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National Centre for Biological Sciences old building view

National Centre for Biological Sciences old building view

Credit: Rohit Suratekar, Wikimedia Commons

Foreign Scientists in India Take Good With Bad

"Be careful," Axel Brockmann tells the visitor as he unlocks the door to the outdoor honeybee enclosure on the sprawling campus of the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore. One cabin belongs to Apis dorsata; another, to the European-African honeybee species A. mellifera. "Stand back and watch," he says as he inches closer. Two or three bees careen around, buzzing. Bees are not aggressive, Brockmann says, but they protect their colony, and everyone who comes close is a potential threat.

Brockmann, who is a German national, joined the NCBS 1.5 years ago. He holds a reader position, roughly the equivalent of an assistant professor in the U.S. system. Brockmann is on a 5-year contract as an independent investigator, which Pradip Pyne, head of administration and finance at the NCBS, explains is "subject to review for renewal." Brockmann is paid by the NCBS's—a part of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, (TIFR)—Young Investigator Programme. His in-house funding "is sufficient for my research during the period." Like the honeybees he studies, he seems to have found peace and stability in the midst of intense activity.

Since the cost of living in India is cheaper, we can have a comfortable life here, but once you go back to the U.S. or Europe, it's difficult.

—Axel Brockmann
Axel Brockmann

Axel Brockmann

Courtesy of Axel Brockmann

Thanks to the Indian government's push for internationalization and India's transition from an inward-gazing scientific culture to one increasingly characterized by external engagement, science institutes and universities in India are hosting foreign scientists in stable, long-term posts more frequently than ever before. Still, while it is exciting to see the rapid advance in Indian science, the emergence of world-class institutions, and the increase in collaborations and external engagement, Aseem Ansari, a professor of genomics and biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and the founder and director of the Khorana and S.N. Bose Scholars exchange programs, reckons "it will take another decade to remodel national research infrastructure and create scientific ecosystems that are comparable to what one has access to at most R1 research institutions in the U.S."

Expansion and engagement

Brockmann and his students explore the neural basis and evolution of honeybee dance communication. Describing himself as a "neuro-ethologist," Brockmann hopes that the comparative studies on three species native to India—A. cerana, A. dorsata, and A. florea—will help him understand the evolution of dance communication and identify the changes in the brain that accompanied the changes in behavior. "It's a good time to start this research, as the genomes of the three species are currently being sequenced," he says. It's also a good place: Out of about nine species of honeybees in the world, all but one are native to Asia, most to tropical Asia. "India, this is where honeybee research should be done," he says.

One of the best reasons for working in India is the country's compelling subject-area advantages—in, for example, biodiversity, natural products, infectious diseases, indigenous population genetics, genomics, resource management, and aspects of the social and political sciences unique to India. Scientists working in those fields stand to benefit from access to India's natural and human resources.

"I can also imagine synergy and growth in areas where computation interfaces with various fields that are descriptive or are overwhelmed with the onslaught of big data," Ansari says. "The merging of India's strengths in IT with enormous wealth of world wide public data in genomics, medicine, biology, epidemiology and social sciences might provide a ripe venue for new modes of engagement."

Steven Spallone

Steven Spallone

Courtesy of Steven Spallone

Before coming to India, Brockmann held a postdoctoral position at the Biocenter of the University of Würzburg in the group of Professor Bert Hölldobler; he also held a postdoctoral position at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in the group of Professor Gene E. Robinson. The recession in the United States led him to "look at other places in the world," he says. India was an obvious choice because of his research area, and because he had spent some time there as a postdoc, he was familiar with the culture. He doesn't miss doing research in the United States or Europe, he says, because the NCBS provides great facilities and equipment.

Mathematician Steven Spallone, who became an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune, in July 2012, was "born in the mountains of Pennsylvania and grew up in the forests of New Jersey, near Philadelphia." He earned his Ph.D. in mathematics—number theory—from the University of Chicago. He worked for a year at the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in Germany; then he did a postdoc at Purdue University and another at the University of Oklahoma.

Spallone came to India, he says, because he was offered a good job there. His "good friend," A. Raghuram, an Indian national who was returning to India to head the mathematics department at IISER, Pune, convinced him to apply for a position there as an associate professor of mathematics. As often happens in India, it took some time for his appointment to be finalized; while he waited, he worked as a visiting scientist at TIFR, Mumbai.

