India needs more science hubs. It is their inhabitants who will determine the achievements which will make lasting contributions to society.
A little over three decades ago, my parents visited my wife and me in the United States, for the first time. I distinctly remember my mother’s hurt looks when she saw me loading the dishwasher or mowing the lawn or just taking out the garbage. She wondered why, after all my education, affluence and opportunities back home, would I come to the West and voluntarily live like this? Why, indeed, do so many of the best Indian science minds migrate to the West, especially to the United States to pursue a professional career, leaving behind the comforts of home, family and the security of a guaranteed job?
The great majority of Indian scientists emigrate to the West not just because of attractive salaries or creature comforts. It is the excitement of being where things are happening, to be among the best and the brightest that leads us there. Scientists congregate where other scientists are, to share ideas, technology and entertain collaborations. Not surprisingly great institutions often have large numbers of very talented and highly recognized leaders in their fields. The density of talent definitely matters in attracting talent!
India has a proud history of scientific research and achievement. Since independence, there has been a concerted effort to create credible scientific research infrastructure and institutions, although this effort has not kept pace with rapidly evolving scientific goals. Sometimes, however, we are prone to a form of regionalism, born out a misplaced sense of need to equalise distribution of everything, regardless of reason or resources, across all regions of the country. Thus, if a new scientific discipline or area of research is to be promoted, the scientific leadership is often under pressure to locate it at new places where probably there are no existing scientific higher educational institutions, let alone established and successful ones.
Bright young researchers looking for venues for setting up their laboratories are less likely to join such institutions because of a lack of critical mass of resident talent. They will much rather go to established institutions, even at lower salaries, fewer resources and much personal inconvenience, because they would prefer to be in an exciting environment where the best science can be done and where they can use the most productive years of their career. My belief is that, in India, we should first build and strengthen great institutions at a few places as select centres of higher learning — the best will gravitate to these places. Once a high density of talent and excellence is achieved, these places will both produce and incubate the best scientists who will populate new centres of excellence.
Great institutions serve two other important functions. They prove that international bench marks of quality can be met in India and teach us how to best build new institutions faster and better. In biological sciences, India has perhaps half-a-dozen institutions of international calibre, a number that has remained essentially constant for the last 10-15 years. When an idea of a new institution emerges, it is best to start it near or in an established scientific centre. I therefore applaud the idea of starting the new Stem Cell Institute at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, TIFR, because the existing cadre of talent will be the magnet and best selling point to attract the next generation of young scientists working in the field of stem cell biology. One of the roles of established and tenured faculty is to be good mentors and invest some of their time in helping to build the careers of their young colleagues. I remember Jonas Salk, founder of The Salk Institute in this regard, who often reminded us to be “ good ancestors.”
Building great scientific institutions take a long time and keeping them at the leading edge needs constant vigilance and the avoiding of complacency. One possible problem with the idea of first building few great institutions is that we may inadvertently promote in-breeding, so to speak. After all, these institutions will most likely produce the best talent and this talent will, in turn, prefer to go to the best institutions which are, more often than not, their own home institutions. While, I am a firm believer of cross-pollination of talent, it may not always be viable till the country has many more top-class institutions.
Hiring new faculty should be the top priority of every institution and here the vast pool of excellent scientists of Indian origin working abroad can be a boon, both as scouts and arbiters of good judgment. Robust, independent and dynamic external advisory councils who play an active and critical role in hiring new faculty are important for top institutions. In my own institution, the advisory board (called non-resident fellows) has a veto in all senior appointments, all promotions and tenure decisions.
Also, in India, seniority often trumps innovation or achievements. The rule seems to favor time on job rather than achievement, which is no incentive to take that extra risk needed to undertake cutting edge science. The first love of a scientist is discovery, that rare “ah-ha” moment when things fall in place, the hypothesis is confirmed or a new technique is devised. The second joy of a scientist is to see the progress and success of their students and the third is recognition of their achievements, especially by peers in the form of prizes or advancement of career. So, it is important for the establishment in India to find ways to recognise and reward initiative and innovation in research.
The idea of scientific hubs is not novel and there is ample proof of its success in attracting talent, entrepreneurs and innovators. It is a proven model the world over. For example, it is no coincidence that highest number of biotech industry in USA is concentrated in San Francisco, San Diego and Boston, all three of which have highest concentration of top-rated institutions in the world. At the end of the day, governments may provide all the bricks and mortar to build institutions; it is its inhabitants, however, who will determine the achievements which will make lasting contributions to society.
(The author is the jury head of the Infosys Prize for Life Sciences. The Infosys Prize is awarded annually by the Infosys Science Foundation to recognise outstanding contributions/achievements of research in India, to elevate the prestige of scientific research and inspire young Indians to choose a vocation in the same.)