Swades is a distant dream for Indian scientists, brain drain continues in full swing

“I was told by my interviewers that they could judge a scientist in a minute..My major concern is that they did not allow me to present my research work,” wrote Dr Anil Thakur, before he finally shelved plans to return to swades in 2009.

On another occasion, the organisation to which the Indian scientist based in France had applied, asked him to appear for an interview on a date that had already gone by. And of course any scientist will tell you that time travel has not been invented yet.

It appears, that Dr Thakur’s case is not an isolated one. Let alone its capacity to attract new researchers, India fails miserably in retaining existing ones. A new study which found that India has the lowest proportion of foreign scientists also found that it has the highest number of home born scientists working abroad, underlining a trend that has continued for far too long.

Image Courtesy: Nature

In the recent issue of the Nature journal, an article titled “Global mobility: Science on the move,” shows that India sends the largest proportion of its scientists overseas. The GlobSci survey of 17,000 researchers to be published in the December issue of Nature Biotechnology says that nearly 40 % of Indian researchers are in foreign countries. Three out of four researchers who go out of India end up in the United States.

Research in India, despite the brain drain has been improving over the last five years. At the 99th Indian Science Congress held in Hyderabad earlier this year, Dr Michiel Kolman of Elsevier said that the quality of research from India above that of China but is way below that of the United States. However, China beats India by sheer number of publications and leadership areas.

Citations per article (CPA), a metric used to determine quality of publications, has gone up in India over the last five years from 2.0 to 2.7 citations per article outperforming China.

(Shanghai University Ranking

Barring a few, Indian institutions also have a long way to go. In the Shanghai University’s recent ranking  which lists top 500 universities, only Indian Institute of Science- Bangalore figures. IISc is also the only Indian institution which made it to the Global Employability List 2012. Others on the employability list based on a survey of 2,500 recruiters in 20 countries and employers from 10 countries include the likes of Harvard, Yale, Cambridge, Oxford, Stanford and MIT.

Is the “outsourcing destination” tag killing research?

According to the Elsevier study, India’s “leadership articles” – articles in the 159 leadership areas as determined by SciVal Spotlight – are dominated by chemistry at an impressive 38% contribution. Other key areas are engineering (15%), biology & biotechnology (14%), math and physics (10%), while there are only 5% leadership articles in computer science and 4% in medical.

China shows the same strong leadership in computer science that India shows in chemistry. What does that mean? In India, despite having a $70 billion software exports business, research in Computer Science is in the pits! Low levels of medical research should also ring some alarm bells.

Perhaps the idea of India being a low cost, labor arbitrage destination needs to change for it to become the scientific powerhouse it has the potential to be. The “outsourced R&D” tag also needs to go.

Private companies are doing their bit to help. Like for instance the Infosys Science Foundation set up in 2009 by the software exporter, honors achievements of researchers and scientists in computer science and other subjects.

However, its never enough to have a few awards and honors. The entire ecosystem needs to be improved to nurture scientific talent, as the Nature study points out. Many factors like quality of life, research funding, salary, language, work environment, political and cultural setup also plays a role.

What are your thoughts?

PS: A consultant who gave up academics recently told me that in India, the government has a habit of appointing good scientists to administrative roles during their prime and as a consequence their research has often suffered. Agree?

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