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Biological Chemistry

Archaic Labs, World-Class Instruments Pose Stark Contrast

by Amanda Yarnell
March 20, 2006 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 84, ISSUE 12

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Credit: Photos by Amanda Yarnell
IICT boasts high-quality instrumentation like this X-ray photoemission spectrophotometer (right), but many labs are sorely outdated.
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Credit: Photos by Amanda Yarnell
IICT boasts high-quality instrumentation like this X-ray photoemission spectrophotometer (right), but many labs are sorely outdated.

COVER STORY

Archaic Labs, World-Class Instruments Pose Stark Contrast

India is a country of stark contrasts, and its most prestigious scientific institutions are no different. These labs boast world-class instrumentation-nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers, X-ray diffractometers, and high-throughput synthesis and screening facilities-yet modern fume hoods are a luxury that only a fraction of their staff and students enjoy.

With India's increased funding of scientific research has come a concerted effort to lessen its dependency on foreign institutions for access to expensive instrumentation. World-class NMR facilities for both routine small-molecule and more complex protein and nucleic acid structural determination are now available at top federally funded institutions across the country, including the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT) in Hyderabad, the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) in Pune, and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore. IICT boasts an X-ray photoemission spectrophotometer for interrogating catalyst structure and mechanism. And NCL has built a state-of-the-art center devoted to high-throughput fractionation and biological screening of medicinal plant extracts as well as the construction of libraries with natural-product-like scaffolds.

But walk into many of the heavily used synthetic laboratories at these same prestigious institutions, and you might think you've traveled back in time. Some labs have not been renovated since they were built, often 50 or more years ago. Others have had minimal facelifts. At best, students work in small, outdated fume hoods. At worst, open windows provide the only ventilation.

"Scientific output in India's universities has no relationship to the quality of laboratory space, which is largely archaic," says S. Sivaram, the director of NCL. But he and other lab heads tell C&EN that federal money for lab renovations is hard to come by, citing a deeply embedded cultural mind-set that laboratory rehauls are an unnecessary luxury.

There is some hope the Indian government will change its tune. Last year, it gave IISc a nearly $25 million grant that will be used in part for laboratory renovations. And this year's federal budget proposal includes approximately $43 million to improve facilities at the government's Central Drug Research Institute in Lucknow.

Other institutions aren't waiting around for federal funding. Sivaram has had to pony up half the cost of the $3.5 million materials science building under construction at NCL. Much of that money came from NCL's substantial contract research income, he says. And at Mumbai University Institute of Chemical Technology, Director J. B. Joshi hopes to entice the private sector to help him double the institute's research space. He tells C&EN that he's already collected a quarter of the required funds from industry. "We have to help ourselves."

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