Will luring non-resident Indian scientists back to the country with attractive perks and the romantic notion of “doing something for the country” really help science in India?

The Hindu ran an Op-Ed last week (First set up the labs, then dream the Nobel) which rightly stated that it is premature to expect scientists to perform miracles to improve the living conditions in India when the research environment in the country is so woefully inadequate. The writer substantiates his point of view with some powerful statistics:

In 2011, of the 14,617,000 people who graduated from the colleges in India, 12 per cent pursued post graduate degrees and an abysmal one per cent pursued research in the country.

In 2011, the number of students from India pursuing higher education (masters and PhD) in the U.S….formed 14 per cent of the higher education population in the U.S. alone.

…India has 7.8 scientists per 1,000 population compared to 180.66 in Canada, 53.13 in Korea and 21.15 in the U.S.

There were a total of 36,812 patents filed in India, of which only 7,044 were domestic applications and the remaining, foreign patent applications. Of these 7,044 applications, only 1,725 applications were granted patents.

A couple of days after the Op-Ed (coincidentally, of course), there was news that the Planning Commission was planning an initiative to get Indian scientists working abroad to come back and do some work for the country. While at first glance it seemed like the issue of migrating scientists is finally being taken seriously, devoting a few more minutes of thought to this proposal made me a little skeptical.

Salient points

The scheme, proposed by Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, involves inviting already-accomplished Indian scientists working abroad to come and spend a few years in India to teach and do research. The perks are plenty – a fat pay check of at least Rs 55 lakh annually, furnished homes to stay in, relocation expenses, and the flexibility to decide how long they would like to stay.

According to the Ministry of S&T official who is unnamed in the report, similar schemes have worked in China and Australia.

The web of doom

After giving a lot of thought to it, I thought it’s easiest to break down the problem into 5 components.

1. THE PROBLEM : Disgruntled members of the scientific community produce disgruntled science students. Only a few of these students opt to stay back and contribute to the Indian science scene. This minority, subjected to low pay and bureaucratic obstacles, become a new generation of disgruntled teachers/scientists. Repeat.

2. THE BRAIN DRAIN: India loses a considerable portion of its students who have the money, the enthusiasm, and the convenience, to better universities abroad. Few opt to return. More and more of those who stay abroad are making a name for themselves. This is the category the PC proposed scheme is targeting.

3. THE SUNNY SIDE: The NRI scientists who avail the scheme will return to India for a couple of years, during which in the best-case-scenario they will provide beleaguered students a fresh perspective and a renewed interest in their field.

4. THE DARK SIDE: Unfortunately for India, the students of THE SUNNY SIDE are prime candidates for THE BRAIN DRAIN. Go to U.S.A. Live the American dream. (i.e. Do PhD. Quench thirst for research. Win Nobels. Feel patriotic? Join the National Jawaharlal Nehru Science Fellowship!)

5. THE OVERLOOKED: Meanwhile, the disgruntled members of India’s scientific community (from THE PROBLEM) are as disgruntled as ever. Despite serving the country for years, they are still paid peanuts by the same government who is reportedly willing to pay NRI scientists more than Rs 55 lakh p.a. + perks for agreeing to stay for a couple of years. This dismal scene is sure to make science students think twice before pursuing the field in the country. The patriotic/poor/burdened with some other responsibility stick around and face THE PROBLEM. The lucky get to go THE BRAIN DRAIN way.

What I’m trying to say is…

This approach might be good from the point of view of a teacher-starved science student in India. One course taught well can make a massive difference, and the probability of that happening will be boosted by if this scheme finally is launched. But if it is meant to improve the science scene in India, I don’t see how it would work.

For it to work, we would need to ensure first that our own resident scientists and academicians are motivated enough. Surely they deserve the same, if not better, treatment that NRI scientists do?

Once that is done, we can then start expecting students to become scientists. Pursuing research in India seems to have this aura of extreme sacrifice and that needs to change. Science has to become a viable career option, and not only for the ultra-geniuses and the crazy-passionate.

Instead of trying to seduce back the ones who’ve already left, our government needs to make the ones here stay. For now I’m just hoping there’s a lot more to the scheme than has been revealed to the media, and at least a lot more upcoming schemes to supplement this one.

(Nandita Jayaraj writes about her encounters with the strange and interesting. You can write to her with feedback, or requests for limericks at nandita.j@thehindu.co.in. You can also tweet her @nandita_j )