Columns Indian Scenario

YIM at 10 years: and thoughts on why India’s research program should follow a different path from the USA

Ron Vale

One of the small group mentoring sessions held in an ancient Buddhist cave with Nobel Laureate Mike Bishop leading the discussion (YIM 2012)
One of the small group mentoring sessions held in an ancient Buddhist cave with Nobel Laureate Mike Bishop leading the discussion (YIM 2012) 

The first Young Investigator Meeting in Trivandrum in 2009 was inspired by a dinner that I had with three junior faculty in 2008 while I was on sabbatical at NCBS. The dinner conversation was centered around their questions and concerns regarding establishing their own independent laboratory. When I returned home from dinner, the evening’s discussion raced through my mind and loomed larger in its importance. These young scientists’ aspirations and insecurities in their transition struck me as similar to India’s predicament as a whole. How can India make the transition to becoming a leader in scientific research? 

As I pondered this larger question, India’s scientific future seemed to be inextricably linked with the futures of these three junior faculty. They, and their peers throughout India, had to succeed if India was to succeed as a whole. However, the need for more mentoring by these three junior faculty revealed a gap in the Indian system as a whole. Something needed to happen at a bigger scale than just one dinner conversation. Furthermore, a spotlight needed to be placed on the careers of young scientists that was bright enough to draw the attention of senior scientists, institute directors, and government leaders. The Young Investigator Meeting became that spotlight as well as the nation-wide extension of the mentoring conversation that happened over dinner in Bangalore.

Many of the topics that I had discussed with the junior faculty over dinner are similar to those covered at YIM. What are the skills needed to run a successful lab? How does one succeed within the opportunities and constraints of India? How does one guide students? How does get research funds, get papers published, and nucleate collaborations? How can one get great young Indian scientists who have trained abroad to come back to India? What are inspiring stories of people who have succeeded scientifically in India? What more can be done to help women scientists succeed, allow for the success of scientists in universities and colleges, and create research programs in the diverse regions of India? Now in its 10th year, the YIM has served as a forum for these discussions as well as a wonderful opportunity to learn about outstanding science being done by young and senior scientists in all areas of biology.

Perhaps even more important than the scientific discussions and mentoring of young scientists is the strong sense of community that has developed around each YIM. Collaborations and friendships have grown out of YIM. Young scientists have received inspiration from other peers and learned that they are not alone in their frustrations. Most importantly, most leave feeling more optimistic about their future. YIM is a shared experience that connects young scientists from different scientific fields, different parts of the country, different stages of the academic ladder, and even across different YIMs. Which YIM did you go to? I went to the one in….” YIM creates a sense of being part of something bigger that unifies young scientists throughout India and across time. This sense of connectivity is important for the success of Indian science, as I will discuss later. 

The 10th anniversary of the YIM presents an opportunity to take the pulse” of the biological sciences in India and explore where it might be headed. The meeting will engage young scientists in thinking through issues that are relevant to their future, and we hope that several white papers will emerge. In this blog, I will highlight perspectives that will discuss in my opening talk at this year’s YIM. I will make the case that India should not blindly follow the path taken by the US in some areas and rather be willing to adopt new ideas and Indian-specific solutions. In closing, I also will reflect on what 10 years of YIM may have offered to India as a whole. 

Propelling unique research programs in India

Academic scientists in India have considerable freedom in choosing their research topic. However, often, the seeds of those choices are planted in the US or Europe and not in India. Indians typically go to the US or Europe for postdoctoral training. Those that return to India as junior faculty often continue to work in the same area as their postdoctoral training. Familiarity and inertia are part of the reason. However, the reward system also favours the continuation of past projects, grant review committees often require preliminary results and evidence of competency in the field. In addition, the time to tenure for junior faculty is short and papers must be produced for promotion committees. Young scientists understandably feel these pressures to be productive and continuing past work often seems like the safest route. 

The problem with this model is that one’s postdoctoral work may not be well-suited to circumstances in India. In a large US university, the postdoc may have been aided collaborations, or critical resources from cores and/​or neighbouring labs. However, as a junior faculty in a smaller Indian institute or university department, the resources may be limiting and perhaps there may be few, if any colleagues, in their specific area of research. In addition, if the field is moving fast, it might be difficult to compete with US labs given the longer time needed to train students and establish a well-functioning lab in India.

