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Keeping Postdocs At Home In India

A vibrant postdoc culture could invigorate India's research climate, but recruiting remains difficult

by Amanda Yarnell
March 20, 2006 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 84, ISSUE 12

Credit: Photo by Amanda Yarnell
Without postdocs, graduate students like O.P. Oomen of the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, are the backbone of India's academic research culture.
Credit: Photo by Amanda Yarnell
Without postdocs, graduate students like O.P. Oomen of the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, are the backbone of India's academic research culture.


Keeping Postdocs At Home In India

For India's fresh Ph.D. graduates, the lure of a postdoctoral position abroad remains irresistible. "If there were a chance to get a good position in India without an international postdoc, I would have done it," explains Govindaraju Thimmaiah, who completed his Ph.D. in chemistry at the National Chemical Laboratory in Pune and is currently working as a postdoc at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "But I felt I had no choice."

Thimmaiah plans to return to India after his postdoc, but for most, an international postdoc remains a one-way journey. "Without a strong postdoc system in India, our best students go abroad-often for good," explains Ram A. Vishwakarma, who heads medicinal chemistry efforts at Nicholas Piramal's new R&D center in Mumbai.

The vast majority of these newly minted Ph.D.s go to labs in the West, where postdocs are the workhorses of scientific innovation. In India, "scientific knowledge is generated almost entirely by Ph.D. students," says J. B. Joshi, who directs the Mumbai University Institute of Chemical Technology (UICT). Joshi argues that an increase in the number of postdocs would go a long way toward invigorating scientific research there.

"Postdocs with different backgrounds allow faculty to move easily into new areas of research," explains organic chemist Santanu Bhattacharya of Bangalore's Indian Institute of Science (IISc), where there are just a few dozen postdocs and more than 500 Ph.D. students in the chemical and biochemical sciences. Principal investigators can introduce a new technique or approach into their labs simply by hiring a trained postdoc with the desired expertise. Without a vibrant postdoc culture, he says, Indian scientists have found it more difficult to branch out and explore new techniques and new fields.

The lack of a postdoc culture also has dealt a blow to collaborative work in the country, observes IISc theoretical chemist Eluvathingal D. Jemmis. Often, collaborations between different research groups arise when a student from one group goes on to become a postdoc in another group, he says. "Such a flow has been one-sided," going out of India.

Credit: Photo by Amanda Yarnell
Credit: Photo by Amanda Yarnell

The reasons for India's postdoc predicament are complex, Jemmis notes. The country doesn't have enough internationally visible research groups that would make attractive domestic options for postdocs. Academic and government employers, as well as many companies, insist on at least a couple of years of postdoc experience in a lab outside the country. And there's a significant financial advantage to being a postdoc abroad: Favorable exchange rates allow Indian postdocs overseas to save enough money to support their families back home or build a nest egg for when they return to India.

Some have suggested that India should use financial incentives to induce new Ph.D. grads to stay in India for postdoctoral training, just as countries like China and Singapore have done. But Jemmis notes that the political ramifications of paying postdocs more than their poorly paid faculty mentors would make it difficult for his country to use lucrative financial packages to lure postdocs back from abroad. Such programs are in the works, but "the financial pull will go away only with the strengthening of the economy," he argues.

"The only solution is to raise our standards of research in as many institutions in India as possible," Jemmis says. Joshi agrees, noting that the key is to create a vibrant scientific culture that will convince talented postdocs to stay. "If you build it, they will come," he quips.

Joshi's prediction is borne out in the success of a few well-equipped and highly interdisciplinary institutions in India-notably the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research and the National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS), both in Bangalore-in recruiting talented domestic and international postdocs.

S. Sivaram, a polymer chemist and director of the National Chemical Laboratory in Pune, concurs. "We need more established, successful academic scientists who can attract postdocs," he says.

The pervasive sentiment that landing a top position in India requires an international postdoc may prove more difficult to address. The notion that the West is the "Mecca of science is something that will be hard, if not impossible, for India-and the rest of the developing world-to chip away," says chemist C. N. R. Rao of the Nehru Centre.

Indeed, the best postdoc candidates still flock to foreign labs. "Funding is available for postdocs" in India, says chemist Uday Maitra of IISc. "There just aren't enough talented people to fill those slots."

With that in mind, IISc plans to institute a hybrid postdoc program that will give students the opportunity to stay in India while also getting some international exposure. Students will split their postdoc between a lab at IISc and one in France, serving as a bridge on a collaborative project between the two labs. The program will "help us retain talented postdocs who would otherwise simply go abroad," Maitra notes. He hopes similar programs will be launched in the future with other countries, including the U.S.

NCBS has tried a more radical tack, instituting a young investigators program aimed at helping exceptionally talented young scientists to rapidly establish themselves as independent researchers. Fresh and promising Ph.D.s are given five-year contracts and generous start-up packages to jump-start their independent careers at the center.

Even if India eventually succeeds in its retention efforts, many question whether India is capable of providing high-quality domestic job opportunities to a burgeoning postdoc population. "Twenty years ago, I would have argued that India can't absorb these people," says biochemist and IISc Director Padmanabhan Balaram. But these days, he's hopeful that that might soon change, pointing to the improved job market promised by the government's plans to open new interdisciplinary science universities and the pharmaceutical industry's rapid growth.



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