In India, Rising Resources, Realistic Expectations

This is the second article in a multipart series on academic science careers in India. In , we documented the improved career opportunities, especially for Indian nationals returning from training stints in the United States and Europe, resulting from India’s increased investment in science and technology research. Here, we look at some of the downsides of working in India compared to the fully developed West.

For some scientists who never left India, the current research climate seems close to paradise. “Our senior scientists of today have worked in more difficult times, and because they were successful despite those limitations, we are enjoying the current generous support for research,” says L. S. Shashidhara, who returned to India in 1993 after Ph.D. and postdoc work at the University of Cambridge and is now a biology professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune. Yet, despite all the new opportunities and resources, India is hardly a scientific paradise, he acknowledges. “Definitely, we don’t yet have infrastructure like what we see in the United States and Europe.”

“The lab space that I have been given could be anyone’s envy, and perhaps it may not be an exaggeration to say that few places in the world offer this kind of lab space to researchers.” —Vishwesha Guttal

The good: Support for researchers

India now offers its researchers better support and funding to grow. When he was hired to his tenure-track position at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, theoretical ecologist and assistant professor Vishwesha Guttal received start-up funding from his institute of about 35 lakh Indian rupees (around US$70,000 at that time). He currently has extramural research grants amounting to about 20 lakh Indian rupees (around US$30,000 at the current exchange rate). Among his grants is one from the Space Technology Cell, a partnership between the Indian Space Research Organization and IISc, which allows him to study aerial satellite imagery of vegetation patterns in semi-arid ecosystems of India. In biotechnology, says T.S. Rao, who is the senior adviser in the Indian government’s Department of Biotechnology, “about 25 to 30 percent of projects will be finally provided financial support and implemented.” According to sources, funding rates in other disciplines are similar.

Compared to well-funded laboratories in the West, Guttal’s funding seems modest. But there’s a crucial difference: In India, most compensation for personnel, including Ph.D. students, is paid by the institute and not from grant money. “In the U.S., approximately 70 percent of the grant money goes for the salaries and 30 percent for the actual research, whereas in India, it’s the other way round,” Shashidhara says.

Assistant professors like Guttal start out, according to revised pay scales, earning between 60,000 Indian rupees and 90,000 Indian rupees per month (that is, from a little less than US$1000 to a little less than US$1500 per month) although salaries vary among institutes. If you factor in purchasing power parity in India—still a low-cost country—those salaries allow a comfortable, middle-class life, for now at least. 

During every 5-year plan, funding for research has increased substantially, causing research support to rise. Salaries for researchers have also risen. Most years the increases have beat inflation, keeping researchers ahead, sources say.

The bad: Delays and difficult logistics

Getting science done in India can be challenging. The litany of complaints is long. Responses from institutions to job applications, and the recruitment process generally, “can vary from [an] extremely efficient and professional process to a lengthy and inefficient one,” Guttal says. K. VijayRaghavan, now the secretary of the Indian government’s Department of Biotechnology, equates India’s hiring system to “a coordinate system made of noodles.”

In a similar vein—and ironic for a country with so many people—staffing a lab can be difficult. “Our institute does not allow us to hire any personnel from our start-up funds,” Guttal says. “The lack of support for manpower such as postdoc[s] and administrative assistant[s] means that, fresh out of postdocs, we need to carry out both setting up the lab and administrative work on our own. As a consequence, our science slows down. Until we get our own grants, this extra burden puts us on a back foot when compared to someone equivalent in the U.S. and other Western countries.”

Having the money is great, but bureaucratic issues can make spending it frustrating, even comical at times. Procuring supplies and equipment can also be slow and complex. Putting your orders through the system and waiting for the import and customs clearance procedures can mean weeks or months of frustration. Grantees must spend money in the fiscal year when it is awarded—often following delays in the release of the funds—and it is very difficult to get extensions. The result: A mad scramble to spend the money as the end of the fiscal year approaches. “In India, we spend the money, we don’t utilize the money,” says a researcher who preferred not to be named.

Taking the good with the bad

Getting science done in India poses many challenges. But “if you see it as part of the process that allows you to do science,” suggests Shubha Tole, who completed her Ph.D. at Caltech and postdoc at the University of Chicago and is now a professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, “you will figure out how to anticipate hurdles and be prepared for them.”

Sanjay P. Sane and Namrata Gundiah, a husband and wife scientific team, relocated to India 6 years ago. Sane is a reader, the equivalent of an assistant professor in the U.S. system, at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS). Gundiah is an assistant professor at the Department of Mechanical Engineering at IISc. Both institutions are in Bangalore. Sane works at the intersection of physics, engineering, biomechanics, neurobiology, muscle mechanics, and behavioral biology, studying diverse flight-related phenomena in insects. Gundiah studies tissue mechanics and cell mechanobiology.

