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doi:10.1038/nindia.2016.1 Published online 7 January 2016

India to revive prestigious fellowship scheme

K. S. Jayaraman

India is all set to revive a grand scheme to make the country's science globally competitive by infusing top talent from abroad. The government Department of Science and Technology (DST) will modify the Jawaharlal Nehru Science Fellowship (JNSF), launched two years ago by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a programme that turned out to be a disappointment.

DST has now decided to relaunch the scheme by expanding its scope and modifying some of its conditions. "We want to introduce the amended scheme in the coming financial year beginning April," S. S. Kohli, DST adviser in charge of this and some other government fellowship schemes, told Nature India.

JNSF, named after India's first prime minister, was opened to scientists of any nationality and sought to attract world renowned scientists who are fellows of the Royal Society (FRS) UK or similar academies. The fellowship carried a US$100,000 salary plus a 5.5 million rupee ($90,000) research grant — substantial by Indian standards — besides free furnished housing and administrative support. In return, the Fellows were required to devote four months a year for three years to work in a laboratory of their choice in India sharing their knowledge with local scientists and creating new research areas in "cutting edge" science.

The first round of the fellowship was awarded in February 2014 to five eminent scientists from UK and the USA. However, it did not progress as designed since the fellows could not comply with the requirement of a four-month annual visit to their host institutions in India. The DST withheld the call for the second batch of Nehru Fellows but denied that the scheme is being abandoned. "We plan to relaunch the scheme with enhanced scope and changes," Kohli said in an email.

Astrophysicist Shrinivas Kulkarni at the California Institute of Technology who was planning to work at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics in Bangalore, "has not availed his Fellowship till date," DST's Kohli said. "My responsibilities with my current job increased to a point where I could not manage the time to visit India," Kulkarni told Nature India in an email. Another Nehru Fellow, Sathamangalam Srinivasavaradhan, a mathematics professor at New York University, said he has been able to visit the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai for a month in 2015 and plans to visit again for a month in 2016.

Kohli said he had no details about the visit of Azim Surani of the Gurdon Institute of the University of Cambridge, UK , who was expected to spend his Fellowship period at the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine (InSteM) in Bangalore. Neither Surani, nor InStem's dean Apurva Sarin, replied to a request about Surani's visit to InStem after being awarded the Fellowship. 

Mathukumalli Vidyasagar, a computer science expert with the University of Texas at Dallas and Trevor Platt of Plymouth Marine Laboratory, UK — the two other Nehru Fellows — saved the scheme from becoming a total flop.

"I am now about halfway through the second of my four-month visits to Cochin," Platt who was invited to work at the Central Marine Research Institute (CMRI) in Cochin said in an email. "The country has gained immensely through his presence here in the fields of remote sensing, ocean optics and biological oceanography related to marine fisheries" CMFRI director Achamveetil Goplakrishnan told Nature India.

Vidyasagar, who had already put in eight months by 2015 at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Hyderabad and is currently doing his last 4-month stint, is happy he was able to teach an advanced graduate course in "compressed sensing," and co-supervise five M.Tech students. He said he eventually planned to move to India and spend full-time at the IIT. 

"In my view, short-term visits will not have any lasting impact," he told Nature India when asked to comment on the usefulness of the scheme. "Unless the Fellows spend an extended period of time in India, the scheme would not yield the anticipated benefits," he said. "The competitiveness of Indian science would be determined by the quality and quantity of scientists working full-time in India and clearly, just a handful of top scientists cannot make Indian science globally competitive by themselves." 

Srinivasavaradhan agrees: "It will take sustained effort over a long period to reach the goal," he said. "Since it is difficult to have experts spend long periods away from their home base, there should be a companion programme to send young Indian scientists abroad to gain knowledge and experience and work with senior faculty abroad," he suggested.

Kohli said the scheme when relaunched would take into account feedback from the first batch of fellows and make it more attractive by increasing the research grant and relaxing the terms of duration of their visits.

But not everyone thinks the scheme is a must for India. "Personally I would be happy if the money spent on these Fellowships is diverted to improve infrastructure in universities," says biologist Subhash Lakhotia, emeritus professor at the Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi and vice-president of the Indian National Science Academy. "At least a few of them would benefit."