Looks like the West’s loss will be India’s gain. Hordes of scientists of Indian origin are schlepping it back after spending significant periods in the United States, and even Europe, to grab research and career opportunities in the country. It is an unprecedented scientific brain gain that the country is yet to wake up to and take full advantage of.
There are assorted reasons for the influx, but they converge on a theme. A major economic downturn and a slowdown in scientific research, especially in the US, have coincided with the converse in India, an upsurge of opportunities in science and a favourable economic climate.
A large number of scientists and researchers who headed to the West during the boom time of a decade or more ago are finding opportunities close there, said Satyajit Mayor, director of the Bangalore-based National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS). “The opposite is true in India, where new opportunities are opening up and India too needs good people to build good institutions,” he said.
A report last year by the international publisher of scientific and medical literature, Elsevier, noted that India is a net importer of productive scientific talent, registering a 0.6 per cent net inflow. The study tracked scientists’ migration streams by marking their affiliation and country of origin, mentioned in their scientific publications, over a period of 15 years.
Mayor’s organisation as well as the larger biological sciences community illustrate the phenomenon. The relatively small NCBS, which has a strength of 55 scientists currently and adds four or five more each year, is getting a huge number of applications from extraordinarily talented scientists from overseas. “It is a big shift from a few years ago, we have it better than ever before,” Mayor said. Many of the applicants are people who could walk into laboratories or institutions anywhere in the world but are choosing India. They feel that the growth opportunities are here.
“It is only going to accelerate,” said Sreelaja Nair, assistant professor at the department of biological sciences at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Nair quit as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and returned in 2012 after 12 years in the US.
Though she had no clear desire or plan to return, Nair said she found that India was no longer close-minded about funding basic scientific research. “The government had become more open and funding was getting easier,” she said. Even the quantity of funding — a decade ago, it used to be a fraction (even as little as 1/20th) of what it was in the US — began to rise on par with the West and more funding sources have become available. Government permissions to collaborate with overseas institutions have become easier to obtain. “The whole attitude towards fundamental research in physics, chemistry or biology changed drastically,” she said.
To be sure, it has not been all smooth sailing for the returnees. Often, there is a disconnect between the opportunities that are available and what the returnees are seeking. “Institutions need to distinguish between hiring brave pioneers and keeping out frustrated plodders for whom avenues have closed in the West,” said Mayor. It is a crucial distinction as these returnees would influence the nature and shape of institutions to come, he said.
Even with much arranging, the matchmaking can prove complicated. India needs the talent to head new institutions and do good science. The returning researchers can bring with them a new mentality and shake up the old, stodgy system prevalent in many corners of Indian science, said Nair. But for many returnees, it is a challenge they are unprepared for. In the newer institutions, systems and processes need to be built up from scratch.
In the larger picture, India needs to create the bandwidth to absorb the best of the returnees. The country’s scientific policy has to be geared towards disassembling hierarchies and building an ecosystem that is welcoming of the returning talent.
In the field of biological sciences, scientists like Mayor, a veteran who came back in the mid-1990s and the newer Nair are doing their bit. Nair is an organiser of the upcoming edition of the Young Investigator Meeting, under the umbrella of a bioscientists’ network called IndiaBioscience. The annual event brings together potential returnees — about 30 to 40 researchers looking to return to India — with an equal number of recent post-doctoral researcher returnees and a few mentors. The aim is to allow impending returnees to network and ask questions about the scientific environment. It has turned out to be a useful exercise, Nair said. Many previous attendees have come back to take faculty positions and set up laboratories in India.