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System defeats scientist return

New Delhi, July 27: Defeated and tired, Shreemanta Parida sat in aisle seat 25G of the Frankfurt-bound Lufthansa flight out of India and struggled to understand how his homecoming had turned into humiliation.

The doctor-turned-medical scientist wondered if there was something — anything — he could have done differently to avoid losing, as he just had, two years of his life in India.

By the time the Boeing 747 had reached European skies, Parida had converged on something he had told himself over and over again during the previous eight weeks: that he was the victim and had done right in quitting.

The non-resident Indian scientist, appointed two years ago as chief executive officer of a government vaccine research programme, resigned last month and returned home to Berlin, saying India’s science bureaucracy had prevented him from working.

Scientists familiar with Parida’s plight say his 25-month stay in India is a tale of how an entrenched science bureaucracy stonewalled a newcomer, senior administrators failed to curb the harassment, and good intentions deteriorated into bitter acrimony.

India’s department of biotechnology (DBT) had, after an international headhunt, hired Parida to lead its Vaccine Grand Challenge Programme (VGCP) and accelerate the development of new vaccines for dengue, malaria, TB and other infections.

Parida was expected to guide the programme through new policies and research initiatives. But the scientist, who had returned to India after 22 years overseas — in Geneva, Oxford, Berlin and elsewhere — complains his own DBT colleagues handicapped and harassed him in multiple ways.

In emails to senior DBT officials, Parida has indicated he was denied access to VGCP documents and kept out of meetings while the programme’s initiatives were run by someone he described as a “shadow” scientist-bureaucrat. Parida did not get any office infrastructure, computer, staff or even an official email address, and his salary was held back for months, he says.

“It was humiliating,” Parida told The Telegraph from Berlin. He said he had pleaded several times with then DBT secretary Maharaj Kishan Bhan for intervention that would allow him to carry out the tasks he had been hired for.

Two senior DBT scientist-bureaucrats who played a role in picking Parida said the decision to hire him had been a mistake. They spoke on condition of anonymity.

“It was not a good hire; the process for operationalising his position was not well thought through,” one of them said. The other official claimed Parida had not done any work assigned to him.

Current DBT secretary Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan, who took over nearly 20 months after Parida’s appointment, said Parida was “an accomplished researcher”.

“Sometimes, though, particularly in a new and complex environment for a new recruit, things don’t take off as they should, and it is important to accept that this happens and move on rather than be mired in recriminatory debate.”

A panel of DBT officials and an independent scientist will meet next week “to understand better what went wrong”.

But email correspondence, documents and interviews with scientists in the DBT and other institutions suggest that differences of opinion and friction between Parida and DBT adviser T.S. Rao erupted into confrontation. The correspondence indicates Rao declined to share key VGCP papers with Parida.

Trouble also emerged with Parida’s attempt to steer the VGCP along directions mandated by its own guidelines. He wanted to discourage funding of individual, piecemeal projects and to promote “theme-based” research where multiple teams collaboratively engage with different aspects of the challenges to vaccine development.

Yet, the DBT went ahead with tradition, inviting proposals for individual research projects. “The call for proposals went out without my knowledge,” Parida said.

During his DBT tenure, Parida found himself invited to several international scientific meetings. In December 2012, the Karolinska Institute in Sweden invited him to an exclusive think-tank meeting to discuss new concepts in TB research.

“Your work in TB immunology and clinical implementation has been groundbreaking and set a new paradigm on how to diagnose or treat patients,” the institute wrote in its invitation note.

In contrast, the DBT did not even inform him of an internal meeting on TB in April this year, Parida said.

Parida, who pursued medical research after getting an MBBS from Cuttack, had helped conduct one of the world’s largest trials on a therapeutic vaccine against leprosy in Uttar Pradesh during the early 1990s.

After his PhD, he moved to the WHO in Geneva for research and training in immunology. He spent four years at Oxford, a year in Brussels, and was in Berlin for five years, leading an international research consortium to hunt for hidden biomarkers for TB.

In a note to DBT secretary VijayRaghavan this year, Parida wrote he had joined the VGCP with a “passion to serve the homeland” but added: “For reasons unknown to me, I have not been empowered yet to function for the position (I was) recruited for.”

“When there is interpersonal friction, mechanisms must be in place for senior administrators to step in and mediate. As this apparently did not happen… the DBT’s reputation… suffers,” Trinad Chakraborty, director of the Institute of Medical Microbiology in Giessen, Germany, said over the phone.

A DBT document suggests Rao had said in a note on November 27, 2011, that “Parida is not discharging the duties and responsibilities as CEO in a manner desired by (the) DBT and has not fulfilled the purpose for creation of this post”.

Following this, then DBT secretary Bhan set up a committee of three scientists to review Parida’s performance and hand in their report by November 30, 2012.

But two of the three scientists told this newspaper the DBT never followed up on the communication and the panel never met. The third, neurosurgeon Prakash Tandon, said he did not recall even being told he was on this panel.

The DBT declined to respond to queries why Parida’s salary had been withheld for several months and why the DBT’s displeasure with his performance had not been officially communicated to him at any point during his tenure.

When he joined the DBT in May 2011, Parida had returned to India alone, leaving his wife and school-going son back in Berlin. “For some reason, I had apprehensions and didn’t want to uproot them,” Parida said. “I’m so glad I didn’t.”