Columns Indian Scenario

Spreading the wealth

Ron Vale

India has now developed a few internationally recognized research institutes in the life sciences. These centers have developed a critical mass of outstanding scientists, are well equipped for modern research, attract international scientists, and have become competitive for junior faculty recruitment with institutions in the US/​Europe. However, the success of these relatively few centers also poses challenges. First, when Indians doing their postdocs abroad consider applying for a junior faculty position in India, they often only imagine themselves working in these few elite institutes. While these elite institutes have been expanding considerably in the past five years, their rate of faculty growth is slowing down. Thus, young scientists who wish to return to India hear an overall general message of we have lots of jobs for you” but receive rejection letters from the 2 – 3 institutes to which they apply. Thus, young scientists will need to look more broadly at where the jobs are. A second and related challenge is how to expand the overall number of centers of excellence” for research in India. In a first phase of growth, establishing a few elite centers has played an important role of elevating India to become an international player in biomedical research. However, the long-term scientific goals of India cannot be met by just a few outstanding scientific centers, and a phase two” expansion is needed for diversification, driving economic growth, and accommodating/​employing India’s best scientific trainees.

What are the ingredients of establishing an outstanding research center? Money, yes. But money alone is insufficient and perhaps is the easiest part of the equation. The most important ingredient is attracting and supporting motivated and talented scientists, specifically young scientists. Outstanding research and new ideas are driven by good people, not by buildings and money. Talented scientists are the wealth” to which I refer in the title of this blog. The wealth” of well-trained, talented young Indian scientists ultimately has to be spread to more institutions throughout India.

Many young scientists are wary of taking a job at an institution that they perceive as not being one of the elite”. Their scientific career is at stake, and, often coming from an exciting postdoc, they do not want their research to stagnate. They look at an institution’s past record, since the future is hard to project. However, a turn-around” of an institution is possible and can happen on a relatively short-time scale. UCSF (my institution) was a good center for medical care, but was generally viewed as a complete backwater” for research in the 1960s and beginning of the 70s. It changed as a consequence of a small group of people who came and created a new spirit and culture. Bill Rutter (a mid-career scientist at the time) came to UCSF and took the job as Chair of the Biochemistry and Biophysics Dept. Next, several good but not yet famous young scientists came, attracted by the new and pioneering” environment of UCSF, which contrasted the more polished, professional, and formal cultures of Harvard, MIT, UC Berkeley, etc. These young faculty included Jim Spudich, Keith Yamamoto, Christine Guthrie, Bruce Alberts and Marc Kirschner, all of whom ended up doing very well in their careers. Collectively, they turned UCSF from a second-tier to a first-tier research school by focusing on their research and creating a lively scientific culture for students and postdocs. This change at UCSF was completely bottom-up”, and not a top-down” initiative from the Deans and Chancellors. A similar change happened at University of Dundee (now a great research institute but one time a lowly-ranked university in Britain), when Peter Garland became chair and shortly thereafter recruited young Philip Cohen (now Sir Philip Cohen). My blog reader might say that these are Western examples and such changes are not possible in India”. I agree that complicated institutional politics and hierarchies create barriers in India, but they can be surmounted with persistence and the right personalities. For example, Obaid Siddiqi played a major role (along with good young recruits!) in building biology at TIFR and NCBS, both in relatively short spans of time. A good recent example is IISER Pune, which started not long ago with empty land and now has become one of most sought-after” institutions for postdocs looking for junior faculty positions.

How can a second-tier” institution become a first-tier” institution? The most important ingredient is attracting people who are both excellent scientists as well as active contributors to the educational mission and atmosphere of an institution. Given their competitive disadvantage in recruiting compared to the elite” Indian institutions, the second-tier institutions need to try new recruitment strategies, which might include: 1) offering jobs early to obviously talented young scientists with good grad school records (let the elite” institutes offer jobs to 5 – 7 year postdocs who have the stamp of approval of a Cell paper), 2) being more flexible in offering positions to scientific couples (who might have a harder time in finding two positions at elite institutes), and 3) offering positions to 2 or 3 young scientists who want to relocate together to the same site and nucleate a research program together (a big advantage for both the young scientists as well as the institution, which would benefit greatly from having critical mass to tackle a research topic). Also more generally, some institutions need to overcome the mentality of we are not among the elite and no one good will want to join us”. That is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and young people can smell such an attitude a mile away. Even simple things can make a place more inviting, such as 1) returning emails from prospective applicants with respectand getting a reputation for doing so, and 2) inviting prospective postdoc applicants to an informal, inexpensive dinner with a few faculty and students as an opportunity to make them feel part of the community.

A second general idea is to establish a certain number of landing positions” for young scientists within an elite institute, with the expectation of their not getting tenure and moving elsewhere after ~5-years. This situation, which is analogous to junior faculty appointments at the EMBL, Heidelberg, allows junior faculty to establish their own independent research program in a good mentoring environment and then, with more maturity and more knowledge of working in India, start a program elsewhere. This position can be made more attractive for both the young scientist and the hiring institution by providing a transition package of equipment and supplies. It also might be worthwhile to establish a few, reasonably-funded and competitive grants for mid-career or senior individuals at elite institutes to move and establish research programs or head departments at developing institutes or universities.

Another challenge for changing many institutes/​universities is overcoming the generational divide in the experiences and expectations of setting up laboratories in India. Senior faculty started their laboratories with very little resources and see young Indian scientists, even in non-elite centers, as having opportunities that they never had. And young Indian scientists often view the opportunities in front of them as insufficient and not up to western standards and view the research of senior faculty as antiquated. However, there has to be a middle ground of partnership in order to elevate the stature of any institution. Senior faculty need to understand their critical role in promoting the success of new hires, and see the benefits of investing their time in mentoring and building scientific culture, even if it takes time away from their research. And young scientists need to understand some of the history of an institution and its faculty, set reasonable expectations for resources and progress, be clever in their research directions, and also realize that it is part of their job to serve an institution and not just be served.

While spreading the wealth” of scientific talent may be difficult, India’s senior leadership needs to rise to this challenge. And some young scientists will need to adopt a pioneering spirit of building scientific excellence in new locations, rather than just looking to get a job at the best place”. Lastly, I wish to emphasize that building excellence is a small numbers game. Two to four scientists with a can do” attitude have the potential to change the culture of a department or institution, even if hampered by a lackadaisical administration. The process starts at a grass roots level, as it did at UCSF, by creating an exciting intellectual environment for graduate students and fellow faculty members. The reward of such efforts can be much greater than adding incrementally to an already successful institute.