Policy Feature

Return of the Indian brains

Subhra Priyadarshini

doi:10.1038/nindia.2014.139 Published online 21 October 2014

It’s a drizzly October morning in Boston and a group of young Indian scientists is queuing up to register for a leadership workshop at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). These postdocs and research associates have been handpicked for the workshop from laboratories across the US. The premise: young Indian scientists have great innovative minds but when it comes to entrepreneurship or administration, they would do well to learn a few tricks.

“Scientists don’t just need to do innovation in science, they also need to innovate in management skills – and that’s what we lack in India,” notes Ajikumar Parayil, an Indian scientist at MIT and one of the brains behind the workshop, which is part of the annual Young Investigator’s Meet (YIM) Boston. Parayil, who co-founded three research backed companies (one from his research at MIT and others with MIT collaborators), says PhD is just a training phase, the real professional life of a scientist begins after that. “A lot of social engineering needs to be done to make our scientists more professional, more forward thinking.”

Parayil must know, having travelled some distance from a village school in south India to a brief stint in Singapore and then to MIT. “I finally evolved at MIT – the environment allowed me to explore my potential and realise that I too could become an entrepreneur,” he says.

Making ‘scientopreneurs’

A leadership workshop for young scientists.

© S. Priyadarshini

At the leadership workshop, 40 young scientists are being given practical tips on how to become team players and lead their team from within. Rajarshi Choudhury, a research associate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, attending the workshop, says these soft skills are much needed.

“A very good advice that I am taking back from the workshop is: Deliver what you promise. Always under-promise and over-deliver.” Through case studies, the young scientists are also learning communication skills and getting specific advice to succeed in the Indian scenario. 

Introducing professionalism at an early stage in a scientist’s life helps him/her become a better professional, Parayil says. “At YIM, the grand scheme is to pick these Indian postdocs coming to the US and help them get back to Indian companies and institutes armed with these skills,” he says.

Backed by an NGO, YIM Boston is an annual congregation that gives about 60 Indian investigators working in US labs an opportunity to directly mingle with the who’s who of India’s science policy makers, directors of premier Indian institutes and mentors from Boston’s premier learning centres Harvard University and MIT. 

The annual event is quietly making a mark on the Indian science scene, being recognised by India’s Department of Science as one of the initiatives getting scientists settled in various parts of the world back to India. 

Brain drain to brain gain

Ajikumar Parayil

© S. Priyadarshini

The mentors of YIM Boston – Parayil, Praveen Vemula of Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine (inStem), NCBS, Bangalore and Jyotsna Dhawan of Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad – have a broad road map laid out. 

“Since 2009, YIM has helped about 80 young scientists get back to India with new, independent careers. The goal is to have around 300 people in the next 5 years and about a thousand scientists in the next 15-20 years back in India. These thousand people could influence the next generation of scientists to think differently,” Parayil says. 

The social entrepreneurial programme facilitates this transition of young talent to India, Vemula says. "Indian science is going to make a huge impact on the world science, and that is possible only by nurturing outstanding scientists to become leaders in their field. YIM wants to contribute to this endeavour,” he says.

The organisation is planning an alumni meet in India next year where all the YIM-facilitated researchers can come together and network. In 2016, they plan to hold a leadership camp in India to help young scientists tackle administrative roadblocks that they might be facing at work. 

Parayil says a number of organisations in India work at the primary education level, for instance, to bring children back to schools and reduce the number of dropouts. “But there’s not much effort in the higher education sector, specifically in the S&T sector. That’s where we see a gap – YIM is trying to bridge that.”

There’s tremendous amount of energy for research in India, says Jyotsna Dhawan. The need, however, is for better infrastructure and a merit-based institutional structure, she says. 

Challenges, opportunities for comeback scientists

A young investigator presents his scientific findings at YIM Boston.

© S. Priyadarshini

Rajarshi Choudhury, like most of the young scientists at the meet, is exploring opportunities to come back home and work in an Indian lab. He is cautiously optimistic though. “Several young investigators are concerned about the lack of a quality postdoc culture in India. In the absence of such a dedicated scientific driving force, it is impossible to become a top notch player in the field.”

Another limiting factor for his ilk is the absence of significant start-up funds. “I personally believe that ample funds to start a modern biology lab are still lacking in India,” he says. 

Shahid Jameel, CEO of Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance, agrees. India’s best and brightest expats living in the US and Europe are being enticed back home with the promise of world-class research infrastructure and solid funding by the Indian government. There are new opportunities with increased funding and expanding institutions. “However, problems such as non-competitive salaries, inability to attract and retain young scientists and a premium on foreign labels do exist”, he concedes.

Jameel is a strong critic of India's archaic university curricula, poor training in communication and technical writing skills as well as lack of support for entrepreneurship. There’s also need for reforms in the extramural grants systems and the top-heavy approach of science administration that does not allow youngsters to blossom, he feels. “People are most important, not just new institutions, which are mere monuments if not functional.”

Despite the oft quoted challenges of bureaucracy and poor infrastructure, there are possibilities in doing science in India, according to Shiladitya Sengupta, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Womens Hospital. “I have set up three laboratories in India with close to 110 scientists working in them and raised 110 crores of rupees in the last 10 years. Our team is publishing in all the top journals. It is possible to raise money from private sources and not just look at government grants. It is possible to change the rules of the game,” he says.

Sandhya Koushika, this year's YIM-Young Scientist awardee from Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) Mumbai, returned to pursue science in India from the US some years back. She says starting up a lab in any part of the world has its challenges. “But overall the atmosphere and opportunities to do science in India are good. It is up to the scientist how he/she uses these opportunities to excel.” Institutional support, she says, comes in many ways not just via start-up funds. “It comes through administrative support, academic support, good colleagues, assistance in helping spousal placement and mentoring.”  

On the issue of a paucity of experienced post-docs in Indian labs, Anurag Agarwal, a Principal Scientist at the CSIR Institute of Genomics & Integrative Biology and Adjunct Associate Professor at Baylor College of Medicine, says running labs with mostly doctoral researchers is a limiting factor. “However, tapping the exploratory spirit of doctoral students is quite rewarding. Also, it is quite possible to get postdocs in better known institutions,” he says.  

Inder Verma from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, US says though structural changes will take time to implement, India needs to urgently change the way science is administered. “Also, we need to bring back much more of our people from the US to India if we need to succeed, at least in the biological sciences,” he says. “India is not competitive in the biological sciences arena globally and that certainly needs to change.” 

Correcting historical wrongs

Speaking at YIM 2014, Harvard University historian Sugata Bose said the glorious past of Indian science could still be revived if the policy makers took lessons from history. “Excessive state control of science and education is stifling. Also much has gone wrong in planning for Indian science.” Bose was critical of the way Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi disbanded the Planning Commission “in one sentence in an Independence Day speech” calling it a decision “not informed by history.”

Bose says India needs to bolster its existing academic infrastructure to allow scientists and academicians to excel in her traditionally-strong university system.

World class universities can be set up in India only with outstanding people, says Krishna N. Ganesh, Director of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune. "However, alongside that come research excellence, quality education, sustainable funding, periodic academic peer review and a robust, international group of students and faculty," he adds.

One of the advisors of YIM is the former Director General of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Raghunath Anant Mashelkar, a strong advocate of the back-to-roots movement for Indian scientists. "This initiative is catalyzing a radical movement of brain drain to brain gain for India. After all, it is by getting the best of Indian minds back to India that we can create the new India of our dreams," he says.