India: A New Knowledge Hot Spot

India, once the slumbering elephant of Asia, has woken up and is fast becoming a place where people from around the world go to do scientific research. That’s likely to mean more research opportunities in India both for Indians and for foreign scientists.

Although private support for research and development in India is weak–providing only about 20% of the country’s total R&D investment–federal investment is growing rapidly. India’s research agenda is very heavily driven by the government, and one of the government’s main ambitions is to meet the vast needs of a country where 300 million people–roughly the population of the United States–live on less than US$1 a day. That gives India’s scientific curry a distinct local flavor. But India is trying to establish itself as an international center for scientific research and to cement its international scientific connections. It is making some progress.

Going global

As recently as November of last year, the National Knowledge Commission, a think tank that advises the government, wrote that “India is not an attractive destination for international students.” The report concluded that India’s government must make a “conscious attempt to attract foreign students to India for higher education.”

India is trying. The country’s current investment in R&D is a modest 0.8% of GDP–about US$5 billion a year–but at a 3 January meeting, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a plan to double India’s investment in R&D over the next 5 years. At the same meeting, Prime Minister Singh called on the country’s scientists to “invest its time and intellectual energy in the revitalization of our science institutions.” This revitalization, says C. N. R. Rao, chair of the scientific advisory council to the prime minister, will require more exposure to scientific thinking from outside India. “No way can India afford to get isolated,” says Rao. India, he says, “will do everything possible to internationalize its science.”

India’ s priorities

But India’s research portfolio increasingly is weighted toward outward-focused initiatives, such as the mission to the moon, which is set to launch–literally–in spring 2008.

India ‘s research infrastructure

Most of India’s blue-sky research is supported by the Department of Science and Technology, which spends in excess of US$400 million annually on about 500 projects. A lot of basic research is also supported by the University Grants Commission, which has a role in the administration of 324 universities and 16,000 colleges, which graduate some 9.2 million students every year.

Within the government, several agencies have specialized mandates and large research budgets. The Department of Atomic Energy employs more than 65,000 people and has an annual budget of more than US$1.2 billion. Almost all India’s space research is headed up by the Bangalore-based Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), which employs more than 11,000 scientists and engineers who design, build, and launch satellites for clients from India and overseas while also preparing for India’s moon mission.

The ministries of India’s government that deal with stewardship of the environment also offer research opportunities. The newly opened Ministry of Earth Sciences is working to ensure accurate weather forecasting. A (typically local) focus is on predicting the monsoon, the June-September rainy season. Knowing when the monsoon is coming is important because India’s agriculture-dominated economy depends heavily on its wet season.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests is the protector of India’s vast biodiversity. Its traditional mission is to mitigate the effects of pollution, but more recently it has begun to focus on the implications–especially for India–of climate change. The ministry offers a number of fellowships and awards, many of which require sponsorship by Indian organizations or institutions.

India has independent science councils that support basic research with large extramural funding programs. These councils fund research programs at more than 100 specialized institutes spread all over the country.

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) supports biomedical science in India and provides procedures for international collaboration that vary from country to country. ICMR offers two joint India-U.S. calls for proposals, one on HIV/AIDS and another on maternal and child health. Both close in April 2007.

Working under India’s Ministry of Agriculture, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research takes part in an India-U.S. Agricultural Knowledge Initiative (AKI), with several research exchanges between the two countries. Between August and October 2007, AKI will sponsor workshops in India on water management and agricultural-market information systems. Americans from universities, private-sector organizations, and government agencies can participate.

In its 38 laboratories, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) supports research to promote industrial development. CSIR’s international directorate (ISTAD) has bilateral agreements with many countries outside India. ISTAD also offers fellowships for doctoral students and postdocs from outside India.

Bangalore, in southern India, is home to the country’s best known basic science institution, the Indian Institute of Science, which has on its rolls about 2000 students. The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai conducts high-level research in the physical sciences. In addition, sprinkled across the country are 18 federally funded universities with a current enrolment of about 180,000 students. These institutions have more generous research budgets than the hundreds of state universities all across India.

Private-sector opportunities

India’s abundant supply of highly trained, English-speaking workers has encouraged a steady stream of overseas companies to set up R&D facilities, particularly in the southern cities of Bangalore and Hyderabad. In 2006 alone, 100 of the world’s top R&D companies employed more than 15,000 scientists in India. GE’s John F. Welch Technology Center in Bangalore, which employs 2200 Ph.D. scholars, is working on new materials and devices. Microsoft, IBM, DuPont, and Monsanto all have R&D hubs in India. Although today the combined annual investment by these private industrial R&D institutions may not exceed US$1 billion, the promise for growth is huge.

Because most, if not all, of these companies have expanded to India to take advantage of lower-cost talent, the best opportunities at these companies will likely be for those willing to work at comparable pay scales. “Large numbers of researchers from lesser endowed countries of Africa, East Asia, and eastern Europe are coming to India to work here,” says malaria specialist Virander Singh Chauhan, director of the International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in New Delhi, whose institution trains researchers from undeveloped nations all over the world.

Academic exchanges

Academic institutions may offer some of the best opportunities for exchanges with India. Getting Indian students or postdocs to North America and Europe has not been a problem, but the numbers going in the other direction have been limited. Some leading American universities, however, are launching programs with Indian counterparts that offer overseas visits for American students.

Through its India internship program, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge has sent about 60 American students and postdocs to India since the program’s inception in 1995. MIT has just bolstered the program by signing an agreement with the Indo-U.S. Science and Technology Forum in New Delhi. The agreement increases the number of internships allowing MIT students to work in educational, academic, and R&D institutions and nongovernmental organizations in India.

Other American institutions, encouraged by authorities in both countries, are considering similar joint programs to bring their students to India. American students considering a future exchange visit should keep an eye out for announcements of these new opportunities.

Most programs for American and Western scholars going to India last only 9 months or so, but the archaeology program at the M. S. University, Vadodara, bucks this trend. The university’s Indus Valley archaeology program has encouraged researchers from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, to finish their doctoral research in India. Archaeologist Kuldeep Bhan, who heads the collaboration, says it was hard to get the required permissions–several ministries had to give approval before foreign researchers could stay in India long enough to finish the work–but the “outcome is sweet.” There’s much to be shared, he says, between India’s 5000-year-old culture and the ultramodern American enterprise.

DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700058

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