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Passage From India: Research, Respect, and Return

When I completed my master?s degree in zoology in 1990 in India, I decided I wanted to be a research scientist, for which I needed a Ph.D. A graduate of a master?s program can take a national standardized exam to qualify for a Council of Scientific and Industrial Research University Grants Commission Junior Research Fellowship, or an Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) Junior Research Fellowship. In India, most research institutes are government supported, either at the national or state level, but they have small budget allocations for graduate students. More and more, the norm is to accept only students who are supported by a fellowship. I qualified for an ICMR fellowship, which I used to study for my Ph.D. at the Tuberculosis Research Centre, located in my hometown of Madras (Chennai).


Doing science in India is a mixed bag. On one hand, Indian society has, for centuries, been feudal and averse to change. On the other hand, scientific institutes are well established and long-standing, there is a strong and stable education system, teaching is an honored profession, and teachers are revered. This paradox creates levels of bureaucracy inconceivable to a Western scientist. The tensions between the different groups play out as a power struggle between permanent staff (administrative, technical, and blue-collar) and scientific staff. The administrators are typically entrenched in their positions and powerful. The scientists heading the institutes have to make work-place decisions, keeping in mind that they should not hurt the sentiments of one permanent group or another.

Both sides of this conundrum were part of my experience. On the one hand, I had a wonderful mentor and research environment. It was a rich and rewarding workplace for a novice, surrounded by people who were experts in disparate aspects of tuberculosis research including clinical trials, epidemiology, and immunopathology. On the other hand, there were infrastructure problems. We had to wait 5 to 6 months for reagent orders to percolate through the institutional channels and then through customs. Even though the TRC was more open-minded and liberal than most institutes in India, the bureaucratic behemoth made its presence felt in many seemingly ludicrous ways. Institute photocopiers were to be used only for "official" (administrative) work. This meant that if one wanted photocopies of journal articles from the library, one had to make them at one?s own expense. The library staff required us to make an appointment several days in advance to access Medline CD-ROMs. There were many other infrastructure and bureaucratic problems, and I learned that the kindness and generosity of a few individuals could make a great difference.


Of the younger generation of Indian bioscientists, a good number seek postdoc positions overseas, some of them seeking excellence and others believing that this will help jump-start their careers. Most students seek their mentors? help in choosing a postdoc position and so they end up working in a lab where their Ph.D. mentor has contacts. I chose a more unconventional path and simply drew up a list of eight scientists (working in almost every continent) whose ideas I found the most interesting, and wrote to all of them. The response was typical of what many Ph.D. students from developing countries might receive. Three of the people to whom I had written replied saying they didn?t have the funds to support me, and four did not reply at all. This was my rude awakening to the fact that Indian biology majors were not favorably perceived abroad.

The first person who replied to me (my current mentor), worked at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Over the next 2 years she tested me, asking for written project ideas, comments on her papers, etc. During the "time of testing,? my Indian mentor was a pillar of support and somehow managed to keep me on a fellowship. I would not have been able to pursue my dream of coming to the U.S. to do a postdoc without his steadfast support. I have been at NIH now for 5 years, supported by a Fogarty International Center (FIC) fellowship.

About 18 months ago, FIC deputy director Sharon Hrynkow initiated a series of informal meetings with postdocs from developing countries. There are several hundred international postdocs on the NIH campus, but the meetings have drawn only a very small proportion of this population. India is not the only country with a feudal system, and it is not easy for people from such cultures to question the prevailing system. Even so, the picture emerged that international postdocs were getting useful and focused scientific training, but that they were unaware of major U.S. investments in research institutions in their home countries, knew little about other funding opportunities, and were getting no experience in grant-writing.

As a result, FIC has set up a Listserv to facilitate communication among developing country postdocs. With the help of FIC program officers responsible for overseeing projects in different geographic regions of the world, we are setting up a network to gather and disseminate information on job and grant opportunities in our home countries, and to communicate with former FIC fellows to facilitate the transition home of current and future FIC fellows.


To provide postdocs from developing countries with an incentive to go back home upon completion of their training, FIC has launched the Global Health Research Initiative Program (GRIP) for New Foreign Investigators. GRIP provides up to $50,000 per year toward salary and research costs, for up to 5 years, to Visiting Fellows on their return home to help launch independent research careers. Like an R01 grant, these awards are highly competitive and undergo peer review through the normal NIH process. These grants can be an immense help to a young investigator, providing funds to start a research program and time to learn to navigate the Indian system, develop contacts, and eventually write grants to the Department of Science and Technology (DST), the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), and other government agencies.

Currently, candidates can only apply for the GRIP grant if they have a firm job offer from their home country. The GRIP award would be more useful for Indian postdocs if it were similar to other NIH Career Development Awards such as the K22, which allow U.S. citizens and permanent residents up to 12 months to find a job in a suitable institution after the award is promised. It remains to be seen how much the GRIP award will help in reversing the Indian ?brain drain.? It has the potential to greatly benefit the potential returnees, giving them leverage in their job search and freeing them somewhat from the prevailing (and stifling) feudal system back home.

In the past 5 years, there have been several exciting developments in Indian science whose potential benefits are as yet unclear. The Internet boom in India has made gaining access to current scientific literature and information easier (although access to older material is still difficult). Scientists are now more accountable to the public, and even scientists in government research institutes are promoted based on their ability to get grants. As a result, the clout of the granting bodies such as DST, DBT, and DAE has greatly increased. Although these changes were conceived with the idea of making Indian science more rigorous, the hoped-for changes have not come about rapidly because the engrained social attitudes have not changed.

At the same time, there is a glimmer of hope in the private sector. Several companies whose core production lines are chemicals, pharmaceuticals, or petrochemicals have vastly expanded their research and development budgets. This has resulted in industry laboratories dedicated to drug discovery or human genome research. Time will tell if these laboratories are sustainable, but they currently offer attractive career options to Indian scientists. International bodies like the WHO/TDR and UNESCO who preferentially support research projects in developing countries are also a good source of funding for ambitious Indian scientists.

The Indian education system is producing record numbers of graduates with advanced science degrees, but the current research environment in India cannot effectively tap their potential. There are not enough jobs, and many of those that do exist, being junior level jobs in the feudal system, are not satisfying to young researchers who have tasted the freedom of creativity. Many leave again after a few years of struggle. There is a real need for change. Together, GRIP grants, improvements in government-sponsored science, and new opportunities in industry are making more of India's young scientists willing to try to come back home.