India also could benefit from not just importing research programs from the US but more actively nurturing research that is pertinent to its needs and environment. Such areas include microbial biology, infectious diseases, plant sciences, ecology, among others. Many research topics are less studied and supported in the US. In addition, India contains unique biological resources that merit study, including its enormous biological diversity and the genomes of its human population that contain insights into human biology and disease. 

India is expanding research efforts along the lines described above. The recent effort by the DBT to establish a marine biological research station in Goa is an example of a program devoted to understudied biology and India’s natural resources. However, many other ideas and efforts should be encouraged. It also important to consider initiatives that would re-train Indian scientists, but do not require building brick-and-mortar institutes. Let’s imagine a young or mid-career faculty member who is interested in transitioning part of his/​her laboratory from, let’s say, Drosophila development, to studying the cell biology of malaria. Transitional grant mechanism (or schemes” in the Indian parlance) that facilitate such work could be helpful. Such funding could include travel funds for short visits to labs abroad or in India to learn new techniques and forge collaborations. Establishing (and perhaps providing some funding) for collaborative networks” within India also could help in welcoming and lowering the barrier for entry of newcomers to a field. Participation a collaborative network” (e.g. in malaria) could involve data and reagent sharing, student exchanges, annual or semi-annual meetings, and training workshops. These networks also could help to connect a critical mass of investigators to tackle a problem within India.

Developing National Solutions for Cutting-Edge Technologies

Access to cutting-edge technologies is becoming increasingly important in modern biological research. The latest cryo-electron microscopes, super-resolution microscopes, DNA sequencers and mass spectrometers are just some of the instruments deemed to be essential. Thus, American universities are in continual arms race” to acquire the latest instruments to retain their stature as a top university. Naturally, this requires that universities raise funds for instruments with ever-ballooning price tags. And blunders are not uncommon. In the eagerness to be at the leading edge, sometimes instruments are bought that are rarely used or show up without personnel in place, who know how to run them properly.

The instrumentation arms race” in the US, China and Europe could leave India at a disadvantage.Because of the high cost, it is simply not possible for large numbers of Indian institutes and universities to follow the US model of being entirely self-sufficient in their suite of technologies. India must be more strategic to reach the same goals. 

One strategy would to be to create more emphasis on national or regional centers of technology. Building facilities whose intention is to serve multiple institutions would facilitate broader and more democratic access to technologies. Importantly, by limiting the numbers of such facilities, focus could be placed on their excellence. Some facilities might require considerable resources and highly skilled individuals as directors and might operate at a national-scale. An example is the national cryo-EM facility (with its new Krios electron microscope), which has recently begun operations at NCBS/​InStem and could expand in the future. Others facilities with broader use might be regional (e.g. mass spec and sequencing). A team of faculty (potentially from multiple institutions) could oversee such facilities. Because instrumentation is becoming increasingly automated, samples can be shipped from labs to these facilities (easy for sequencing but also possible for crystallography and cryo-EM). However, it is also important for investigators to come in person, which will require short-term housing Other associated challenges are to organise fair access and structure usage fees for such facilities. 

Instruments are only as good as the people who run them. However, US institutions rarely have career tracks for individuals involved in technology development and support. Unlike the US, India could consider creating more technology support/​development career track positions, ideally with a similar stature to academic faculty. If this happens, India would be more competitive in hiring such such individuals than the US. Technology development faculty also could develop courses for students and postdocs, which will have great value to India as a whole. The Bangalore Microscopy Course is an example of an outstanding course open to students throughout India and the world, and is now organised primarily by core facility managers at NCBS. 

Building a sustainable pipeline of graduate and postdoc training

Between the first and the 10th YIM, the postdoctoral work force in India has grown considerably. While perhaps an outlier, the number of postdocs at NCBS has grown 10-fold during this period time (now numbering ~100), while its faculty has only doubled in size. Postdocs are no doubt valuable additions to a laboratory and the research workforce overall. Good postdocs also are great mentors for younger students. 

However, increasing the number of postdoctoral fellows has led to certain undesirable outcomes in the USA. A few decades ago, postdoctoral training typically was brief (e.g. 2 years). Now, a five year postdoc period is the norm; some stay longer. The postdoc period is becoming less about receiving training and more about obtaining the right type of scientific papers to get a job. PIs in the US also have become addicted” to the highly skilled and relatively inexpensive postdoc workforce to fuel their research. Because of the long period of postdoc training and uncertainty of a job, many postdocs in the US have become disillusioned. 

