Dr Mark Walport, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government of United Kingdom during his recent visit to India to further India-UK scientific collaborations was interviewed by Chief Editor, DBT Communication Cell
Historically speaking India and Britain have had a very strong relationship in scientific collaboration, with scientists like Ronald Ross and JBS Halden having worked here in India, and Indian scientists like Jagadish Chandra Bose having been trained in the UK. It was a huge collaborative effort. So how do you see the present collaboration as part of the continuum?
Well, I think it is a continuum and I remember, a few years ago, visiting the laboratory in Calcutta, where Ronald Ross did his important work. But of course, these collaborations have continued and there are many, many examples. The best thing at the moment is that government funding from both sides has helped cement this collaboration remarkably.
Scientific collaboration in recent years has hit a new high, with investments reaching 200 million British pounds. So how do you see research changing in the current phase of collaborations?
This was discussed in a meeting with the Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology. I think we are becoming increasingly strategic, because there are major local scientific challenges, for example agriculture, water, cities… and these all pose enormous scientific, technological, engineering and social science challenges. And there are great opportunities to work together on all of these.
So how much research investment do you expect in the next five years?
I think it is too early to say that. Governments make their investment decisions. So we need to wait for that, rather than anticipating. In fact the UK government is considering this and the results will be available soon. But I am not in a position to say what that might be until the announcement is made.
So what are the near and midterm fields of collaboration between India and UK in the field of biotechnology?
Well, an agreement has been signed between the (Indian) Department of Biotechnology and the Research Councils UK (RCUK), identifying three areas; the first being the impact of climate change on agriculture; the second is to establish an India-RCUK strategic group on anti-microbial resistance; and the third is an India-UK vaccine development collaboration. This is where an agreement has been reached and so we are going to work together (on these).
You must be aware that the Indian government has launched a major project on public hygiene and bio-toilets. The Gates Foundation is a major partner in this project. In the future is there any scope of the UK participating in a similar venture?
I think that the Department for International Development has worked with India in the areas of water and hygiene for a very long time. And in terms of technical assistance, that is an area of ongoing collaboration. As a physician I know that the most important advance in public health is separating the water we drink from the water we excrete. So, toilets as part of that are extremely important.
What do you think must be the core area of India-UK collaboration in the field of health and hygiene?
Well, I think we have been talking about this… vaccines, anti-microbial resistance… that’s a huge area of concern… today, for instance there was a report of a major bacterial resistance to major antibiotics. So we are reaching a point where antibiotics will not be as effective as they once were. That’s an extremely important area of collaboration. And in fact my colleague in the UK, the Chief Medical Officer, Sally Davies, has taken this up.
What are the policy or other changes in India that are needed to augment collaboration between India and the UK in the field of health science and technology?
Well, I never comment on policy changes in other people’s countries and I only advice the British government.