Improving research ecosystems in India

Shahid Jameel* & Savita Ayyar**

doi:10.1038/nindia.2019.17 Published online 14 February 2019

To compete, Indian institutions must create enabling environments for world-class research.

© S. Priyadarshini

When Arun Shukla returned as an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur, he was sceptical about staying competitive. Having trained with Nobel Laureates for his PhD and postdoctoral work in Germany and the United States, Arun worried about infrastructure, funding, and opportunities to collaborate internationally. Through the years, his worries have been echoed by many researchers returning to India after training overseas.

India has invested significantly in building its science and innovation base: supporting researchers at various career stages, creating new institutions and governance systems, offering interdisciplinary research opportunities, initiating large-scale infrastructure projects, and developing high-end research facilities.

Today, India publishes the world’s sixth largest number of peer-reviewed research papers; these numbers have grown at an annual rate of 14% compared to a global average of 4%. Though still under 1% of GDP, science funding has increased each year for more than 20 years. A National postdoctoral programme has taken shape with government funding of 2,500 postdoctoral fellowships a year. A startup ecosystem is putting down roots, and academia is building links with industry.

Support for research

Despite these efforts, the question remains: does India have an enabling environment to support researchers like Arun, who are returning in growing numbers? Institutional environments are a mixed bag, with few providing mentorship, flexible funding and tenure. Most institutions are hierarchical.

A recent survey of scientists published in Nature showed vast leadership gaps with highly variable mentorship, training and institutional support. An anonymous survey of Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance Fellows tried to assess the situation in India. Of the 60 respondents, only about 50 per cent received formal or informal mentorship and career development support at their institutions. Significantly, 15 per cent also reported research misconduct cases in their labs, which were addressed through internal mechanisms. The survey also revealed inadequate support for academic leadership (40 per cent), lab management (35 per cent), data management (15 per cent), research misconduct (58 per cent) and technology transfer (53 per cent). Though all institutions in India provide some support for financial management of extramural projects, only 18 per cent respondents said their institution has a research development office.

To compete, Indian institutions must create enabling environments for world-class research. This would involve processes for the recruitment and assessment of competent and motivated faculty, early-career researchers and support staff; setting up accessible and affordable infrastructure; and developing research management capacity and collaborations that add value. In such endeavours, other stakeholders such as funding agencies also need to come forward to build partnerships with institutions. Hiring the right people, who fit the institutional culture and vision, and to mentor, nurture and support them with adequate resources, is critical. 

However, most Indian institutions standardise input with varying output instead of the other way around. The quality of periodic assessments is variable, often without a performance-driven system of reward or criticism, which breeds complacency, except where overcome by individual ambition and brilliance. For instance, the India Alliance tries to look hard for the right people, fund them flexibly and generously, and assess them critically. Fellows embrace this and make a positive impact by being more critical of their own work, as well as that of others when they serve on review committees.

Diversity in science

Ensuring diversity encourages big-picture thinking and introduces different ways of achieving excellence. In India while 50 per cent or more science undergraduates, postgraduates and PhD students are women, only about 15 per cent occupy faculty positions in science departments. Intervention is needed to keep women competitive as they manage careers and family. India Alliance gives due importance to career breaks, including maternity leave. Fellows are also given a one-year full cost extension of fellowship following a maternity leave. Institutional measures, such as increasing recruitment age, time to tenure, and daycare facilities are needed to make a level playing field.

Indian researchers need to be sensitised about new roles that help balance the time they spend on research and administration.

© S. Priyadarshini

Formal institutional mechanisms are needed to support research management and academic leadership. Expecting a researcher to be entirely self managing is often detrimental. Indian researchers need to be sensitised about new roles that help balance the time they spend on research and administration. Research management includes a set of activities conducted at the boundaries of research and is now essential for optimal output. These include support to identify funding opportunities, managing programmes, public engagement, impact analysis, and ethics. Research management requires blended skills, spanning academic, creative and administrative functions. Few institutions in India have structured management support.

To create awareness about research management, the recently launched the India Research Management Initiative (IRMI) aims to help institutions share ideas, identify gaps, and find sustainable solutions. More than 30 institutions have formally registered with IRMI and several others have reached out. Workshops have highlighted issues with sustainability of careers in research management and the challenges of building formal networks and training, given the relative scarcity of institutional research offices. This is being followed up with ways to connect research managers locally via online working groups, courses and networking events. An international networking opportunity for research managers is showing best global practices.

Most science is technology intensive, making it difficult for an individual or institution to master or afford everything, underpinning the importance of cutting-edge core facilities, technical support and collaborations. Funders must establish such facilities and institutions require practices that encourage their use. Research offices can support with raising and managing funds for shared facilities.

The late management expert, Peter Drucker, once said: “Three things happen naturally in organizations: friction, confusion and underperformance. Everything else requires leadership”. Good leadership demands a vision, awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses, and the ability to form partnerships and manage conflicts to achieve that vision. This requires marshalling resources, whether facilities, funds or people. These skills do not come naturally to researchers, who take on administrative responsibilities in addition to their research, often without training.

Indian science needs to connect better with global efforts to address problems unique to India, but relevant in the global context, and to ensure that research capacity is built in a sustainable manner. A robust ecosystem is needed for India to fully participate in global science, through visionary leadership, enabling practices, global visibility, mobility and support for building partnerships, the ability to gain and manage funding, and public engagement.

(*CEO, India Alliance. **Consultant, Jaquaranda Tree, Bengaluru.)

[Nature India Custom Edition: Decade of Discovery]