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YIM2020 – Musings from Mahabalipuram (Part 2)

Shreya Ghosh

The 12th Young Investigators’ Meeting (YIM2020) was held in Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, from 14 to 18 February 2020 and was attended by nearly eighty young researchers, in addition to several senior scientists, institutional representatives, guest speakers, and panellists. This article is the second in a two-part series reporting on its proceedings.

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One of the chief mandates of the Young Investigators’ Meetings (YIMs) has been to enable in-depth discussions on issues related to the culture and practice of doing science in India. In addition to talks, seminars, and poster presentations, YIM2020 also included four panel discussions and two breakout sessions, each of which saw active and enthusiastic participation by the attendees. Here is a brief overview of some of these sessions.

Panel Discussion 1: Translational Research 

Moderator: Taslimarif Saiyed, C‑CAMP, Bangalore

Panellists: Jugnu Jain, Sapien Bio; Guhan Jayaraman, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras, Chennai; Anil Prabhakar, IIT Madras

This discussion focused on several routes that can lead to effective translation of basic research, including industry partnerships, entrepreneurship, and collaborations. Both Jain and Prabhakar emphasized the importance of robust processes and consistent, repeatable outcomes for effective translation and broader application of research. The panellists added that for successful entrepreneurial ventures, it is important for researchers to come out of their comfort zones and take risks. One suggestion from the panel was to set up technology transfer offices in institutes that value industry partnerships. Finally, multiple panellists drove home the point that academicians should view industry partnerships not just as a source of funding, but also as a source of knowledge, expertise, and ideas.

Panel Discussion 2: Funding for science in India

Moderator: Aravindhan Vivekanandhan, University of Madras, Chennai

Panellists: Meenakshi Munshi, Department of Biotechnology (DBT); Shahid Jameel, DBT/​Wellcome Trust India Alliance; Balachandar Venkatesan, Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB); Maitrayee DasGupta, University of Calcutta, Kolkata

The panellists discussed the need for funding agencies to be accessible and the grant evaluation process to be transparent. It was suggested that funding agencies should participate in capacity building in scientists, particularly young researchers, for grant-writing. Drawing on her experience of setting up a lab within the Indian university system, DasGupta advised researchers who had just started their labs to try and write small grants at first to survive while parallelly gathering data to write bigger proposals later. Many of the panellists agreed that funding agencies want to fund good ideas and good science, irrespective of the field of study or whether the ideas are basic or applied. It was also discussed that 5‑year grants, which have a longer vision and longer turnaround cycles, should be prioritised over 3‑year grants. Finally, the panellists recommended creating age and gender-neutral fellowships to bring back scientists who have breaks in their careers. 

Panel Discussion 3 — Science Outreach & Communication

Moderator: Gautam Menon, Ashoka University, Sonipat& The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai 

Panellists: Shakila H, Madurai Kamraj University; Elisabeth Knust, MPI-CBG, Germany; Kollegala Sharma, CSIR-Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI), Mysuru; Dinabandhu Sahoo, University of Delhi; Priyanka Pulla, Freelance Journalist

The panellists for this panel hailed from different reaches of the science communication field and began the discussion with a quick overview of their individual contributions towards carrying out science outreach or reporting on science for the general public. The panellists pointed out that incentivizing science outreach for researchers is important and it should not be viewed as a waste of the researcher’s time. One way to do this can be including outreach activities in a researcher’s work evaluations. It was also pointed out that one of the key communities that should be targeted to improve scientific temper in society are teachers, and through them, their students. Finally, the panellists urged the attending researchers to be willing to go out, engage with the community, and address their concerns in their language.

Panel Discussion 4: Breaking Barriers in Science

Moderator: Rashna Bhandari, Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics (CDFD), Hyderabad

Panellists: Sudipta Maiti, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai; AK Munirajan, University of Madras, Chennai; Anna Akhmanova, Utrecht University, Netherlands; Mónica Bettencourt-Dias, Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência, Pirtugal; Usha Vijayraghavan, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru 

The panellists discussed three types of barriers for individuals pursuing careers in science — socio-economic, language, and gender. Regarding socio-economic barriers, the panellists agreed that while affirmative action may sometimes be necessary, it is not a long-term solution and the actual impact of such schemes should be carefully assessed over a period of time. It was also discussed that there is a hierarchy between state universities, central universities, and premier research institutes when it comes to funding. Funding agencies can step in to minimize this gap, while institutes with more funding can open up their labs and share their resources. To address language barriers, the panellists suggested a more uniform syllabus across the country to reduce the gap in quality between English and vernacular medium education. However, they also cautioned against losing out on diversity in this process. Coming to gender barriers, the panellists agreed that this is a global issue – particularly with respect to the leaky pipeline. It was suggested that PIs and institutes should offer full support to those who need time off for maternity/​paternity or childcare. 

