Rohini Nilekani, the chairperson of Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies Foundation, which, earlier this week, had announced a grant of Rs 100 crore for Nimhans and NCBS ‘Centre for Brain and Mind’ (CBM), spoke to STOI on why mental health research needs a lot more funding in India and how governments cannot be the only ones taking responsibility. Excerpts:
How did you pick Nimhans-NCBS project for funding?
The need to fund pure research demands a high-risk approach and that was very important to me because that’s what philanthropy is about. I’ve been looking to start my mental health portfolio and we’d been doing some research for a while as I wanted the investment to be strategic and we were looking for partnerships. Nimhans is a premier institute in this field and NCBS was doing some cutting-edge research on biological sciences. So, we thought they should be brought together. When we found out that they had already collaborated and that their project needed a lot more funding, we decided to provide the grant.
Your funding is for five years, what’s the project status at present?
The project is at a key juncture now with the next few years being very critical. The team has been following this cohort of 1,500 families for five years and picked up 75 points of clinical data from each patient. They’ve been following them, but needed more funding. The urgency was also that India has many more endogamous relationships and there’s an opportunity to understand genetic transmission in this context. Hopefully, this will allow for a lot of findings that can throw light on diseases that are largely prevalent in India and also result in many more effective therapies.
How important is it for science projects, especially those funded by people like you, to be open source?
Philanthropic capital is something that the government doesn’t tax. So, I feel that all that is supported through philanthropy – the knowledge that comes with it, the research, products and processes – should be open source and be put out in the public domain, so that others can benefit from it. That’s why we always encourage our partners to do so. In this case, the project was anyway going to be open to other academics according to DBT (department of biotechnology) norms and given that we don’t know where the next round of innovation will come from, it being open source was a very important factor for me.
You’ve largely focused on environment-related work, can we expect anything different now?
This fiscal, my total contribution is Rs 168 crore to about 100 organisations. As for the future, I need to see what aligns with my interest. The science gallery, for instance, was important to me because it encourages citizen partnership. On mental health, especially, post-pandemic, I saw a greater urgency to invest. Future investments will be in strategic areas.