Genome unit falls foul of campus politics in India

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A dispute between faculty members and the vice-chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi has blocked the establishment of a National Centre for Plant Genome Research on its campus. The move has embarrassed the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), which only a month ago had announced the launch of the centre with an initial investment of US$7 million.

According to the department's secretary, Manju Sharma, the university was chosen because it already had a genetic engineering unit and a centre for plant molecular biology — both funded by the department. The plan was to merge these units with the national centre to create a strong centre for coordinating plant genetics research countrywide.

But opposition to the merger has come from the university's 400-member staff association, which complains that the creation of a non-teaching institute such as the planned centre would not benefit the university's students or researchers, and will only absorb funds that might otherwise come to the university from government.

At the centre of the controversy is vice-chancellor Asis Datta, a well known plant molecular biologist. The staff association argued that Datta reached the deal with DBT without the sanction of the academic council, and acted in “haste and secrecy” in transferring 15 acres for the centre in violation of a ban on the donation of university land to other institutions. It claims that the proposed centre is linked to the vice-chancellor's own field of interest, and that he and other select members of faculty “will be the only beneficiaries”.

But Datta says the matter has been discussed and approved by the university executive council, of which he is the chairman. He says that merger of the two existing units — both facing closure in three months as their research projects come to an end — with the planned research centre was the best way to ensure continuity of jobs for the staff. He also argues that the new centre would work closely with university faculty members, and form part of a unique network of advanced plant genetic research in the country.

The dispute between the vice-chancellor and faculty members (who have been joined by the students' union) has now forced the ministry of education, which controls the university, to put plans for the new centre on hold. Admitting the setback, Sharma says her department is not insisting on an autonomous institute and will be open to “alternative suggestions” for establishing the centre.

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