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Does your passport influence your science in the Global South?

Debraj Manna

How are researchers from the Global South doing in terms of their counterparts in the West? From limited visibility due to many reasons to the complex issue of restricted mobility, this article by Debraj Manna, a PhD student at Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, discusses the multifaceted factors affecting the scientific community from Global South.

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Image for representation only. Photo credit: jaminwell/Getty Images.

There are Indian scientists working in India and scientists of Indian-origin working in other countries, including the West. Though both the groups are doing well separately in terms of research output, many people opine there’s a difference when you compare them. B Chagun Basha, Chief Policy Adviser, Office of PSA-Policy Analytics and Insights Unit (PAIU), IISc, Bengaluru, sheds some light on why this difference is evident. Of course, as a country, we started research as a mainstream development and activity very early, from the 1940s and 50s. Our policies also reflect this, as we initiated our first policy in 1958. However, if you look at when those countries where our scientists are excelling started developing their scientific ecosystems, it would be much earlier than when we even kick-started our own first set of modern scientific activities. So, I think we are still catching up.” This, however, is not the only reason.

Limited visibility of researchers from the Global South

Scientists from specific geographical regions often suffer from limited visibility. Chandana Basu, DBT/​Wellcome Trust India Alliance Early Career Fellow, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, believes that in India, we often lack open discussions where science is discussed without hesitancy with respect to sharing data. Basu adds, Science is global, and therefore, sharing in science should not be restricted. It’s where we are merging to solve common world problems or looking forward to new discoveries for everyone’s benefit, and there, you must have that kind of sharing and transparency that is required.”

Besides the lack of open discussions, limited visibility is often associated with scientific publications. Publishing in a high-end journal is not possible only with promising scientific findings. Scientists from developing countries such as India must overcome a major bottleneck: high article processing charges (APC). With limited funding, this often becomes an issue for many scientists when they intend to publish their research findings. Arunima Sengupta, Assistant Professor at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, says,

We need to pay a lot of money in the form of APCs to publish in a good journal. When I first established my own lab, since I didn’t have that amount of money, I tried to publish in a journal which doesn’t have any APCs.

While Sengupta tackled the issue this way, finding reputed journals that do not charge APCs can be challenging.

Another reason for limited visibility is that scientists from the Global South are not well represented in international conferences and meetings. Again, this could result from limited funding for conference travel and registration. Although government bodies and funding agencies have initiated several programs to fund scientists travelling abroad for conferences, organising international conferences in the country, and promoting more open-access publications, Suryesh K Namdeo, Senior Research Analyst, DST-Centre for Policy Research (DST-CPR), IISc, Bengaluru believes, All these activities and programs together, still are quite insufficient, compared to the number of researchers we have. So, I think we need to increase them further. Instead of, let’s say, giving 500 grants, we should give 5000 grants.” We must simultaneously generate broad awareness about the existing grants across the community.

Fewer collaborations with the international community could also account for the visibility deficits. Although many scientists in India collaborate with others, there must be more collaboration with experts from developed nations. Besides other programs promoting partnerships, Namdeo, says, 

One effort could be in trying to organise more international conferences in the countries of the Global South, which would automatically ensure that the top experts in different fields are coming to these countries and seeing the research that the researchers are doing.

Restricted mobility of researchers from the Global South

Similar to visibility, restricted mobility has always been a significant concern for scientists from the Global South. Although they get invited to present their research at international conferences, getting visa approvals for certain countries becomes quite stressful. Upendra Modalavalasa, PhD student at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, who wished to attend a conference called the Geo-Congress 2024 in Vancouver, Canada, applied for a visa after getting selected to present his paper at the meeting in November 2023. However, his visa was rejected after a while because of not having strong family ties in India, as mentioned. His only option was to reapply for the visa and repay the application fees, hoping for a better outcome. Modalavalasa believes that an office in each institution that can handle such visa-related matters for the institute community and expedite the process could help.

Scientists from some intergovernmental organisations like the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) (when it was established before the establishment of the European Union) and Conseil Européen pour la Recherché Nucléaire (CERN) have often enjoyed a relaxed visa status because of working in such organisations where international mobility is crucial. Going forward in these steps, could a special passport for scientists across the globe can address the issue of limited mobility? As instrumental as it may sound, Namdeo explains, It is realistically difficult to do that — it would require a huge consensus at the global level. However, a few or a small group of countries can do that by agreeing to allow scientists with certain credentials to travel across their borders freely, which would make things much easier.”

Tackling funding, bureaucracy, and breaking global boundaries

Experts unanimously agree that timely disbursal of student fellowships could significantly boost Indian science. If a student has to think about their bread and butter first, they wouldn’t be able to concentrate on an idea or a set of research questions. One often needs to be creative and persistent in science. So, if we can fix the issue of disbursement of fellowships on time, one can focus better on science, leading to higher productivity,” suggests Basu.

The government funds the majority of research in India. Across the nation, the amount of funding varies between institutes and disciplines. Public-funded research also comes with different kinds of limitations, including bureaucratic barriers. Namdeo explains, Even if you have money, you sometimes face different barriers to spending that. So, you have a bureaucracy at the funding agency level, the central or state government, and a lot of bureaucracy at the institute level. So, receiving the funds in the accounts takes a lot of time. And then it takes a lot of time to spend that.” This calls for further increases not only in public funding but also in industrial and philanthropic funding for science.

Among other aspects, which institute an individual joins could be influenced by the location where their partner works. Known as the two-body problem” in academia, partners often face feasibility issues in entering the same or nearby institutes. Several foreign institutes often have clauses that consider such two-body problems. Although many people still face such cases, there have been amends. Basu says, I can already see positive changes in Indian academia regarding this. Some institutes/​universities are opening up to it and stating in broader terms that if there is such a case, then you can mention it in the application, and they’ll see what they can do about it.” Such a provision could be a considerable clincher for early career researchers deciding where to settle in.

Today, a lot of Indian researchers are following their dreams abroad. Besides better living standards, individuals often find better research facilities, infrastructure, funding and salaries in developed countries. While much can be done to improve our current conditions, it does not necessarily mean moving abroad is terrible. Calling it a brain circulation,” Basha explains, 

I think we are in a highly connected globalised world, as of this century. As far as the science and technological worldview, value chain, and knowledge ecosystem are considered, they are not bound by any political or national boundaries. It’s highly interconnected.

He adds, Countries like China have benefited from brain circulation before they became technologically self-reliant. They have been doing this with their scientists — they fund the scientists to study, do PhD, become faculty members abroad, and then hire them to return to their institution — that’s how they build excellence.”

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