Breakout Sessions

The breakout sessions were designed to allow participants to discuss and brainstorm issues of interest in an informal, semi-structured setting. During these sessions, the participants were divided into three groups, each consisting of a mix of YIs, PDFs, mentors, organisers, and special invitees. Each group was then given a set of topics to discuss and come up with actionable suggestions on.

Two breakout sessions were held during the meeting, focused on the overarching theme of Getting Started’ as a young researcher. Some of the key takeaways that emerged from these sessions are outlined below: 

  1. People: For young PIs just starting their lab, it is very important to choose mentors who can help them through the process. At the same time, students are the lifeline of the lab, and a PI should give students space to develop their own style and take mental health seriously. An easy way to attract students is to teach well and maintain a good website. YIs can also apply for programmes such as the EMBO Lab Leadership course to learn lab management. Finally, it is important to build one’s own niche, before reaching out for collaborations.
  2. Grants/​funding: YIs and PDFs should push for the creation of a Research Development/​Grants office in their respective institutes. At the same time, funding agencies need to introduce flexibility in grant usage, allowing money to be transferred between overheads and utilized as need arises. Some other suggestions that emerged for new PIs were to build long-term relationships with funding agencies and to look for industry-tie ups, as well as to opt for an open-lab system (if possible) to share resources. It was also pointed out that databases of equipment funded by government grants (such as SAHAJ) need to be popularized and opened to external users.
  3. Selecting a research question: PIs need to balance long-term impact with short-term needs and pursue exploratory and ambitious lines of research in tandem with safe and quick projects that ensure a steady output.
  4. Research assessment: It emerged during the discussions that research assessment methods and publication requirements set down by bodies such as UGC should be re-evaluated with respect to ground realities. Preprint servers can enhance the visibility of researchers and overcome many of the challenges associated with long publication cycles. It was suggested that YIs and PDFs champion the cause of institutions being a part of the DORA declaration, which precludes the usage of journal impact factor in research assessment. While opting for open access publications, YIs should distinguish between predatory and non-predatory journals and funding agencies should help cover publication costs.
  5. Research Ethics: Training in ethics and research methodology should be an early part of science training for students and researchers across all disciplines and career levels.

EMBO Grant Awareness Session

This interactive session was part of the International Research, Training and Mobility Grants Awareness Sessions, launched by IndiaBioscience earlier this year in partnership with India Alliance. Shahid Jameel, India Alliance, provided an overview of the numbers showing low participation of Indian researchers in EMBO schemes. Next, Gerlind Wallon, EMBO, discussed some of the EMBO schemes available for Indian researchers and their aims. This was followed by short talks by two of the past recipients of these schemes — Vaishnavi Ananthanarayanan, who was selected for the EMBO Young Investigators Programme in 2018 and Santosh Chauhan who was selected for the EMBO Global Investigator Programme in 2019. Ananthanarayanan and Chahuan discussed the application process in detail and shared insights from their own experience with these programmes.

PDF Satellite Meeting

The last one and a half days of the meeting consisted of the PDF satellite meeting, wherein the forty post-doctoral fellows attending the meeting got a chance to directly interact with institutional representatives and pitch their scientific ideas to them. Each PDF was given the opportunity to present their science in a 5‑minute lightning talk, followed by a poster session. The institute representatives each gave a presentation highlighting the key characteristics of their respective institutes, along with a quick overview of the hiring process and the candidate profile they are looking for. The satellite meeting also featured a moderated open discussion between institute representatives and PDFs where various issues were raised, including the rate of absorption of recipients of re-entry and transitional fellowships, recommendation letters, age limits on hiring, need for mentorship during the hiring process, and the need for more transparent hiring and evaluation procedures.

Closing

Smita Jain presented the vote of thanks on behalf of IndiaBioscience and the organisers. Satyajit Mayor provided the closing statements for YIM2020, summing up the proceedings in a few words and thanking the organisers, attendees, and speakers. 

Written By

Program Manager - Science Communication