Columns Indian Scenario

Rethinking advanced scientific training for India

Ron Vale

The transition from postdoc to junior faculty represents a particular important phase in one’s scientific career. Most junior faculty choose to pursue scientific projects that are closely aligned with their postdoctoral work. There are many reasons why this is the case — the tenure clock starts ticking and grants require preliminary results (or at minimum some demonstration of competence in the proposed area of research). However, in this blog, I will argue that India might want to develop mechanisms that allow individuals to break out of this rut. Here’s why.

Let’s start by considering a typical career trajectory for Indian biologists. Most Indians pursue their postdoctoral training abroad, and this is still a pathway that is encouraged for those who ultimately seek to become faculty members in India. Indian Ph.D. graduates choose their postdoc based upon the same pragmatic factors as their colleagues around the world: Which labs are doing the best science” that meets their interests? Where do I want to live? Where will I ultimately receive an offer? Lower down on the list are strategic issues related to what research might be best to pursue in India. 

Later on in the courting match, Indian Institutes look for the best candidates” among the pool of available postdocs to fill their open job positions. In the past, the number of candidates was somewhat limited, so the focus has been on finding good people, with less emphasis placed on their area of research (although not strictly true). The new junior faculty then tend to pursue the same area of research that they did as a postdoc. As a result, institutes become populated with an eclectic range of disciplines and little critical mass in any one area. Furthermore, by pursuing work from their postdoc, the Indian faculty tend to work on scientific problems that are already being emphasized in the West. However, with fewer resources, they are at a potential disadvantage for achieving international recognition, as they are directly competing in an already crowded field.

Importantly, India should consider stimulating scientific efforts that are being less actively pursued in the West. By picking strategic niches, it could potentially gain more international recognition as well as promoting research that meets its own societal and educational needs. Examples of such areas might include infectious disease, human genetics of diseases that are prevalent in India, environmental life sciences, and developing new model organisms (see blog by Dr. Lakhotia). Perhaps this idea represents a partial return to the past, or at least a hybrid model. Nehru saw science and technology as being critical for the pragmatic needs of independent India. In the 1980s, the National Center for Cell Science and the National Institute of Immunology were both launched to fulfill very specific goals (creating cell line repositories and vaccine production respectively). Subsequently, these institutes re-created their missions to become very general cell/​molecular biology institutes, as was the case of other newly created institutes such as NCBS. In part, this trend was driven by the changing times and appreciation that knowledge creation should be part of the mission of prestigious international scientific institutes. However, it was also likely driven, at least in part, by the market place”. Since relatively few highly successful, foreign-trained Indians wished to return to India, it made sense to open your doors to a successful scientist who wished to join, bringing with them whatever system/​problem that they had learned from their foreign lab. 

The changing scientific emphasis and hiring trends in India throughout the past half-century made sense, especially given the realities of those times. However, Indian science is changing yet again, as it has more resources and is becoming a more attractive place for conducting science. There is no question that a general system of hiring the best candidates with their postdoctoral research question in tow is still good and still serves as the best general model. Indeed, we still operate by this model at UCSF. However, India might consider being more proactive in taking on specific scientific challenges and making those areas more attractive to young Indians who are starting their labs. 

But here is the dilemma — if the Indian diaspora for international postdoctoral training is not effectively training Indians for unique scientific opportunities/​niches that can be pursued in India, then what should one do? This is a tough problem, and I do not have a perfect answer. There are two potential solutions, each with challenges and potential problems. One solution is to make it attractive for Indians to choose their postdoctoral training in a particular discipline, for example by offering postdoctoral fellowship support in an international lab working on infectious disease. However, this is a considerable investment and the trainee may decide not return to India at the end of their training. The other solution, which I favor, is to create mechanism that provides a protected opportunity for Indian junior faculty to venture in a very new field from their postdoctoral work. This would be somewhat radical, and I do not know of any precedence in the US or Europe that really does this effectively. It would have to be thought through much more carefully than I am doing in this blog. However, such a plan could have the following components: 1) The opportunity (ie funding) for the junior faculty and perhaps also one student to visit an international laboratory working in a designated training area (e.g. tuberculosis) for 6 months, with a focus on learning techniques/​thinking in the field and not to produce a paper, 2) Intensive training courses within India (with Indian and international faculty), akin to the 6 – 8 week intensive summer courses offered at the Marine Biological Laboratory (which I know well and are very effective), 3) a grant to support the new research area, based upon the overall merit of the individual rather than past papers related to proposed field, and 4) protected time to work in the new field without penalty for lack of publications. This is important since the promotion system saddles junior faculty to their postdoctoral work since they have a greater chance of getting out papers. One would have to construct a tenure process for pioneer faculty” that evaluates their overall progress in the new field, rather than strictly looking at publications, and/​or that extends the time to tenure with salary advancement occurring at the same time intervals as other faculty. Their first pioneer” grant renewal would similarly have to be evaluated based upon overall lab progress and not strictly on publications. The bottom line — the complete package would have to be attractive so a subset of the best junior faculty would feel secure and be excited about pursuing a new subject area from their postdoctoral work. 

A similar type of strategy might be considered for promoting internationally trained Indian scientists to pursue careers that combine research and education in the University system. As an example of the current difficulty, an individual who did their postdoctoral work making mouse knockouts in a Howard Hughes Medical Institute funded laboratory might find it nearly impossible to continue such line of investigation at an Indian University. However, the goal of postdoctoral training should be training — i.e. developing greater maturity about how to approach scientific problems. In the ideal world, it should not lock you into a technique or narrow niche of scientific investigation. It would be helpful if a new University faculty member would have an opportunity to apply for a program that would allow them to retool to tackle a new problem that suits the University environment and might represent a less trodden field (see another blog on such matters by Dr. Lakhotia).