The Future is Wide Open!

11 Nov 2019

The Future is Wide Open!


Chief Executive Officer of India Alliance, Shahid Jameel, recently announced that he would be stepping down from this position in March 2020.

Shahid Jameel joined the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance (India Alliance) after heading the Virology Group at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), New Delhi for over 25 years. His research—the role of viral proteins and host non-coding RNAs in pathogenesis of HIV and hepatitis E—has earned him numerous awards, including the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award in Medical Sciences and the BM Birla Science Prize in Biology and fellowships of all the three science academies of India. He has served on the editorial boards of various international and national journals and works closely with the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), Government of India in various capacities.

Looking back, when Shahid Jameel transitioned from heading a research group to leading a funding agency on 1 April 2013, the press release from India Alliance stated—Dr Jameel promised to diversify and ramp up activities at the India Alliance to provide new and increased opportunities to biomedical researchers in India at all levels. He also promised to spend more resources on the education and training of young researchers, and on public outreach programmes. He emphasized that this will be done keeping in mind the unique challenges and opportunities for biomedical research in India, but without compromising on quality, fairness and transparency.”

Everything promised, and much more, was delivered. Shahid Jameel’s leadership has helped India Alliance emerge as one of the foremost funding agencies in India that integrates building capacity in biomedical and health research with strengthening the research ecosystems in India and enabling public engagement with science. The legacy of Shahid Jameel is a dynamic organisation that is better prepared for its future with a strategic plan in place for growth.

In the words of Mike Turner, Director of Science and Simon Kay, Head of International Operations and Partnerships, Wellcome Trust:

“Shahid Jameel has been a leader and friend. He has led the India Alliance since 2013, overseeing its growth and consolidation into one of India’s strongest biomedical programmes, attracting and building an impressive network of India’s finest researchers. Shahid has been a “listening leader”; always ready to embrace new ideas. He has built the foundations for training clinical researchers but in that process learning what does and does not work, and thereby enabling a more comprehensive approach over the next five years. He has been a “thought leader”; we have appreciated the many op-ed articles he has authored, which have provoked deeper thinking about the funding of science in India. We at Wellcome have often invited him to meetings where his knowledge and insights into how research is conducted and funded has informed our thinking. Most of all we appreciate Shahid as a friend, who has a calmness but most importantly a sense of humour to enliven every occasion. Shahid we will miss you but are also excited about the possibilities in front of you and appreciative of the timing and selflessness in the timing of this move. Thank-you for helping Wellcome make a difference in India and for sharing your wisdom with us.”

In this interview, Shahid Jameel shares his dynamic and inspiring journey at India Alliance and the adventures that await him in the future:

What motivated you to join India Alliance as its CEO in 2013 when you were heading a very successful research group?

Two things motivated me to take up this position—my interest in mentoring young researchers and recognition of a need to “payback”.

I have always taken a keen interest in sharing my experience and learnings with the next generation; I felt that, in comparison to running a research group, India Alliance would be able to provide me a far wider and more interesting platform to share.

I have also benefitted immensely in my own career from both DBT and Wellcome Trust, which supported my research. Joining India Alliance—the visionary partnership of DBT and Wellcome Trust—seemed like the perfect way to payback both these organisations.

The shift from research to research management—was it difficult. What is the difference between scientist Shahid Jameel and CEO Shahid Jameel?

Beyond a point, running a lab is also about managing people and funds. It’s about conflict resolution, supporting your people, and staying one step ahead of the game. I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to set up the Virology Group at ICGEB early in my career. This means that I had plenty of time to make mistakes and learn from them. So, the transition was not difficult.

The difference between me as a scientist and a CEO was that the former read more focused science and travelled less; the latter still read but more generally and lived out of a suitcase.

What was your vision for India Alliance when you joined the organisation? 

I had no grand visions. I knew that the base was solid; I had to build upon it and expand the programme. However, I was keen to find ways to link basic life sciences research to clinical and public health research. In addition to its Fellowship programme in clinical and public health research, India Alliance now funds team science and clinical/public health research centres, which encourage interdisciplinary teams to work on major biomedical research problems.

Also, from the onset, I knew that a programme like the India Alliance would never make a difference in the numbers game, so the focus had to be on quality and building the next generation of science leaders. Therefore, the initiatives of India Alliance have, over the years, focussed on empowering researchers and on building an enabling research ecosystem in India.

Did you face any challenges during your time at India Alliance? How did you overcome them?

Of course, there were challenges. Anything worthwhile has challenges and the only way to overcome them is to have confidence in yourself and your team, have clear goals and pathways, and be ever ready to seek help. India Alliance has been fortunate to have the full support and backing of DBT and Wellcome Trust as well as many global science leaders who populate our committees. Therefore, the journey has been challenging, but the rewards immeasurable.

The growth of India Alliance during your time—how do you reflect on it?

The fellowship programme was bound to grow from the solid foundation I inherited from my predecessor. The growth is for all to see in the increase in numbers of fellowships, the relationships we have built with external partners, and how India Alliance as a brand has established itself. Beyond the obvious, I am most proud of our values—excellence, flexibility, and integrity. We try to achieve excellence in our work and demand that of others. We experiment and remain nimble in our approach. And, we come with no personal agenda. Our only driving force is our aim to support outstanding people and through them build national capacity not just in biomedical research but also in science leadership.

How do you see the future of India Alliance taking shape?

While continuing to support outstanding individual researchers, in the new phase, India Alliance will see more interdisciplinary and team science to address India’s health challenges and focus on enhancing India’s clinical and public health research ecosystem.

Since India Alliance has now established itself as a respected name in research management, I hope it would attract other funders such the Affordable Approaches to Cancer initiative of DBT and Cancer Research UK.

We are well placed to offer plug-and-play solutions for research management. But at a higher level, I hope India Alliance would continue to experiment, learn, and adapt. The problems are changing and so will their solutions. I hope we would continue to be a dynamic organisation and not bask in past glory.

What are your plans after India Alliance?

Besides threatening to be a pain for my wife, I have no solid plans yet. There are a few possibilities, and I am first trying to process these internally. What I do know is that I am not yet ready to retire and would seek another challenge that offers me an opportunity to learn more.

What will your successor inherit?

My successor will inherit—a dynamic organisation and good people to work with in addition to a reputation that should not just be preserved but built upon.

What advice do you have for the next CEO of India Alliance?

Everyone has their own style. There is no one recipe for success. But if I must advise, then I would say have a goal, keep things simple, and gain the respect of your team.

What does leadership mean to you?

People are the heart, mind, and soul of an organisation. Leadership to me is standing with your people and giving them the confidence to perform. Mistakes will be made; so be it. Don’t ever regret decisions taken in good faith. Learn and move on.

Do you have any message for your team at India Alliance?

It has been my privilege working with you. Continue to believe in yourself and in the goodness of people. Continue to learn.