Foreigners in the pursuit of science in India

At the 101st Indian Science Congress this month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced grand plans to bring back leading Indian scientists working outside the country. Nature India analyses a parallel new trend — that of foreign scientists trickling in to work in Indian labs.

G.B.S.N.P. Varma

doi:10.1038/nindia.2014.16 Published online 10 February 2014

German forest scientist Joachim Michael Schmerbeck came to India to study forest fires, more precisely, the social drivers and consequences of such fires. "These aspects of forest fires are hardly studied in India," Schmerbeck, an assistant professor at TERI University (TU) in New Delhi says.

German scientist Joachim Schmerbeck is looking for opportunities in south India.

So after a Ph.D from the Technical University of Munich, a postdoctoral stint at the University of Freiburg and some years as a freelancer in natural resource management, he joined TU in 2009 under the Lektoren programme of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). "There are about 470 people in this programme from all over the world, mostly teaching German, some covering subjects like law and mathematics. But there is one for ecology and that is me," he says.

He finds TU's faculty and infrastructure quite competent. Schmerbeck's assignment will end within a year and he is looking for job opportunities in south India as well as in Europe.

With the Indian government encouraging induction of foreign scientists in elite institutions, there has been a shift in perception of India as a viable research hub. The move is expected to improve not just the quality of science in India but make Indian science internationally visible. Elite institutions in India are offering fellowships and short-term assignments to foreign scientists on foreign-funded collaborative projects.

India has bilateral programmes with over a dozen countries in science and technology cooperation. These programmes allow scientists from those countries to visit and work in India on fixed time-bound assignments. The projects are part funded by the foreign country and part by India on a bilateral agreement. Indian industry has more options to hire foreign nationals directly. However, numbers are hard to come by to clearly suggest a trend.

To host foreign scientists in Indian institutes and universities, India has still a long way to go. Nandula Raghuram, an associate professor of functional genomics and molecular biology at Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi says Indian science institutes can absorb foreign scientists in the order of tens per annum, but might not "touch the range of hundreds anytime soon."

Advantage India

When Swiss national Julien-Francois Gerber was finishing a fellowship at Harvard in 2012, he thought of applying to Indian institutes. He applied to TU online. "Their specific needs were not mentioned on the website and so I just wrote saying I could teach ecological economics, political ecology and human ecology," he says.

Julien-Francois Gerber from Switzerland says India offers exciting potential for intellectual growth.

Gerber wanted to come to India because "there is something exciting about the potential for intellectual growth here. Intellectual debates are often more open than in mainstream European universities". In addition, his mentors — K. William Kapp, Joan Martinez-Alier, Stephen Marglin and Rolf Steppacher — had spent a lot of time in India.

At the interview, he pointed out that TU would benefit from offering courses in heterodox ecological economics (ecological economics is different from environmental economics, which uses standard neoclassical tools) and political ecology. He was offered a 5-year contract position as an assistant professor and the process took about six months. An interesting example of international mobility, Gerber earlier graduated in biology at ETH in Zurich, did his masters and Ph.D in ecological economics in Barcelona, and had stints as visiting fellow at Harvard and Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Advanced Study, New Delhi.

India, he says, offers a fertile ground for testing "the relevance of the theoretical framework and recommendations, going out into villages and slums to find original and substantial answers."

India is also becoming a viable choice for postdocs from a number of countries.

Darius Vasco Köster, a German biophysicist was working on a Ph.D at the Curie Institute in Paris when his supervisor Pierre Nassoy suggested India for a postdoc to further his interest in other cultures. "I find India as an emerging power interesting," he says. "The number of Indian post-docs and PhD candidates in Europe is increasing, it is good to know their culture and their science system. India is also an odd option — most EU postdocs go to the US —so this is an outstanding criterion for me."

It helped that his supervisor's friend had just started a group at Raman Research Institute (RRI), Bangalore and one of Köster's colleagues at the Curie institute came from National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore. Following a seminar on his Ph.D work and interviews with a few professors, Köster started at NCBS in May 2011, and will stay until the end of 2014. "NCBS provides a fantastic research environment which can compete with many other good places in the world," he says.

His work on understanding the basic processes of the plasma membrane and its underlying matrix is similar to research being carried out at the University of California–San Francisco, University of California-Berkeley, Stanford University, University of Chicago, Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry and CEA Grenoble. Köster, the first foreign national to be funded as an NCBS postdoctoral fellow, has additional fellowships from EMBO and AXA research fund. He is upbeat about science in India. "Lots of brilliant people are working on some really tough problems, and institutions are supporting them."


Although India is trying to raise its game in the international arena, some policy issues are holding her back. Renewing visas every year is an especially annoying factor for most foreign scientists working in the country. Government rules allow foreign employees to earn within USD 25,000 annually and a research visa frees one from this rule.

There is also the problem of hierarchy. While elite R&D institutions have a professional culture (and thus no culture shocks at work place), it isn't the case with all institutes. "Most professional communities, including those of Western scientists are used to professional hierarchies. Their main problem is with feudal hierarchies, which are still rampant in India. Some people may find it difficult to adjust," says Raghuram.

Darius Köster from Germany feels red tape should not impede the speed of research.

Bureaucracy impedes the flow and speed of research, especially getting materials and reagents for experiments. "Sometimes there are problems in supply of research material, customs delays, and sample exchanges with institutes in other countries. Also, it can be hard to find skilled personnel in mechanical workshops to construct special items," Köster says. "This is a big problem because time is a big factor in life sciences." Fortunately, "compared to some other Indian institutes we hardly have these issues at NCBS."

Although India can be "hard and exasperating," and "traffic and pollution are issues of concern," Gerber says, "the phenomenon of the private car, although obviously very convenient, cannot last forever. It can only be a historical parenthesis, and will be closed again sooner or later. Other creative solutions will have to be found (like car sharing, efficient buses, bicycles)."

Especially serious is the issue of retirement. The savings here won't be sufficient for a retired life in their home countries. Some scientists say the savings won't even last for one year when they go back.

As Dipankar Nandi, professor, Department of Biochemistry at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, notes, "Will they make enough here after devoting a full career to buy a house in their home country after they retire? I think not. Therefore, it makes sense to encourage short term interactions."

While Nandi suggests that foreign researchers come and work in functional and active labs to avoid these challenges, Raghuram says, "the country has some good institutions/research groups in every field that are as good as their Western peers." His advice: take your best shot with your Indian connection and don't let any preconceived notion bother you.