environments. Bacteria being agents of disease and prime enablers of biotechnology, one can abstrusely link our research and its relevance to medicine, though this is rarely in our minds when we embark on a new basic science project. For Shivaprasad, a plant biologist, understanding biology by doing basic science is the only way to achieve definitive and sustainable crop development.

Where is basic, and where is applied? How soon should a certain piece of research find an application to be classified as applied?

Sandeep Krishna argues in an informal email conversation with me that the two are “limits of a continuum”. One way to interpret such a continuum would be to see it as representing a time axis, somewhere along which is a limit to the time taken for newly generated knowledge to be converted to a form that impacts society, beyond which the science that generated that knowledge ends up being categorised as basic.

For biologists, science is a vehicle to help understand how life works and, in the long run, how a range of normal chemical molecules come together to make life as we know it without invoking supernatural influences. This is, at one level, detective work: developing theories, and testing by experimentation and data analysis whether these theories hold up. Theories are revised and retested, and the cycle continues until new knowledge is generated. These cycles often branch out in new directions, sometimes resulting in landmark findings or “revolutionary science”, be it influencing thought, or catalysing policy changes and societal transformations.

Apart from certain endeavours where an immediate end result is apparent from the start, where and when a piece of knowledge would be applied is unpredictable. Whether a certain piece of research results in a societal transformation is a function of the times, and times change. With infectious diseases under control in the antibiotic age in the 1960s-70s we, in our immense wisdom, decided that research into agents of such diseases was passé and to be discouraged. But the bugs fought back; new infections have emerged and old carriers of disease have become resistant to antibiotics. So research on microbes is finding its way to the frontline again, and we can only hope it’s not too late.

Often, a critical mass of researchers with distinct skills and attitudes putting their brains together—either as a group or as independent workers—is necessary to translate basic science into a finding of immediate societal relevance. The “bench to bedside” process is not a function of the calibre of individual scientists, but an outcome of the system as a whole and this system takes time to mature.

Indian science, especially in the molecular life sciences, is young and the critical mass is only now starting to build up. For example, the number of quality molecular biologists in all of India is less than the number working in the cluster of institutions in and around Boston in the US; and probably not more than the number in the tiny university city of Cambridge and its surrounding areas in the UK. Therefore, measuring the worth of the body of science pursued by Indian scientists and Indian institutions by their contribution to economy and society tends to
miss the point.

In the absence of apparent immediate benefits, how does one evaluate basic science? In the words of Sunil Laxman, my InSTEM colleague and fellow Carnatic music aficionado, there is “good science and bad science”. How does one differentiate between good and bad science and, even worse, grade good science? This is again a question of demarcation that is important, not only in deciding what science to fund, but also to find ways to promote good science.

In today’s world, economics is the kingpin, and some science has to win over the other. Who wins is determined by metrics which necessarily measure impact over a short time-frame. Academic research, at least in the life sciences, is plagued by the disease of being judged by the journal in which the outcome of a piece of scientific work is published. Many scientific careers are in the hands of editors of select journals who in many instances are not scientists themselves with the requisite competence and experience. With many of these preferred journals being commercial entities, science boils down to economics.

The reputation of a journal is often tied to a number called the “impact factor”, which counts the average number of times a paper published in a given journal is cited by another article within a short time period. The impact factor was originally developed to help large libraries prioritise their journal subscriptions, and is therefore one of commercial value to journal publishers.

This number has subsequently been, and still is, abused as a measure of the worth of individual research papers and scientists. There are many reasons why this is inappropriate. A self-assessment of my work would openly state that my best papers were published in journals of lesser numerical impact; whereas other pieces of work that were not as intellectually satisfying managed to find their way into more fancied publication venues. And I am not alone in making such a self-assessment.

On the bright side, major science funding agencies of the government have recently released a policy document on open access publishing, in which they reject the use of the impact factor as a measure of the quality of science. Along the same lines, this document also states “that the intrinsic merit of the work, and not the title of the journal in which an author’s work is published, should be considered in making future funding decisions”. This policy does not seem to have percolated to all levels of science administration in these agencies yet, but this is probably only a matter of time. Ironically however, many state and private universities in the country still use such inappropriate numeric measures to evaluate the performance of their research staff and students, something that needs to be corrected soon.

