The Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Government of India recently opened applications for the Ramalingaswami Re-entry Fellowship 2023 – 2024. Initiated in 2006 – 2007, the Ramalingaswami Fellowship program aims to support the return of early-career life scientists (with at least three years of international postdoctoral training) to India. The program, which accepts applications annually, offers returning scientists with a salary, additional house rent allowance (HRA), and seed funding. This enables them to establish an independent research group at a university, institute, or organisation engaged in scientific research within the country (the host institute).
In spite of challenges related to retrenchment of returning faculty fellows, the re-entry fellowship scheme is largely considered to be a successfully-running program; Ramalingaswami Fellowships have supported the return of over 500 life scientists to India.
Returning scientists can seek permanent faculty positions at the host institute, or a different organisation, and former fellows have built careers in academic research, industry, science facilitation, education, and public engagement across the life science ecosystem in India.
Over the years, the program has seen several modifications, reflective of the need to align with the changing needs and challenges of life science research in India. Previous fellows have also shared experiences with the program, via articles, columns and webinars, as well as at conclaves and committees (in-person and virtual) organised by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT). More recently, the fellowship program has seen significant changes in the overall framework, including guidelines and eligibility.
This article outlines recent modifications to the Ramalingaswami Fellowship program, and discusses these revisions in the context of opportunities and challenges for returning early-career life scientists.
1. Three-year duration of the fellowship: In recent years, the most significant modification to the Ramalingaswami Fellowship program is the reduction in the duration of the fellowship to 3 years (previously first-time fellowships were awarded for 5 years). For early-career scientists looking to return to India, this presents a short period in which to seek a long-term (permanent) faculty position in the country. Given that timelines for faculty recruitment in the life sciences in India can be close to one year, returning fellows should explicitly discuss possibilities of obtaining a permanent position at the host institute, or then start applying for tenure-track positions across multiple institutes and universities no sooner.
Further, while the revised program states that fellows are eligible to apply for additional extramural funding based on the eligibility of funding agencies, certain grants and schemes require fellows to have a specified duration left on their fellowship. In this context, faculty fellows would need to clarify eligibility and plan their grant applications with sufficient time on their fellowships.
The 3‑year duration of the fellowships also has implications with respect to fellows mentoring PhD researchers, and this can be clarified with the host institute; fellows should still expect to be able to mentor undergraduate and masters’ researchers.
2. Extensions to the fellowship: As per the revised fellowship, Ramalingaswami fellows can seek an extension of up to 2 years at the end of the 3‑year fellowship period (previously extensions were awarded after 5 years). Across the program, guidelines governing extensions in the fellowship have changed from previous 5‑year extensions, to shorter durations of 1 – 3 years. The current modifications clearly state that extensions will be for ‘exceptional cases’ and after a fresh appraisal of performance on the fellowship. Given this, returning fellows should consider that extensions will likely be selective and based on a formal performance appraisal.
3. Research grant support: Recent revisions to the Ramalingaswami fellowship present significant changes to the distribution of the research grant support. In the revised program, fellows will receive a research support grant of INR 13,00,000 per year for 3 years (previous guidelines included funding distributed across 5 years, with larger monetary support in years 1 and 2). While the support continues to be flexible across consumables, minor equipment and manpower, it would be important for faculty fellows to plan expenditure (notably equipment and travel) well in advance, particularly in universities and institutes with protracted purchase and payment processes.
At the same time, given that equipment purchased typically has to remain at the institute after the duration of the fellowship, faculty fellows will need to consider implications for continuity of research projects if they plan to move to a permanent position or change host institute.
It is important to note that if a fellow obtains a permanent position during the fellowship, they can continue to avail the research grant support (while giving up the salary and HRA components).
4. Overheads to the host institution: The revised fellowship funding support also provides an overhead to the host institute (INR 50,000 per year). For prospective fellows, this presents an opportunity to approach host institutes with tangible financial benefits, in addition to research and teaching contributions. Further, given that faculty fellows can face challenges related to space and shared infrastructure, returning fellows should leverage the overhead provision to ensure allocations of laboratory and office space, and access to central facilities (instrumentation, computing facilities).
5. Advisory committee members: In terms of the execution and evaluation of the proposed research, a notable change is the inclusion of an advisory committee of two members, one member from the host institute and one member from another institute within or outside India. For selected faculty fellows, this is an opportunity to seek regular feedback on the overall direction of their research, as well as inputs on handling administrative challenges related to funding, hiring, and procurements. Given this, prospective fellows should discuss expectations of the arrangement with potential committee members, which can include conversations around broad mentorship (and not close supervision) and clarity on credit in publications, co-applications on other grants, and letters of support for potential permanent faculty applications. This is particularly important as, despite clear guidelines stating that Ramalingaswami fellows are independent scientists, in certain cases, faculty fellows have been treated as quasi-independent (often postdoctoral) researchers.
6. Eligibility after returning to India: Finally, modifications to the guidelines allow women scientists to apply for the fellowship within 2 years of returning to India (it was previously 1 year for scientists of all genders).
This is important given that women scientists face unique challenges related to geographic flexibility and relocation (popularly termed as the ‘two-body problem’) in academic science.
Further, women scientists are very likely to be handling personal responsibilities related to child-bearing and early childcare in their early-to-middle career stages (the age limit for the fellowship is 45 years). However, prospective fellows of all genders are ineligible to apply for the fellowships if they are in a permanent position prior to the application.
Details on the Ramalingaswami Re-entry Fellowship, 2023 – 2024 can be found here. The last date for applications is 15 February 2024.