What can India learn from the problems that the US faces? First, Indian institutes and universities need to pay attention to their recent expansion of postdocs and decide how they want to treat these young scientists. Indian postdocs need to receive quality training, including in skills needed to obtain jobs, and be treated as trainees not just as labourers. Young scientists in some areas in India have self-organised to form Postdoc Associations, which is a positive step forward. However, senior leadership also should take responsibility for well-being and careers of the postdocs at their institutions. Furthermore, institutions (and perhaps India as a whole) should collect data on the length of time of postdoc training and their job outcomes. The US has failed to collect such data, and as a result, postdocs have become an invisible workforce. Since the postdoc expansion is so recent in India, now is the time to do things properly right. 

India also must be attentive to its own attitudes and biases when it comes to hiring its own postdocs. Indian institutes and universities generally hire faculty who have gone abroad for postdoctoral training, recognising the valuable experience of being in a US or European laboratory. However, now India faces a dilemma. If India wants to have excellent postdocs working in their own country, rather than going abroad, then it needs to find jobs for them. Doing a postdoc in India must have value. Thus, Indian postdocs should be given a fair opportunity in the Indian academic job market, and indeed Indian postdocs are watching the situation to see what will happen. Even if a few Indian postdocs are hired to India’s top institutes, then this will send a clear message to young scientists that an Indian postdoc is not a dead-end for high career aspirations. Establishing more staff scientists positions (similar to Europe) also might provide new job routes for postdocs in India and be a good investment for Indian science overall. 

One difficulty in evaluating Indian postdocs is recognising that they may not have papers in fancy” journals like their some of their counterparts that went to labs in the US. Sadly, papers have turned into a quick and easy solutions for hiring committees to make decision. However, more important than papers is judging the character and scientific potential of an individual, which is the core of long-term success. India should invest the time to evaluate individuals, locally and abroad, using multiple means including recommendations and interviews (in person or via Skype). 

Rigorous evaluation of individuals, and not their CVs, also may allow India to become more competitive in its hiring practices versus the US. For example, India might take some chances in hiring younger scientists to faculty positions, which would be a welcome change to the current trend of increasing time to independence. Many of the great discoveries in science were made by individuals in their twenties or early thirties. Offering a future faculty position to a brilliant Indian scientist who has just finished his PhD or after 1 – 2 years of postdoc might only be done in unusual circumstances of excellence (not politics). However, India would then reach these talented individuals before they receive more lucrative offers in the US. These individuals also could be allowed to train for a year or two abroad before starting their job in India. 

Concluding remarks

After 10 years of YIM, where are we? Has it made a difference? About 800 junior faculty and postdocs have attended the first 9 YIMs. My sense is that it has done them some good. YIM has not solved the issues facing young scientists in India. But it has drawn significant national attention to their careers and mentoring. Many institute directors came to YIM skeptical at first, but left understanding what YIM seeks to accomplish for of young scientists. >50 international senior scientists also have attended YIM, many for the first time, and left inspired and more willing to engage with Indian science. YIM also has given Indian postdocs abroad a chance to see what returning to India might be like, not with glossary brochures but with frank discussions that expose the messy realities, opportunities, and warmth that are altogether characteristic of India. YIM also has served as a national forum where issues of Indian science could be discussed freely between junior and senior faculty and government leaders. Indeed, the 10th anniversary YIM is structured primarily to address key national issues and produce white papers.

Many young scientists came to YIM seeking jobs, mentoring, collaborations, and perhaps inspiration. While these are all important, my greatest hope was that YIM might instill a sense of leadership and community-mindedness in young scientists. More than new buildings and equipment, India needs new leaders. I heard a senior scientist bemoan that Indian science is like a bucket full of crabs; when one crab manages to get to the top and escape, it is pulled down by the others. Such perceptions need to change. The future of Indian science cannot be dictated by those who complain but rather should be handed to those who have the energy and inspiration to build. As a Chinese proverb says, The person who says, It can’t be done’ should not interrupt the person who is doing it.”

New Indian leaders must rise from the ranks of this generation of YIM attendees. Young and mid-career scientists need to roll-up their sleeves and become the change that they want to see in India. Driven by passion and duty, these new leaders can do many things, big and small. The jobs include eventually becoming heads of institutes or departments, developing better graduate programs, working with government in the implementation of their programs, developing better institutional recruitment practices, helping with running instrument cores, volunteering in local schools, communicating science to the public, and the list can go on for pages. YIM has tried to plant this seed of public duty and community spirit. If this seed might be remembered by its attendees and germinate in the future, then YIM indeed will have been a great success.