Both scientists earned Ph.D.s at the University of California, Berkeley, Sane in integrative biology and Gundiah in mechanical engineering. Sane then did postdoc work on neurobiology of insects in Professor Tom Daniel’s lab at the University of Washington, Seattle, while Gundiah did a postdoc in the Department of Surgery of the University of California, San Francisco. “We always knew we wanted to return to India, have our children grow up here, know their extended family, and imbibe some of this culture,” Gundiah says.

Sane’s account of doing science in India is favorable and “optimistic”. He praises “the general ambience and collegiality” he has found there and the generous funding his work has attracted, from within India and from outside. The US Air Force Office of Scientific Research funds his work, as does the Human Frontier Science Program, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and the Indian government’s Department of Science and Technology.

Upon arriving at NCBS, Sane says, he was happy with the interest in his work and encouragement that he got from his immediate colleagues. However, he felt isolated, partly due to a lack of close colleagues at his institution and partly because of the relatively small size of India’s scientific community.

Sane decided to do what he could to solve the problem, in his field at least. Early on, he decided to “generate my own future colleagues. Give many talks in as many places possible” and “invite high school students to my lab so they can go onto become tomorrow’s organismal biologists.” The project is ongoing.

Krishna Jagannathan, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, echoes Sane’s sense that the scientific community is too small. “[I]n the long run, a country of this size cannot just do with four or five quality education and research institutions,” he says. “While these four or five institutions can set an example by becoming really world-class, we need at least 15 to 20 quality institutions, with hundreds of good colleges feeding in students.”

Realistic expectations

Guttal returned to India in 2011, after completing Ph.D. studies and a postdoc in the United States. In making the transition back to India, he maintained “fairly modest expectations, and that has surely helped me a lot,” he says. He “religiously followed” suggestions given in a blog intended for the benefit of new and prospective faculty, maintained by a few current IISc faculty. Guttal was influenced by two entries in particular, which together, he says, say a lot about what doing science in India is like:

“Remember that the you have is (that is mentioned in the offer letter), if you think rest (start up grant, students, office, and lab space, which are not mentioned in the offer letter) are you are receiving, rather than you are supposed to get, your life will become more easy.” 

“Remember no one (faculty or administrative staff) can be fired. Therefore, people to help you with the purchase, bills etc. Do not tell them it is their duty (it is a sure way for failure).” 

Such policies are a big part of the reason that, apart from a good CV, the most important prerequisites for a scientific job in India are “a sense of humor” and “a thick skin, which makes you insensitive to real and imaginary slights,” according to VijayRaghavan. Despite such disadvantages, “certain facilities are at par with the best in the world,” Guttal says. “The lab space that I have been given could be anyone’s envy, and perhaps it may not be an exaggeration to say that few places in the world offer this kind of lab space to researchers. This has allowed me to start exploring some experimental ideas about which I have no prior experience.”

The rapidly increasing cost of living is having an impact on the quality of life. “With the salary of an academician, it is nearly impossible to buy a decent house unless we go towards the tail-end of the cities, far from our campuses,” Guttal says. The institutes provide on-campus housing for faculty members—though it may not be all that comfortable, especially for starting faculty. Affordable rental apartments are available closer in and offer better amenities than campus housing, but the living environment is usually not as good. So, faculty members seeking housing must choose between better amenities off campus and the convenient, traffic-free climate on campus. Guttal chose to rent an outside apartment that was a 15-minute walk from the institute. His compensation includes a housing allowance.

Working with the system

India is neither a science mecca nor is it a science sinkhole where nothing of consequence gets done. “The challenges in India versus the U.S. are simply different. You struggle the same amount but for completely different things,” Tole says. “In India, by and large, a grant with a good idea and a decent proposal will get funded.”

“Academically, the main differences [between the United States and India] lie in the ability to quickly set up labs and order equipment, consumables, and other small things,” which is “relatively easier in the United States. India, in contrast, requires much more patience and one must also learn to deal with many different individuals to complete a single task,” Gundiah says. “You have to learn [how to] negotiate your way around in India, which isn’t very easy.”

On the other hand, Gundiah adds, “the academic environments at Indian institutes facilitate getting grants and other resources to permit the setup of world-class laboratories. … Getting it up and running requires much more tending to, due to the many … personnel who may be involved with this process. In contrast, securing resources in the United States is much more competitive but the set-up times are relatively quicker.”

 “In the end,” she observes, “these times average out.”

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