Friday, April 08, 2011

Ready to Return?

In his editorial [pdf] in the latest Current Science, Prof. P. Balaram bestows on this Rutgers study an academic respectability it just doesn't deserve (for my comment on that study, see this post).

In addition to demolishing that study's methodology and findings, Balaram makes several other points [with bold emphasis added by me]:

  1. Where did faculty come from when India embarked on the first phase of expansion of scientific and technical institutions in the 1950s and 1960s? A very large number of new recruits in those days were educated in the West, although ironically some of the very best were homegrown. ... Unfortunately, not every institution that sparkled with promise in the first two decades after independence has been able to sustain the enthusiasm and optimism of that era. How will we address the problem of faculty shortages today? The consensus, one that leaves me mildly uneasy, is that we must make vigorous attempts to entice Indian students and academics who are currently overseas, primarily in the United States, to return and build teaching and research careers in India.

  2. There has been an organized hunt [by China] for high profile researchers ... [by offering them] benefits and inducements that might even attract the attention of the best of Western scientists. ... The price tag for winners of ‘prestigious international prizes – including the Nobel prize’ is stated to be ‘150 million yuan ($23 million). ... An earlier program (Qianren Jihua) for ‘recruitment ... of global experts’ launched in 2008 had a goal of hiring ‘up to 2000 experts from abroad over 5 to 10 years’. The program has already notched up 1143 recruitments but the scheme seems to be foundering’. ... In describing Chinese initiatives as ‘a massive waste of resources’ one observer notes ‘that it is better to invest in a whole new generation of talent than to buy reputation’. Mu-Ming Poo, a prominent neuroscientist in Shanghai, is reported to have characterized the Qianren Jihua program as ‘a huge disaster’, arguing that China’s current policy tells ‘the best and brightest to spend most of their productive years abroad’. ... The Chinese experience may be worth studying and there may be much to learn, even as Indian agencies formulate new schemes ...

  3. A growing number of women with Ph D degrees are sometimes unable to spend extended postdoctoral periods overseas. Should there not be a mechanism which allows us to tap this resource and support their research efforts? Strangely, while schemes for attracting overseas talent are enthusiastically administered in the funding agencies, initiatives that promote local talent are invariably run with limited interest and efficiency. Looking outward may be attractive and fashionable. Looking inward may be desirable and essential.

Prof. Balaram's editorial is all suitably academic and understated (e.g., "may be desirable and essential"), but the strength of the underlying sentiments comes through loud and clear.

It's good to see him take a stand.


  1. iitmsriram said...

    "Should there not be a mechanism which allows us to tap this resource and support their research efforts?"

    IITM has a special program for women (short term post doc). Presumably, when times are more favourable, they would go for the regular post doc positions.

  2. Vikram said...

    The argument for 'enticing' Indian PhD students back to Indian academia was always going to be weak, simply because of their small numbers. But being a PhD student who aspires to come back and contribute to Indian academia (provided I am adjudged to have the caliber of course) I have a couple of concerns which I hope are addressed.

    One, I perceive the research ecosystem within India to be under developed. India has some great institutions like the IISc, IITs and hopefully in the future the IISERs as well. However they seem to be connected more to non-Indian universities than the Indian ones. Such a dense concentration of great researchers in a small number of institutions leads to a dearth of connections with the broader Indian academia.

    As an illustration, it appears that most faculty from the IISc would publish only in international journals/conferences and perhaps collaborate more with foreign universities. This is very different from the situation in the US for example, where the elite research schools do have strong connections to lesser known schools. Although this might benefit IISc, it severely damages the overall research ecosystem in India.

    The second reason for worry, especially for an interdisciplinary researcher like me is the small and highly specialized nature of top Indian instis. This would make it very difficult for me to grow as a faculty member and switch fields as scientific trends change. Here at my university, there are profs in National Academies who are now working in different areas from where they became known for. There are structural mechanics/elasticity theory heavyweights now doing computational biology, for example. For my students too, the IITs and IISc would offer a highly restrictive research and learning environment. For example, suppose my computational science PhD student is really interested in financial mathematics and wants to take an economics course. Where does he/she go if I am at an IIT/IISc ?

    Please excuse my verbosity, but this question is critical to my future and I wanted to express my views completely.

  3. iitmsriram said...


    I think you are slightly mis-reading the situation. Connections with "broader Indian academia" usually fails to happen because there is nothing to connect to at the other end. Except for the IIXs and a handful of universities (Delhi, Hyderabad etc) there is almost no research culture. Majority of faculty members in NITs do not hold PhDs. The size of the entire eco system is small and this is what poses difficulties with inter-disciplinary work or discipline shifting.

  4. Vikram said...

    iitmsriram, why is there nothing to connect to at the other end ? Is it government policy ? Or just a dearth of good researchers ?

    In either case, I think India will find it very difficult to attract top researchers back home. I am not saying that it will necessarily prevent India from developing a good research ecosystem, but the signs right now dont look good.

  5. Ungrateful Alive said...

    Vikram, to put it quite simply, you cannot get from blogs answers to your questions that are visceral enough for you to understand academic life for a world-class researcher in India. You have to get into the element, even if that results in hastily retracting the scalded toe from the water. You are correct, there is very little to attract anyone to India who has an option to a secure career in almost any other country outside sub-Saharan Africa. In my experience, Indian academics who could have been elsewhere remain in India for one overriding reason alone: they cannot accept emigration as a standard middle-class narrative. There are big prices to pay for that lack of acceptance. Forget about careers that crash or never take off. Think about the poison in the air, water and food, or the crowded streets and complete destruction of nature and grace in dirty concrete metropolitan India (even inside IIX campuses now, as they burst at the seams from enlarged class sizes) and the irreparably broken public services. Researchers don't live by research alone. Certainly not their families. And outside a small group of colleagues, it is not as if anyone will understand or respect why you are back and soldiering on under overwhelming odds while vastly inferior people are minting cash in MNCs and as managers. If you are not married but want to get married at some point, you should do it before you return to India to become an IIX prof. I am only mildly joking.

  6. Vikram said...

    Thanks Webminer.

  7. Anonymous said...

    Think about the poison in the air, water and food, or the crowded streets and complete destruction of nature and grace in dirty concrete metropolitan India [...] and the irreparably broken public services.

    Anyone who grew up in India is familiar with all that.

    Vikram, WebMiner is right. You cannot get any concrete answers from blog comments.

    My explanation of the collaboration issue: Yes, one could try and work with other universities in the country, and nurture them, or whatever. However, when it comes to one's promotion, what counts is the research one does, and not outreach activities. For example, take a look at the application form for promotion at IISc (scroll down to the bottom).

    It specifically asks you to list visits "abroad" but doesn't say anything about visits within the country.

    Given all this, what do you expect individual faculty members to do?

  8. Ungrateful Alive said...

    Vikram, all that being said, the situation has improved a lot. If you were in the USA in 1985, statistically, you would not give returning to India a second thought. Now, many people actually do flourish in India, provided they plan their strategy very extensively. So it is possible to succeed, but it is much harder work than in advanced societies, make no mistake.

  9. anon said...

    I find that many comments on the web and blogs tend to be overly negative and pessimistic about returning to India. For me visiting many institutes in India, giving talks and interacting with faculty there gave a much better and realistic picture of what India has to offer. I strongly suggest doing so if you are serious about returning to India.