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Science in India: Then and Now

Satyajit Rath

Almost ten years ago now, I spoke at a symposium organized by the National Academy of Sciences, India, at Allahabad (appended). A few months later, the Economic and Political Weekly published it in the form of a commentary (Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 36, No. 17 (Apr. 28 — May 4, 2001), pp. 1372 – 1375). The title speaks for itself, I think; — Opportunities for science careers in India: an invitation to the mad hatter’s tea party’. I wrote, inevitably, out of my then-decade-long experience with the life sciences in India, but I did think that it applied, pretty much, to most Indian science careers.

Should I leave it at that? Much water has flowed under the bridge in the decade since, and maybe, just maybe, some things have changed? So here is a worm’s – eye view of the update; – this time, a more jaundicedly life-science-centric one. 

I had identified three major sectors that offered (or seemed to offer) careers in science. A science career in the private sector, I thought then, was unpromising, given that it was in a minor appendage of a sector that depended on generics and imports for its modest profits. I had also thought that this would change significantly only if the sector itself became globally competitive. Today, it is certainly true that there is a small group of companies that are trying hard to become globally competitive in, if not quite novel biotech-pharma products, then at least novel generics/​similars. These companies seem to be seeing value in somewhat less embarrassing R&D than was the case ten years ago, and therefore, some interesting jobs and careers can be had there. However, these numbers are exceedingly small (so small that one hesitates to call it a sector’), and the ongoing recession does not bode well for any major expansion in the immediate future. 

The second sector for a science career, I said ten years ago, was the universities. Except that there were no jobs in the universities, those that did open up went altruistically/​nepotistically to people who had been desperately waiting for them while teaching as temps on a pittance, even if you got a job, research infrastructure did not exist intramurally and extramural funding agencies were notoriously unreliable in the steadiness of their support, and much of your time was spent in teaching masters’ level courses below par. Has this changed? Not for the universities that were representative back then; — they remain in the same situation (perhaps worse?). But today, there are some universities (mostly the central’ ones) that have attempted pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, at least half-heartedly. (And yes, this does frequently generate a reality as comical the image.) There are also new’ universities and related species of teaching-research institutions planned, as part of a great new wave of enhancing human resource development capabilities, in which much is promised. However, there are so far no signs of any widespread processes that will avoid the problems I worried over ten years ago, so I shall stay firmly gloomy on this score. 

The only real exceptions to my gloom about teaching-and-research institutions are the so-called IISERs, where there are, I think, faculty openings that are truly promising. However, the IISERs (and the NISER!) walk and quack like the national laboratories/​institutions that constitute my third sector, and therefore I shall treat them as belonging to that category. 

The third sector of science careers in India has always been the national institutions. Here, there have indeed been changes over the past decade. The gurukul nepotism for faculty jobs in such places has receded substantially. In fact, the situation now is that it is hard to get an offer from a national institution if you do not have major’ prestigious-impact publications (meaning Cell, Science, Nature et cetera). Secondly, there are many more faculty positions that are being advertised internationally, in part because the funding levels for such activities have undergone modest-but-real enhancements over the past decade, and in part because the receding of gurukuls means that candidates have to be searched’ for, rather than being available on the sidelines. Thirdly, the nature of funding and evaluation of science has undergone, again, a modest-but-real change in the past decade. The Indian science enterprise has sort-of realised that doing mediocre work on areas of national importance’ does not actually help the nation. Therefore, while the spectre of these strategic areas’ has not gone away, it is now relegated to its proper position in the evaluation of both faculty and projects, which is AFTER the primary criterion of excellence. The national institutions are now also thinking (creakingly slowly, but still) about the value of teaching for research, about the value of global connectivities, and about the value of organically grown and conceptually driven teamwork (as opposed to diktat-created teams dedicated to mutual blame).

As a result, an interesting situation has developed. If someone is outstanding in their field (be it ever so esoteric), it is now possible for them to get a faculty position in a national research institution where a research group can be started up in real time, where interesting teaching possibilities can be created, where respectable funding can be obtained, and where little research dreams can be somewhat meaningfully pursued. 

It is of course possible to argue, sceptically, that for someone who has prestige-impact papers from their post-doctoral work, all of this is available in spades in the First World’ (although the recession may somewhat dim the lustre of that argument for a while). So the question now, a decade later, that I tend to think over is; — is there anything in an Indian research career that is NOT easily found elsewhere? 

I think there is. 

Here is why and what. 

I had written a decade ago that there was an advantage in this awful mess, from the point of view of competent investigators who simply want to get some money to ask their research questions. I had said that competence was such a casualty in this scenario that if you wrote a merely competent project proposal, it was almost guaranteed to get funded simply because it would be unusual in sounding as though you knew what you are talking about. Curiously, while the ambience of research in the national institutions has changed, this has not. Thus, it is possible, currently, to write, not merely competent, but high-risk and unusual and daring research proposals, and to have them looked at with enthusiasm (rather than the dampening stodginess of, say, the US NIH funding system). It is possible to work far more collegially, both with colleagues within the discipline and with collaborators across disciplines, without worrying, for the moment, about the dread issue of credit’, because reasonably good work is so rare still that anyone doing it is recognized with relatively less carping about authorship positions. 

When two decades ago I chose, with friends and colleagues, to work in this fashion; — to ask questions that we found interesting and could think of ways to address, to do so as a group of like-minded immunologists working together instead of competing, and to look for collaborators globally to be friends and valued colleagues; — there were worried voices that said that this would be a personal disaster for me. It has not been that, despite the practical limitations that are self-evident even now. 

But now, with some easing of those limitations, a completely new set of possibilities has opened up, uniquely, in India. It is possible, for the next decade or so, for life scientists in India (and maybe all scientists) to make a choice. We can use our growing ease of circumstance to go the way that our friends and colleagues in the First World’ have gone and continue to go, more or less. We can set up a competitive system of individual credit-driven choices of research programmes, and reassure ourselves that this market-driven model ensures quality’ research. Or we can abandon this patent-style model of scientific research, use the maneuvering space we have at the moment, to reinvent ourselves, our perspectives and our processes, and work as collegial groups that synergise mutually and that use India’s unique local situation; — the diversity in human populations and their health, the diversity of ecosystems; — to ask system-wide questions that will open up new levels of fundamental biological understanding. 

It is up to us to make a choice. That is always an uncomfortable position to be in.