Bringing up a science

The lack of research in evolutionary biology in India is a matter of concern

The marginalisation of research and education in evolutionary biology in India has justifiably been a matter of concern for some time. Evolutionary biology is important in understanding multi-drug resistance in microbes, for instance. The Nipah virus outbreak, which was traced to the habitat destruction of fruit bats, is also a study in ecology and evolutionary biology.

Unlike in other countries, Darwinian medicine is poorly researched in India. Perhaps the only exception to this is the work of Milind Watve, an evolutionary biologist from IISER, Pune, who has studied diabetes from this perspective. Host-range expansion is a classic evolutionary biology concept. This is where, owing to climate change or other reasons, a pathogen moves from one host to another. In the Indian context, it sadly remains untapped as an approach to diseases that spread from animals to humans.

In education, too, evolutionary biology is at a disadvantage. For one, there are no postgraduate departments of evolutionary biology in any university. “The single, small post-graduate training programme in the field — an Integrated Ph.D. course in Evolutionary and Organismal Biology, conducted at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru — was abruptly terminated after a few years, despite appreciative student responses,” says Amitabh Joshi, an evolutionary biologist from the Centre.

DNA fingerprinting is a technology that has now caught the popular imagination. Using DNA fingerprinting and DNA statistics for forensics requires a nontrivial understanding of molecular population genetics. But do we have sufficient numbers of researchers working on these areas and training future generations?

A group of evolutionary biologists have recently established the Indian Society of Evolutionary Biologists (ISEB). This is a significant development because the ISEB hopes to not just bring together practitioners and senior researchers from the field, but also aims to reach members of the public and get them to engage with the mission of the Society. Talks and activities for students have been planned. “If India wishes to effectively leverage scientific understanding to address problems of public health, environment, agriculture and societal breakdowns, it cannot be done without greatly enhancing our appreciation of the importance of an evolutionary perspective in attacking these problems,” says Mr. Joshi, a member of the ISEB. At present, the Society has a small membership, mainly active researchers in the field of evolutionary biology. For it to be embraced by the public, membership drives will be crucial. If this project gains adequate momentum, it can help cultivate a citizenry that actively participates in the democratic process that is science.

The writer covers science for The Hindu

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