If numerics are not the solution, what is? The answer unfortunately is inconvenient and not easy to implement in its best spirit. The peer-review system, in which a paper submitted for publication in a journal is assessed by a few experts in the field, with all its faults, is probably still the best method to evaluate science.

It is an open secret that networks among scientists at times determine whether and where research is published, though to be fair to the system, it does work only if certain minimum standards of excellence are met. It is becoming increasingly important that the process of peer-review be transparent.

The best academic institutions in the world use this method to award tenure to their junior faculty and promote assistant professors to associate professors and thence to professors. This is of course subjective, and as science becomes increasingly specialised, the universe of individuals competent to decide the worth of a paper or an individual’s body of work becomes smaller and smaller. Therefore, the choice of reviewers becomes critical; and I believe the best subject-specific journals do a better job of finding appropriate referees than the more popular and prestigious journals of “high impact”.

It is an open secret that networks among scientists at times determine whether and where research is published, though to be fair to the system, it does work only if certain minimum standards of excellence are met. It is becoming increasingly important that the process of peer-review be transparent.

There are encouraging signs. Recently, certain journals started publishing the reports of a paper’s reviewers as well as the authors’ response to these reviewers’ comments. Science is a continuous process and the findings reported in a published paper are not necessarily the final word. Therefore, there is a definite need for post-publication discussion and review of papers. This is done to great depth in closed “journal clubs” in laboratories, but rarely in public. Recent innovations in social networking among scientists encourage public, online debates on published papers (for example, PubPeer); these have exposed several instances of malpractice in science and scientific publishing. However, their tendency to hide the identity of the discussants has often led to accusations of perverse trolling.

We often hear our industry and political leaders alluding to university rankings, and lamenting the poor performance of our universities in these measures. If it is immensely complicated to use numbers to systematically evaluate the performance of a single researcher or a small group of researchers, the reliability of performing an exercise of this nature across a whole university becomes questionable.

As argued by the HRD ministry in their document “Themes and questions for Policy Consultation on Higher Education”, these rankings involve subjective measures of perception, and how authoritative can these be when spread across the entire spectrum of academic work performed in a university comprising hundreds of subjects and thousands of specialisations is anybody’s guess.

In summary, it is problematic to prioritise science funding or evaluate the quality of a body of scientific work based on immediate socio-economic returns. Indian science funders do not seem to actively pursue such an agenda, unlike those in countries like Singapore, but perceptions to the contrary need to be addressed. It is important that policy and industry leaders take a step back and understand the sparse but growing nature of the Indian academic system before passing judgment on the performance of our scientists and scientific institutions.

The recent push towards building clusters of high-quality research institutes in India—including the development and growth of the NCBS campus and the larger academic scene in Bangalore, and the establishment of a group of biomedical institutes on a single campus in Faridabad—are exciting baby steps in the right direction. Administrative autonomy in the hands of the right people and a push towards quality even at the expense of economy at times will go a long way in pushing our science forward.

Finally, should all research endeavours eventually bear fruit in terms of an economic or a social benefit? To be human is to be curious, and any addition to our repository of knowledge can be “applied”to make us more human.

I am not being entirely philosophical here. Human evolution appears to have resulted in the property of neoteny, by which adult humans retain child-like properties longer than say chimpanzees. Like most (if not all) juvenile animals, we remain curious throughout our lives. It has even been theorised that being child-like for longer might have resulted in our brains developing for longer. And having bigger brains might have helped us make the myths that enabled us to make large societies, cities and eventually religious and nationalist empires.

Even in the world of artificial intelligence, allowing an algorithm to explore a little with no particular end in mind is essential for it to not get caught in a rut. Thus, we learn, and learning without a necessary objective in mind enables us to tread new shores, and find unimagined pastures. The naysayer will ask whether this has done us any good. Whether it has or not, we’ve crossed the point of no return for the foreseeable future.

(The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own or are as expressed by his colleagues named in the article. The National Centre for Biological Sciences or its associated agencies may or may not agree with these views.)