Shekhar Mande

Pallava Bagla

Outsider takes helm at Indian research giant

Shekhar Mande, a structural biologist, took over yesterday as director-general of India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), headquartered in New Delhi, which operates a network of 40 research labs around the country. Mande, 56, headed the National Centre for Cell Science in Pune, India, a government lab, the past 7 years; his own research has focused on understanding the structure of bacterial proteins, including those produced by Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the pathogen that causes tuberculosis.

Mande is the first outsider to take on the top job at CSIR since 1984. “CSIR is in urgent need of revitalization and only an outsider can bring in the new vigor needed to steer CSIR in a fast-changing India,” says Ramakrishna Ramaswamy, a systems biologist and president of the Indian Academy of Sciences in Bengaluru. He calls Mande a “distinguished researcher.”

With a combined annual budget of about $1 billion, CSIR institutes carry out research on areas as diverse as oceans, roads, aerospace, and drugs. In 2015, the government ordered the organization to become self-financing, primarily through industry contracts, by this year, an objective it has not achieved. “The real challenge” for Indian R&D is getting private organizations and companies to invest in research to complement publicly funded science, Mande tells Science. “The two together have a great potential in transforming the Indian society.”

Mande faces other challenges. Indian President Ram Nath Kovind recently pointed out “the distressingly low participation of women” in Indian science, including at CSIR, where only 18.3% of researchers are women. “It is a reminder of the scientific potential of our daughters that we are not adequately harnessing,” Kovind said. Mande said he hopes to hire more women to address the imbalance.

Mande is vice president of Vijnana Bharati (VIBHA) in New Delhi, an organization dedicated to the popularization of “Swadeshi science,” which seeks to promote modern research and traditional Indian knowledge systems. (The movement has links to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing Hindu nationalist organization that has a strong influence on the current Indian government.) VIBHA’s growing clout is worrying some scientists who warn that India is increasingly embracing pseudoscience.

“Mande is certainly very much aligned with the policy of the current government, but being a competent scientist he will surely not succumb to a full monty on researching the benefits of cow urine and such pseudoscientific stuff,” says Satyajit Rath, a former scientist at the National Institute of Immunology in New Delhi. Rath says Mande “will surely fire fight promotion of irrationality.” Raghunath Anant Mashelkar, a chemical engineer and former CSIR director general, doesn’t see Mande’s ties to VIBHA as a problem. “This cannot be [a] handicap but an asset,” Mashelkar says. “Any organization that connects with society such as VIBHA has to be welcomed.”