This is the first article in a multipart series on science careers in India. In Part 1, we document the improved career opportunities, especially for Indian nationals returning from training stints in the United States and Europe, that have resulted from India’s increased investment in science and technology research. Inwe will look at the challenges of doing research in India.
Seated in his office on the third floor of the newly constructed biological sciences building at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, theoretical ecologist and assistant professor Vishwesha Guttal expresses quiet satisfaction about the way his career is developing. “I have got the infrastructure, lab space, computers, and highly motivated people working with and around me,” he says.
Anyone wanting to return and work in India can get a job in one of the institutes and universities because there are many new openings.
Much like the systems he studies, Guttal’s career has so far been nonlinear. He earned his master’s degree at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur, specializing in condensed matter and statistical physics. His inclination toward biology was evident in his master’s project: the statistical physics of self-organized traffic flow in ant colonies. After that, he went to the United States, enrolling in a Ph.D. program at the Ohio State University in Columbus and working for a while on magnetoresistance in disordered materials. Midway through the second year of his Ph.D., however, he traded disordered chunks of matter for lakes and other complex ecosystems, studying their nonlinear dynamics with Ciriyam Jayaprakash as part of a National Science Foundation-funded biocomplexity project. For his postdoc, Guttal moved to the laboratory of Iain Couzin in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University to study self-organized movement in animal groups, returning to the interest that had drawn him to research years before.
“It was never my intention to stay in the U.S.,” Guttal says—so after the postdoc, he applied for assistant professorship positions at several institutions in India, received offers from three, and selected IISc for a research environment that he describes as rich, diverse, and friendly to interdisciplinary work like his.
A destination of choice
Guttal’s successful return was made possible by the recent, dramatic expansion of India’s research infrastructure. About 15 years ago the Indian government began expanding research institutions and creating new ones, boosting employment opportunities for scientists, and creating a range of new fellowship options.
Very recently, India’s science budget has been less healthy, but this recent downturn follows a period of intense growth. According to India’s planning commission, the science allocation in the 12th 5-year plan, which covers 2012 to 2017, is nearly three times as large as that in the 11th plan, which covered 2007 to 2012. This new spending has allowed the Indian government to establish many new scientific institutions, including five new Indian Institutes of Education and Research (IISERs), a new National Institute of Science Education and Research, nine new IITs (there were seven before), and 28 new Central Universities. (Previously there were 25). Old, established institutes such as the IITs, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), and the IISc have expanded by about 30% overall. Many other new research and teaching institutes are planned, and these should provide even more opportunities for well-trained, competent scientists working in a wide variety of disciplines.
The new vitality of Indian science is apparent at organized gatherings like the annual Young Investigator Meeting. Started in 2009 by Ronald Vale of the University of California, San Francisco and funded in part by the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance, the meeting brings together “an eclectic mix of India’s best young life science researchers, postdoctoral fellows, renowned Indian and international scientists, representatives of various grant-funding agencies and science policy makers,” according to IndiaBioscience.org, a nonprofit outreach initiative that grew out of the meeting.
“India is not just a viable option, but a destination of choice,” says Professor Sriram Ramaswamy, who is the director of the new TIFR Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences in Hyderabad. Ramaswamy, who returned to India in 1986 after doing a Ph.D. and postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania, works on soft matter, nonequilbrium statistical physics, and the mechanics of living matter. “There is more research funding available in India than there has ever been. This is therefore the ideal time to start a research career in India,” he says.
“I think this is a very good time for researchers returning to India,” says Krishna Jagannathan, an assistant professor at IIT, Madras, his alma mater, since November 2011. Jagannathan earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After that, he was a visiting postdoctoral scholar in computing and mathematical sciences at Caltech and also an off-campus postdoctoral fellow at MIT. His specialization is the stochastic modeling and analysis of communication networks, network control, and queuing theory. “Generally, it seems to me that the research atmosphere is on an upward cusp, as enough critical mass continues to build in several disciplines,” he says.
Hiring at Indian institutions tends to work differently than it does elsewhere, says Maria Thaker, who is a behavioral ecologist and an assistant professor at the IISc Centre for Ecological Sciences in Bangalore. Instead of seeking scientists to meet a specific, narrow scientific need, Indian institutes often hire scientists as they become available, on a rolling basis. “[T]he philosophy is to look for the best scientists, irrespective of their specific field of research. If I were in the U.S., I’d be looking for a job opening with my specific expertise, and those are few and far between.”
In India as elsewhere, there are more trainees than job opportunities, but the rapid growth in India’s infrastructure makes for a dynamic job market. “There are still many research niches that are unfilled in India and both academic and nonacademic institutes are interested in building the capacity of the faculty and research base,” Thaker says.
“Anyone wanting to return and work in India can get a job in one of the institutes and universities because there are many new openings,” says L.S. Shashidhara, who is a biology professor at IISER, Pune, who returned to India after Ph.D. and postdoc work at the University of Cambridge.
Among the new crop of institutes and universities, the quality varies. “This is due to disadvantage of the location and or delay in appointing senior scientists, and not due to funding,” Shashidhara says. “We started too many new institutes and universities in very short time. While there are sufficient applicants to fill all these places, [the] country doesn’t have sufficient number of science leaders who are willing to go to these new institutes and universities and mentor young faculty.”
Jobs at the more prestigious institutes remain “very competitive. It requires high qualification and high skill,” Shashidhara adds. “You have to assess yourself, your skills, and see where you fit in, and then apply.”
“Many of the best institutions are also beginning to attract overseas scientists, both long-term visiting faculty and postdoctoral fellows,” Ramaswamy says. Prevailing rules don’t allow Indian institutes to hire non-Indians as permanent faculty. We’ll have more on foreign scientists working in India in a future article.