After finishing his Ph.D. in neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh, Ben Martynoga wanted to do something different. Although travel appealed, wandering around aimlessly did not, and besides, he was still very engaged with his research. Then an idea struck him: Some of the research papers he had read recently and enjoyed came from a lab in Mumbai, India. Why not go there?
"India seemed perfect," he recalls. "I could gain insight into a different culture as well as valuable experience doing the work I enjoyed." At the time, Martynoga wasn't aware of any specific research schemes that would fit his needs, so he contacted Shubha Tole, the laboratory head at the Department of Biological Sciences at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, and asked for work. Tole's research was close to Martynoga's Ph.D. research, studying the genetics of brain development. Following a few rounds of e-mail table tennis and swapping ideas, they agreed on a 6-month project, and TIFR was able to arrange a visiting fellowship. The institute also put Martynoga in touch with the British Council, which provided a travel grant. He left for his visiting fellowship in March 2006.
"It was an amazing time," says Martynoga, now at the National Institute of Medical Research in London. "TIFR was very well equipped and funded, which was reassuring as I wasn't sure what to expect."
Few formal exchange opportunities, for now
Many thousands of Indian students and researchers go to the U.K. each year, but barely 100 British students and a handful of academics make the reverse journey, according to a review by the British Council in 2005. A major reason for that gap, as Martynoga learned, is that there are few formal exchange opportunities between India and the U.K., and there's a significant information gap about institutions, standards, and research policies on both sides. At least one major initiative in the U.K. aims to reverse the trend.
In September 2005, British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced the commitment of £10 million for the development of academic links between India and the U.K. The gesture marked the beginnings of the U.K.-India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI)--a belated but welcome attempt to reverse the slow erosion in academic exchange between the two countries over the past 2 decades.
"The UKIERI programme should re-invigorate U.K.-India links," says David Dye, a materials scientist at Imperial College London and the recipient of one of the first major research awards under the scheme. "India represents a large pool of well-educated, English- speaking scientific talent," and its universities are resource-rich in terms of both equipment and highly skilled people, he says.
India's scientific capabilities have been enhanced in recent years by its tremendous economic growth and the success of its diaspora abroad. Despite its status as a developing country, India's top institutions make up a comprehensive and well-funded research network rivaling those in the West. Other countries such as the United States, France, Italy, and Germany have recognised this potential and strengthened their programmes of academic cooperation. Germany now sends more than 300 graduate students a year on research exchange programmes to India, according to a spokesperson for the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), while France has a thriving autonomous collaboration with India. The Indo-French Centre for the Promotion of Advanced Research (IFCPAR) has yielded more than 1600 research papers since 1991.
The United Kingdom, in contrast, has lagged behind, largely because of U.K. government policy that over the years gave greater emphasis to development issues, such as poverty alleviation, basic education, and primary health care. But UKIERI aims to make up for lost time through an ambitious 5-year, £25 million programme that brings together 11 funding partners including government departments, the British Council, and corporate sponsors such as Shell, along with the Indian Government. Since its official launch in April 2006, the initiative has awarded 30 research awards, 26 research fellowships, 86 travel grants, 10 Ph.D. scholarships, and six collaborative programme grants.
Bringing together complementary skills
Dye and his colleagues at Imperial College London received one of the UKIERI major awards to carry out a 4-year project with Upadrasta Ramamurty and colleagues at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, and the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay, Mumbai. The collaboration will investigate shape-memory alloys, a class of "smart" materials that can take different shapes at different temperatures. The team hopes to develop high-temperature versions that could be used in gas turbines to help reduce aerospace CO2 emissions. According to Dye, the strength of the project lies in its bringing together complementary skills in micromechanical testing and fatigue from the India side, and shape-memory alloys and modeling from the U.K. scientists. This should allow for more rapid development of new alloys than the individual groups could manage alone, he says.
"Professor Ramamurty at IISc is a world leader in micromechanics and fatigue," Dye says. "It was a natural fit as we were all in touch experimentally.”
Unlike many universities in the U.K., IISc has full-time technicians to operate many vital pieces of equipment, allowing researchers at IISc to do large amounts of excellent experimental work quickly on a scale with the U.S. and much better than in the U.K. In their turn, Dye and his colleagues hope to provide their Indian colleagues with insight into a more modeling-driven and innovation-focused research community. "Like any pilot scheme, everyone is learning on this first collaboration with India," he says.
The application process was painless, if competitive, Dye recalls. Of the 103 major award proposals submitted last summer, only six were selected. The funding from UKIERI covers travel and consumables, with other bodies such as the universities, corporate sponsors, and the Indian government stepping in to fund the Ph.D. students and postdocs. Dye went to India last year for a few days while finalising their proposal and now is eager to get started on the project. The first Imperial College postdoc should be off to India later this month, and Dye will be following this summer.
Mathias Brust at the University of Liverpool--winner of a UKIERI standard award, which provides up to £150,000 over 5 years for his work in investigating the use of magnetic nanoparticles in medicine--also points out that the UKIERI initiative creates a dialogue and facilitates actual collaboration by exchanging students and research staff. "It is an exciting opportunity which is scientifically and culturally rewarding," he says. "In India, we could find significant overlap and complementarity of interests and most importantly, skill."
Tim Gore, the Director of Education at the British Council in India, is heartened by how the project has begun. "I look forward to seeing this spirit of collaboration grow between our partners in the U.K. and India as UKIERI reaches out to more centres of excellence over the coming four years," he says. "We see this as a way of opening doors to a much more strategic relationship based on mutuality."
Martynoga's fellowship in India made a lasting impression, and his work with Tole still continues. Would he go back? The answer is instant: definitely, and not just for a cup of genuine Indian chai. "I already asked the lab if they would be interested in exchanging Ph.D. students," he says. "But they asked, 'What can you do there that we can't here?' "
Amarendra Swarup is a science writer in London.
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