Columns Indian Scenario

Should India be recruiting younger scientists?

Ron Vale

Science in Europe and the USA is a juggernaut1. How can India compete for young faculty with such established systems? There is a weak underbelly in the West. The age at which scientists secure independent positions is increasing steadily. 6 – 7 years of Ph.D. training is common and more disturbingly, a 5 year postdoctoral fellowship has become the norm. But it has not always been this way. Thirty years ago, a postdoc was a short apprenticeship- a 1 – 2 year stint to learn new approaches before taking a job. While the current postdoc is long, the concern does not end there. The average age for receiving a first NIH R01 grant is now 42 years.

What has been driving this trend in the West? Are 42 year old scientists more mature and capable of handling independent research? The answer is certainly no”. Most of the great discoveries in physics were performed by scientists younger than 42. Watson and Crick were mere babes when they solved the secret of DNA. Young scientists have abundant energy and intelligence to make important discoveries. We are wasting much of this energy by postponing independence. However, the real reason for delay in obtaining a job or grant has comes from a much longer vetting process; quite simply, more and/​or better papers are required for a successful job or grant application. And it takes longer to produce a high quality paper, as discussed in my earlier blogs.

But India has many job opening. Does it really need this extended vetting process and protracted postdoc period for its applicants? Do Indian Institutes need the stamp of approval from Cell Press before feeling comfortable in offering someone a job? Or can it identify talented scientists in the making?

There are significant advantages in being one step ahead of the game in recruitment (especially for very talented young scientists), since Indian Institutes and Universities will not be in direct competition with the US/​Europe. Furthermore, by offering jobs early, the Institute sends a message that they are welcoming the applicant as a colleague based upon the person that they are and the scientist that they will become, and not based upon the Cell paper that they published 6 months ago. After offering the job and the applicant accepting, the Institute can then allow the applicant a year (or in some cases even two) to finish their postdoctoral training. This is terrific for the postdoc/​future assistant professor, since they can relax and not have the anxiety of an impending job search, which can interfere with their science. This situation allows the individual to take on a riskier project or seek out new training before starting their own lab in India. 

How does one encourage early recruitment? It is a dance between Institutes and Individuals, both looking for opportunities. Showing up at the dance early and picking a partner can make good sense for both sides. Perhaps Indi​a​Bio​science​.org can help to chaperone the dance in the future.

1Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, the word juggernaut” derives from the Sanskrit Jagannātha (meaning Lord of the Universe”), one of Krishna’s names and the namesake of Jagannath Temple in Puri, Orissa