Dr Vinay Rale, Director, Symbiosis School of Biomedical Sciences (SSBS)
Brief recapitulation of genesis of Biotechnology in India
A quick recapitulation of the genesis of Biotechnology in India will not be out of place to apprise the lay public. We essentially (and blindly) followed the USA in 1985 in initiating Biotechnology programs at Master's level at six select universities across India. In the 1970s, the ability to modify DNA molecules and the realization of the power of genetic engineering led prominent universities in the US to convince their Government to allocate huge funds to start
‘Biotechnology' - a term newly coined by them. The Indian model, first at Masters level, to cater to the need for trained manpower for the anticipated boom in the Biotechnology industry was supported by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT). Very soon a large number of institutions both in private and public sector followed suit to attract students. The wildfire spread to undergraduate programs equally rapidly. However, this led to two major disadvantages - the relegation of basic courses in Life Sciences such as Microbiology, Biochemistry, Zoology and Botany and severely inadequate infrastructure and untrained faculty. As a matter of fact, the first Masters programs supported by DBT at six prominent institutions in the country were turned to the advantage of the then faculty expertise, e.g., developmental biology turning a blind eye to the basic essentials that the students have to be proficient in.
A rough estimate of the students enrolled in Biotechnology at undergraduate and postgraduate levels suggests a number exceeding 100,000 at any given time. Also, some institutions offer a bouquet of 8 to 9 allied courses in Biotechnology. Naturally the demand-supply ratio is skewed. The curricula in Biotechnology tries to ‘accommodate' as many subsets as possible with little attention to the fundamentals - especially at the undergraduate levels. Moreover, to overcome the infrastructure deficiency, a good number of students (especially at postgraduate level) are encouraged to bank upon either research institutes or industries to undertake dissertations.
Unfortunately, both categories of organizations take little interest in the welfare of such dissertation research; more so due to the unavailability of mentors from either side. Therefore-, little research done at such levels goes unnoticed. As a consequence-, it is estimated that well over 70 percent of Biotechnology students are considered as unemployable by industries. This is the net result of a large number of factors contributing to the creation of unfit student mass.
Reliable sources indicate that industries now prefer to hire students trained in conventional Life Sciences like Microbiology and Biochemistry (also Chemistry) to meet their stringent requirements. The general complaint is that the Biotechnology students lack fundamentals. This is also the observation of this author over the decades.
Considering the seriousness of the Government to increase funding for the DBT and the intiative of the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) coupled with those of SIDBI and MSME to strengthen research in academia and foster strategic alliances between academia and industry, one can only expect better things to happen. However, like Biotechnology, Microbiology and Biochemistry programs too need nourishment.