Productive collaborations

John Mercer and Colleen Silan Mercer, a husband-and-wife scientific team from the United States, are in the 3rd year of their stay at the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine (inStem) at the NCBS in Bangalore. The Mercers have appointments at the McLaughlin Research Institute for Biomedical Sciences in the United States, where John has worked for 18 years and Colleen has worked for 16.

John was on sabbatical in the Stanford University lab of James Spudich, a winner of the 2012 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, when Spudich switched his focus to inherited cardiomyopathies. Spudich was considering opening a lab at inStem. "I walked into his office and asked if he needed someone on the ground in Bangalore," John says. With collaborators from India, Japan, and the United States, the inStem lab is exploring "biochemistry, biophysics, humanized mouse models, and single-cell models." The work is supported by India's Department of Biotechnology and the Wadhwani Foundation, which was founded by an U.S.-based philanthropist from India.

John A. Mercer and Colleen Silan Mercer

John A. Mercer and Colleen Silan Mercer

Courtesy of John Mercer

With the move to India, Colleen left the lab bench so that she could coordinate the development of facilities at inStem; this included new laboratory space and an animal facility housing mice, rats, fish, and frogs. "It's invigorating to work at an institution that is undergoing such rapid growth," she says. "The quality of the students and research here is world-class."

The Mercers' salaries—which are paid in U.S. dollars through the McLaughlin Institute—are "significantly lower than my salary when I was working in the U.S.," John says. "However, the cost of living is much lower here."

John finds India overwhelming, in ways both good and bad. "The most wonderful thing is that there are so many differences that my perception of the passing time, which typically increases exponentially with age, has reversed and slowed to a crawl," he says.

Drawbacks and downsides

Is India a realistic—even attractive—option for foreign scientists? As previous articles in this series have noted, the country doesn't yet have a science ecosystem as strong as those in the West. But that ecosystem is vigorous and expanding as India builds new labs, pumps in money, introduces new fellowships, and hires scientists from India and abroad on a rolling basis, throughout the year. Spallone, who has hired a tutor to help him learn Hindi, recommends the country to any foreign national "with a strong stomach" who is "adventurous and … fits into a research group here." Just "make sure that you have a lot of flexibility going in," John says. Colleen encourages scientists considering work in India "to talk to others who have successfully done so."

For those accustomed to the West, living and working in India can be hard, for many reasons. Some Western scientists have come to India, tried it, and left, disillusioned. First are the work-related problems: delays in obtaining common reagents for experiments, and in the maintenance of precision instruments. The hierarchy at some institutes can be off-putting. Then there is "the chaos, the uncertainty of nonresident status … and the distance from family and friends," Spallone says. Teeming crowds in general, and poverty in particular, can make living in India a challenge for scientists accustomed to the West.

One especially poignant issue for foreign scientists, especially those considering a long-term move, is a government policy that prevents foreign nationals from being employed in permanent positions at government institutes, which include India's best scientific facilities. Even positions like Brockmann's, which closely resembles a Western tenure-track appointment, is subject to periodic renewal.

Work visas, too, must be renewed—yearly. "I couldn't go home past this summer because I had to wait for a visa extension to get processed," Spallone says. "There is a nasty rule for the employment visa that you need to make $25,000 per year." Most academic salaries in India are smaller than that, and currency fluctuations—Indian inflation in particular—can make it hard to make that case year after year. As a result, scientists from abroad "have trouble extending our visas, and our careers are in jeopardy. This is an awful rule, and at the very least there should be exception made for academics."

Perhaps the most daunting concern of Westerner's working in India is the prospect of retirement, or returning to the West after a long stay in India. "Since the cost of living in India is cheaper, we can have a comfortable life here, but once you go back to the U.S. or Europe, it's difficult," Brockmann says. "It would be difficult to save up enough to retire in an expensive country," adds Spallone. Winning research grants back home is also challenging after a long time away, sources say.

"If indeed funding gets tighter in the U.S., India might be more attractive, but it would be a great leap for the typical American postdoc to move to India," observes Ronald Vale of the University of California, San Francisco who spent a 9-month sabbatical at the NCBS in 2007-08 and co-organized the Young Investigator Meeting, now in its 6th year. Living and working conditions are challenging, retirement prospects are daunting, and at the best institutes, competition for positions can be intense. "At the competitive research institutes in India, [Westerners are] competing with Indians who want to return and have excellent scientific records," Vale says.