Dortmund: It is a cold, overcast April evening in Dortmund, an emerging science and technology hub in Germany, but inside a room at the Max Planck Institute, or MPI, the atmosphere, and the discussion, is heated. Gathered here are Indian researchers who make up a full fifth of the staff strength at the institute’s chemical biological laboratory, considered to be among the top five in the world. And the discussion is about their ongoing travails, and occasional triumphs, in finding their way back home.
The quest of Indian researchers to return to institutions in their homeland is common to laboratories worldwide. The equation has gotten increasingly simple over the years—the researchers want to come back; and the institutions want them, or at least the skills they come with—but still doesn’t solve itself. That’s because the Indian institutions do nothing to facilitate their return back home.
“I applied to the National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research (Niper) more than a year ago but I’ve not even received an acknowledgement, whereas Singapore National Institute of Chemistry processed my application and offered a position within two months,” said a postdoctoral fellow, who did not wish to be named as he is still keen on joining an Indian institution, as are 12 other researchers in his lab.
Niper, located at SAS Nagar, Punjab, would appear to be a hot favourite of researchers overseas. And the institute seems to prefer giving them the cold shoulder, rather than an explanation on why they are not being considered for a job.
“Niper works closely with the industry and since it’s a challenging time for drug discovery and research in India there’s lot of scope for us,” says another researcher, from GDN University in Amritsar, who has spent at least four years at MPI. Mails to the director and dean of Niper bounced back.
“If the institutions are being so slack, then it’s not right,” says Y.P. Kumar, adviser and head of international division of the department of science and technology (DST) in New Delhi. There is a dire shortage of people so each institution and university is becoming more flexible and responsive in dealing with overseas applications, he adds. Still, he concedes, the “system needs to gear up at a larger scale”.
“There is no discrimination against foreign candidates,” says Gautam R. Desiraju, professor, school of chemistry at the University of Hyderabad, who adds that despite being part of a university which has limitations in selecting people at will, all candidates who apply to the school are at least sent acknowledgements. But, it’s also not a “black and white” issue, he argues: Several researchers apply either while they are trying to get a green card (if in the US, and obtaining one means they stay back) or are checking out half a dozen other options.
“So, when a job is offered, many times these people decline, which is a drain on the resources as the selection procedure in India is quite cumbersome and takes time,” says Desiraju.
Time is what everyone wants to save, but as the discussion at MPI progresses it is evident that most researchers haven’t had a happy experience with Indian institutions.
The researchers are a representative group—from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) in Pune, Niper, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kanpur, Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT) in Hyderabad and University of Hyderabad—and not one of them has received a speedy response from any Indian institution.
“IIT Madras asks for a demand draft of Rs300 and a certificate attested by a professor, along with a hard copy by mail at the time of applying,” says a researcher from Calicut University. “This is so impractical today; IIT Mumbai at least waives off the draft for foreign applicants.”
Doing research in Indian labs is still not easy. All the young men sitting in the small conference room at MPI agree that if one has talent, “this (MPI) is the best place to do chemical biology”, notwithstanding the chilly weather. Here’s why: “You can fight and argue with your boss here; in India that’s unthinkable.”
Also, “you can procure chemicals in two days, in India it takes 30-60 days.”
And, “here, if you don’t perform you are in trouble; in India, if you perform then you are in trouble.”
The responses come quick and fast from several researchers. Two recall their days at NCL and IICT where they had to spend “half a day getting nine signatures for the purchase department” if they needed to place any order.
But, they still want to come back. Why? India offers challenging opportunities but, above all, it offers a life beyond work. “We are doing fine as researchers but we don’t have a social life, our families suffer,” is the common refrain.
It’s not only scientists but even technical graduates who now have a strong perception about India as a long-term career option. According to a 2007-2008 survey of IITians released last week by research and analytics firm Evalueserve, 35% of IITians graduating between 1964 and 2001 moved abroad, 65% remained in India; but among those graduating in 2002 and later, only 16% moved abroad and 84% remained in the country. In 2006, 90% of all graduating students chose to remain in India.
Also striking is the IITians’ response to the most promising geography 10 years from now: 72% chose India, 17% opted for the US, 5% for Europe and 2% for China.
“Coming to India is no more a choice, it’s a compulsion of sorts,” says DST’s Kumar, “but that doesn’t mean we should be complacent.” Today, research money is sufficient, but the creation of infrastructure is haphazard.
“We should now create ways and means to afford people to run these facilities which are often individual-specific,” he adds, and says he is in favour of according “positive discrimination” of good scientists. But, he is hopeful that once scientific positions become “performance- and contract-based” like elsewhere in the world, modalities for which are currently under deliberation, then salaries as well as efficiency will increase.
That’s something the researchers at Dortmund agree with. Sitting at MPI, they are calculating the Sixth Pay Commission’s impact on salaries. “There’s an excel calculator on the government website, so it’s easy to figure out how we’d be placed,” says the only PhD student in the group.
Now, if they can only find their way back.