doi:10.1038/nindia.2017.82 Published online 14 July 2017

Home to roost

A new project, studying Indian scientists who come back to the country from foreign labs to set up shop, seeks to understand why they turn out to be far less productive in India

Kate Telma

For most returnees, outfitting their labs takes significant time.
© S. Priyadarshini
Indian scientists returning from graduate or postdoctoral programmes overseas feel half as productive as during their training abroad, data from a new project studying such returnees indicates.

The Returnees Project, designed by economists at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi and funded by India’s Department of Science and Technology’s (DST) Centre for Policy Research, focuses on personal perception of the returnees since there’s no absolute or objective way to measure productivity across fields, departments, institutes, and disciplines. The project wanted to understand how scientists made decisions about returning to start an academic career in India — and how they felt about these decisions years later. What were their expectations, and their productivity at the time they repatriated? And how have those expectations been met since?

Saqib Mumtaz, an engineering graduate from IIT Delhi headed for a master’s in public policy at the University of California Berkeley, designed detailed surveys for returnees after conducting several preliminary interviews with such scientists across India. He then surveyed around 150 returnees supported by funders for early career scientists – the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance, DST and the Department of Biotechnology (DBT).

In the survey, scientists ranked returning to be closer to family as the most important reason to come back. This was closely followed by wanting to “contribute to national development”, “establish/strengthen my research area in India,” and “doing well overseas but can do better in India”.

“If you put it in perspective, these three segments are basically wanting to contribute more in terms of productivity,” said Sourabh Paul, assistant professor in the department of humanities and social sciences, IIT Delhi, who mentors Mumtaz’ project and did his doctoral work in Canada.

Long gestation

Mumtaz found that on average, it takes a newly-appointed professor between three and six months to set up an office — but that time can stretch up to a year or two. Establishing a lab with equipment and trained human resources takes longer.

Shobha Shukla says IIT Bombay’s robust central facilities helped her cut down on gestation time.
© S. Priyadarshini
It took Shobha Shukla, an assistant professor in the department of metallurgical engineering and material science at IIT Bombay, two years after returning to India to publish her first paper. “The initial years were difficult; it was a bit frustrating. But now I am kind of used to the system, the lab is established, and things have started moving,” she said.

That time might have been shortened by IIT Bombay’s robust central facilities — and the fact that Shobha had a seed grant and the ability to take on a doctoral student even while she waited to finish outfitting her lab. 

Anecdotally, this time frame is exactly what returning scientists have come to expect. With the first one or two years devoted to set up, it is usually three to four years before labs start producing, explained Vandana Gambhir, the grants and intellectual property rights manager at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune.

This three-to-four-year window is critical since it usually comes at a time when new faculty are trying to establish themselves. “Some faculty members complain that they are off the train,” Paul said. “Three years means huge development in the frontier, even if you are working in a particular subfield.”

Catching up is made harder by the lack of secretarial, and clerical support needed to navigate bureaucratic departments. Of the researchers Mumtaz surveyed, more than 60 percent said that only a fifth of their administrative work actually requires their expertise. “Any purchase, starting from my lab book to the equipment, I have to raise the tender, get the approvals, signatures from three professors that this is the correct equipment I am buying,” Shobha said.

Once installed, the scientists face challenges in collaboration — both locally and internationally. With the exception of the Wellcome Trust, fellowships and faculty positions limit international travel to one conference per year. This makes it difficult for Indian scientists to keep abreast of new developments, and “they are lagging behind in terms of collaboration,” Paul said.

Even research within institutions remains in silos. Mumtaz adds that depending on the field, there may not be many researchers working in a particular area in India.

Turning challenge into opportunity

Arun Shukla (front right) with his lab mates.
© M. Baidya
But the relative free space in a field might be why some scientists choose to come back in the first place. Arun Shukla, an assistant professor of biological sciences and bioengineering, returned to accept a faculty position at IIT Kanpur after completing a PhD at the Max Plank Institute of Biophysics in Germany and a postdoc at Duke University in North Carolina. His lab aims to understand the structural basis of G-protein coupled receptors, a class of proteins that make ready drug targets.

“I felt if we succeeded ​in establishing membrane protein structural biology in India, it would put the entire country on the international map. But I if did it from the States or from Europe I would be one of many,” he said.

For Arun’s work in particular, access to the equipment he needs — a beamline — has been challenging. In the US or Europe, he could drive or take a short flight to a high-powered synchrotron. In India, there is one synchrotron, but it is not powerful enough for his experiments to understand the structures of notoriously difficult membrane proteins.

Thankfully for him, the administrative aspects of IIT Kanpur are more streamlined than average, but the extra time needed to order and receive reagents needs to be factored into everything -- from planning experiments to responding to reviewers’ comments on a manuscript. “You hit the Eureka! moment. You discover something. And then you have to wait,” he said.

Compared to peers at Harvard or MIT who started at the same time as he joined IIT Kanpur, Arun says, he has not been as productive as them. But “if things keep going in the right direction, in terms of funding and infrastructure development, I want to stay here, even if my productivity suffers a little bit,” he said. “I want to help develop this ecosystem in the Indian context.” 

Mumtaz says researchers seem to value and evaluate their own productivity in different ways. For the many scientists who return for family reasons, their lower scientific output might not be the foremost concern, leading them to evaluate their productivity as higher than those who came primarily to expand their career.

Supporting researchers

Savita Ayyar runs the extramural funding office at NCBS and hopes that research management gains wider acceptance in India.
Several institutes and universities across India are taking steps to build infrastructure and support for their scientists. Nationally, there is a growing trend of establishing research and development offices, and of taking less formal steps to support researchers.

After a PhD and postdoc at Cambridge University in the UK and a stint of working as a science programme officer at the Wellcome Trust in London, Savita Ayyar returned to found an extramural funding office at the National Center for Biological Sciences in Bangalore (NCBS) in 2010. Her office now supports every part of the grants process, and also conducts workshops on grant and application writing, career development for students and postdocs who want to pursue science outside academia.

IIT Delhi has begun hiring administrative staff to manage five or six larger grants. It has also recently launched an online platform that allows researchers to coordinate times to share already established specialised equipment and common lab space.

Mumtaz hopes that the findings of this study will inform funders, policy makers, and individual institutions about how they can make sure that returning scientists focus on science.