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1. Why o Why?

If you are visiting these writings for the first time, or have not read the entry "Why o Why",

may I suggest you read that first and then read the rest in numerical order?

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

23. Some return, most won’t -- Implications for Indian Research(ers)

It has been 19 years since I returned to India after spending almost equal  time in the US. But even today when colleagues from the US come to  visit me, they ask about my experience being back in India. With most of them, I get the feeling that the thought of returning to India is on their minds and that is where it will stay. The percentage of Indian faculty in the US academia, especially in STEM subjects is much higher now than it was a decade ago, in almost all the universities in the US, independent of their rank in various “polls”. What is surprising is that the Indian representation in non-engineering areas is also becoming significant. Clearly, the number of  Indian students going abroad does not seem to have decreased.

Even though in the 1990’s there was a dip in the number of students going to the US immediately after their Bachelor’s degree, the numbers are rising again, but not close to the large exodus in the 1980s. What appears not to be on anyone’s radar is the number of people who do not go out immediately after they graduate, but leave after t(a|e)sting the waters for 2-3 years. When I did a quick check of students who did their Master’s project under my guidance during  the last 10 years, I was shocked to find out that almost all of them are working in the US -- with a small number opting for further studies.

Yes, brain drain is alive and kicking!

Optimists point out the involvement of many Indian VCs in Indian startup funding, the many incubators at almost all academic institutions in India, etc.  But, despite this silver lining, alarm bells should be ringing everywhere given the net departure of talent from India, albeit in avatars beyond the usual. One can hear some bells making feeble sounds,  their impact not commensurate with the demands of the ground reality.

The government for its part is creating several avenues for Indians abroad to return, or at least “pay back”.

The latest  entry is the VAJRA scheme which aims “at boosting research work and enabling new and cutting-edge technologies that India now needs.” They are designed to attract PIOs to spend time in India. These are useful but my personal feeling is that they don’t serve the ultimate purpose of having more PIOs back in India, for good. I am not saying that the hosts and the guests don’t feel good at the end of such visits but the benefits rarely linger to affect the host institution in the long run.

The various funding agencies in the government are competing with each other to formulate collaborative  funding opportunities for Indians here and abroad to work on problems that will positively impact people everywhere. I myself have been a beneficiary of such funding in more ways than one and will continue to go after them. But having been in the midst of things, I am not so sanguine about their overall effect, given the real problem on the ground.

And then, there is the much talked about effort  go after "foreign PhDs".
This is likely to cause turbulence in Indian academia if by diktat preferential treatment is forced to be given to somebody not based on what they are capable of  but where they did their PhD.

What are the implications of all this for Indian research and the people involved in it?

The Current situation: We have many good faculty in about a dozen top-class institutions in India. Some of them got their PhDs abroad, but not all.
Most have high aspirations. Now, research-oriented faculty everywhere depend on their students to convert ideas into something tangible. When students do not or can not deliver, the impact of the faculty suffers, visibility of the institution takes a hit and the country as a whole is affected.

If one takes a serious look at even the dozen institutions mentioned earlier, we notice that they do not have enough of any of the ingredients necessary to make a substantial difference in research, be it the number of high quality faculty, quality time for faculty to concentrate on research, high caliber students in good quantity, dependable infrastructure needed for focussed research, etc.

We must take cognisance  of  this current situation and resolve to utilize our human and other resources better.

Recommendations: High quality faculty leads to high quality of the graduating students as well as high quality research output during and after their PhD, provided adequate resources are available for conducting the research. So,

1. Enable faculty to focus on their research:

Today faculty (even in the top institutions) do everything from deciding which research problem to work on to procuring/maintaining  common infrastructure like microphones for their classrooms. These and the many mundane things in between leave very little quality time for sustained high quality research. Hence, there is an urgent need to improve the provisioning of dependable support staff so as to release more time for faculty research.

2. Enable the participation of high quality research students:

Good students form the vital staple for good faculty research. There are many bright students across India who would like to do their PhD right here in India. They have to be spotted and nurtured. But,  for many of them, preparing to jump through  all the hoops during the admission process is something they feel they can do without. As a result, a potential PhD student is lost to some other country and it tilts the scale even further in favour of that country.

Just like faculty are at liberty to choose their area and topic of research, they should also be given the flexibility to scout for and recruit the type of students they need. Institutions should have faith in its faculty in all research-related decisions, including student hiring. Such flexibility will also help in retaining the best of our own students.

Institutions must also work to increase the catchment area for students which currently consists of college teachers, who are required to have a PhD for promotion purposes, researchers in IT companies who do part-time PhDs, spouses of faculty in campuses like IITs, and those who are committed to being in India and accomplishing their dreams. Nurturing not only the faculty but also the promising students in the colleges that feed to the IITs should be attempted in earnest.

3. Enable students and young faculty to pick up the necessary skills to become better researchers, thinkers, writers, problem solvers:

The average student in India starts his/her PhD. work  less prepared -- on almost all fronts -- than his/her counterpart in the West. This means he/she needs more time to get up to speed and the net result is that the student’s productivity and hence that of his advisor suffers. Still, we must expose the younger researchers to the necessary tools and techniques without which they will feel handicapped throughout their careers.

If the above steps are taken, faculty and students can be held  to higher standards when it comes time to promoting them or giving them their degree. Senior faculty  should take the time to understand what the younger faculty have accomplished and promote only the deserving ones. This should be done to maintain quality as well as to dispel any doubts about the impact of giving faculty more flexibility in conducting their research.

Unless we depart from the status quo very soon, the multiplication factor -- the spreading of the intellectual output -- of  academic  researchers in India is likely to plummet even more, compared to that of their Western counterparts.

Given the autonomy the (I)IITs have (had), it is not apparent why these steps have remained elusive.

Additional thoughts on


Of course, things have changed enormously over the last couple of decades (See “Computer Science Research in India”. IEEE Computer 30(6): 40-47 along with the complete report (1997) to get a “before” picture).

The Indian IT Companies, along with the Indian Labs of many IT companies based outside India have played a large role in the above positive movement.
In addition to increasing to the number of potential jobs post-PhD, they have also helped enhanced the PhD intake. For example, the TCS Research Fellowship program has funded more than 200 Ph.D. scholars since its inception, and awards and fellowships instituted by others (e.g., Intel, Google, etc.) have made doing a Ph.D. in India an attractive proposition.

As a result of such measures, the gradient of the quality and quantity of research  is positive and that has caught the attention and imagination of people elsewhere but it has been a mammoth effort to maintain the positive slope, even if it is vastly overshadowed by China’s. 

Yes, there are some positive signs, but there is a lot more that can be, and needs to be, done.