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Lunch with BS: Richard Jefferson

Science is for people

Latha Jishnu  |  New Delhi 

Indian scientists must eschew their tribalism and absolutism and should learn to be more aware and inclusive to create the right products and services for society.

He favours floral bush shirts with bold motifs, is a keen musician who composes and performs the blues, Celtic and bluegrass on his banjo and guitar. He does juggling for fun, and in his spare time nurtures a heritage apple-breeding farm in New South Wales. This is the other side of Richard Jefferson, one of the leading molecular biologists of the world, a scientist who developed a gene reporter system called GUS, the most widely used technique by fellow-scientists, and the man who gave the world an even more revolutionary concept — the idea of open source biotech, writes Latha Jishnu.

He has been on the Scientific American’s list of the world’s 50 most influential technologists, and is much in demand, speaking in Dakar, Senegal, one week, addressing the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) the next, and generally trying to shake up the world with his radical ideas on making the tools of scientific research available to all, particularly to scientists of the developing world.

It is not often that one gets to take a scientist of Jefferson’s standing out to lunch at short notice, and I am delighted when he agrees to come for “a good Indian meal and nothing else” during a brief visit to Delhi. Jefferson was here at the invitation of Samir K Brahmachari, director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to mark a milestone in the government’s Open Source Drug Discovery (OSDD) project, exactly the kind of initiative that he has been championing. OSDD, launched in September 2008, is a $ 35 million collaborative research project to accelerate R&D for TB drugs

Jefferson has a tight schedule and the lunch has to be in a nearby restaurant where the service won’t take too long. So we settle for Gulati in Pandara Park and Jefferson comes in his trademark floral shirt — and a smorgasbord of ideas that makes the food irrelevant for me. Clearly familiar with Indian cuisine, the Australia-based scientist takes a while to make his choice. And his order, like much of his conversation, can leave one breathless. He orders for both of us: a barra kebab (spicy chunks of mutton marinated overnight and cooked in a tandoor), a yellow dal specialty of the house and the Hyderabadi staple mirchi ka salan (long green chillies in a thick gravy).

Jefferson tucks in with gusto, thoroughly enjoying the food despite its pungency while I fall back on an extra sweet lime juice to take the edge off. Where did he learn to eat such spicy stuff? “Don’t forget I am an old India hand,” says this extraordinary man who was incubating his biotech revolution when he first came to India in 1989-1990. “I was the first senior molecular biologist hired by the FAO of the UN but based out of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. FAO was interested in the concept of Cambia, which revolved around enabling innovation by others rather than the creation of ‘centres of excellence’ with top-down experts and expertise.”

His first visit was to the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre along with a long tour of other institutions that had biotechnology capabilities, from ICGEB (International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology) to ICAR and CSIR Institutes, such as CCMB in Hyderabad, as also universities across the country. He is probably the only visiting scientist to have such an exhaustive and close working knowledge of India’s vast scientific establishment. Even after he left FAO to put Cambia together as an autonomous institute — “it had to be nimble, edgy, different and entrepreneurial, traits that UN agencies and bureaucracies of all stripes can’t stomach,” he says — Jefferson’s links with Indian science continued.

He started working with the Rockefeller Foundation to support, troubleshoot and invent new technologies for their Rice Biotechnology Network which had very substantial activities in India. Subsequently, there were 20 to 30 working visits to India, some of them for a few weeks at a time. Jefferson went to pretty much every place that was researching plant biotechnology. “I was like Johnny Appleseed with DNA. I invented a bunch of DNA vectors called the pCAMBIA series, the most commonly used in plant biotech, and hand delivered them to around 50-100 different labs in the country, with users manuals, and materials.” In all, he is said to have distributed 500 sets free worldwide!

This is what sets Jefferson apart from the usual scientist. Appalled by the patent thickets that were stifling biotech research, Jefferson decided that the basic tools of biotechnology, such as his GUS technology that allowed molecular biologists to monitor exactly what was going on when they were trying to implant foreign genes into an organism, should be freely available. GUS enabled many breakthroughs in plant biotech, including, ironically, Monsanto’s first and most profitable agricultural product, Roundup Ready soybeans!

Jefferson, however, refuses to blame the corporate giants for the current state of affairs in which agri-biotech is limited to a few MNCs in a disturbing consolidation of power. “The problem is not Monsanto. It’s the public sector dropping the ball.” My lunch companion, who has charmed the waiters into dancing attendance upon him, is ordering a lot of lime juice (no sugar or salt) probably to stave off imminent immolation by the fiery food. But there is no let-up in the conversation.

“The public sector has not had any courage or vision. It needs a revolution in transparency to make it align its behaviour with social outcomes. The public sector has abandoned the playing field and allowed behaviour to evolve that is nakedly aggressive (private monopolies). It requires a robust ecology to mitigate its excesses and buffer its failures. But we haven’t created this ecology.”

And what of Indian science in particular? The biggest problem, he says surprisingly, “is its absolutism, its dogmatism, its tribalism and its inability to engage in the truly empowering part of science: to be wrong. Science does not proceed by proving things right. Science proceeds by allowing things to be proved wrong.”

This is a rare candid view and I ask Jefferson to explain what he means. “Very little of the Indian science I wrestled with over the last two decades would allow itself to be wrong, and would more rarely celebrate it! It’s about dogmatism, turf wars, guild membership and hierarchies. Much of the early work in rice transgenesis was by labs that insisted they were right. And of course that pretty much guaranteed that they wouldn’t be,” he says.

This is a pretty damning indictment but is there hope of change? Does he think

OSDD is an indication that things are changing here? Jefferson is far from sanguine. “OSDD is subject to all of these constraints and habits; they really think that youth matters all that much. There’s only one thing about youth that’s absolutely and irrevocably true: you get over it!”

This far-thinking scientist offers an important talisman for Indian scientists: “This is so much more important than science, and so much harder than science. It must be so much more inclusive and aware. It is not about new science — and to be honest, OSDD hasn’t yet learned or articulated this — it’s about science as a part of a complex innovation process that must depend on myriad individuals and institutions that are not scientists. And these are perhaps more important than science to ensure that new discoveries, understandings and technologies become products or services that impact society.”

First Published: Tue, June 22 2010. 00:02 IST
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