India Takes Steps To Prevent 'Brain Drain'

May 21, 2013

This is an article from University World News, an online publication that covers global higher education. It is presented here under an agreement with The Chronicle.

India’s new science policy aims to position the nation among the top five global scientific powers by 2020. This cannot be achieved without qualified academics, researchers, and scientists, yet India has to contend with large numbers of postgraduate students leaving to complete Ph.D.'s or postdocs – a majority to the U.S. – and staying away to pursue a career.

Now the government and industry, along with India’s elite universities and technical institutions, have united to implement a series of measures to stem the tide while also encouraging large numbers of researchers to return home.

India’s problem starts with the already small pool of students who choose to do a Ph.D. Between 1991 and 2001, the number of doctorates awarded increased by only 20 percent compared to an 85 percent jump in China.

Today, no more than 1 percent of students with undergraduate degrees opt for doctoral studies and the substantial number who do prefer to go abroad. India produces only up to 125 Ph.D.'s in computer engineering a year, despite nearly 1.7 million engineering students graduating each year.

Pankaj Jalote, director of the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology in Delhi, conducted a survey among undergraduate and masters students in Indian Institutes of Technology in Bombay, Delhi, and Kanpur.

“I tried to understand the students’ perception of pursuing a Ph.D. in India. A large number of students still think that becoming an academic is the only career option after completing a Ph.D. Several did not want to do a Ph.D. in India because they felt the research work was poor and an Indian Ph.D. had low market value.”

For Devasmita Chakraverty, a doctoral student at the University of Virginia, the U.S. was the default choice for pursuing a Ph.D. because of its “leadership in science, research, education, and technology.”

“Most Ph.D. programs in good U.S. schools are very competitive…and have a lot to offer in terms of resources and lifestyle. Fpr example, facilities for research, lab facilities, funding, conference opportunities, travel opportunities, etc,” Chakraverty said.

Brain Drain

Only 5 percent of Indians who go to the U.S. to earn a doctorate degree return home, as was revealed in a study on the mobility patterns of Ph.D. graduates in science, engineering, and health.

According to the study International Mobility and Employment Characteristics among Recent Recipients of U.S. Doctorates by the U.S. National Science Foundation, around 5,000 Indians join U.S. universities every year for doctoral studies in these fields.

India also has the largest diaspora, with 40 percent of its home-born researchers working overseas and 75 percent of its scientists going to the U.S. A major reason behind the brain drain is the divide between universities and specialised research institutions, with most universities not engaged in cutting-edge research and unable to attract the best minds.

“Teaching and research do not go together as happens in the world’s leading universities. Researchers across institutions also have no occasion to engage with young minds,” said Deepak Pental, a professor of genetics at the University of Delhi.

While universities in the developed world get the largest share of research funds from their governments, only about 10 percent of government research funds in India goes to universities.

The brain drain is also reflected in the lack of qualified manpower for Indian higher-education and research institutions. Across the elite Indian Institutes of Technology, or IITs, there is a 43 percent vacancy of faculty posts while half the positions in the national institutes of technology and central universities are vacant.

Brain Gain

But the tide is slowly turning. With rapid expansion of higher-education infrastructure and enabling environments, India has been successful in attracting young researchers back home.

As the nation’s elite institutions try to morph from world-class teaching institutions to world-class research centers, they have put in place flexible recruitment policies, generous research grants, and industry-academe collaborations to attract their researchers back from foreign institutions.

At IIIT Delhi, two-thirds of academics have a Ph.D. or postdoc from a foreign university. IIT Bombay has hired more than 100 young Indian assistant professors in the past three years, all with international experience.

When Vinay Joseph Ribeiro, an assistant professor at IIT Delhi, returned to India it was for personal reasons: “While doing my Ph.D. at Rice University in Houston, I worked with a Catholic community that wanted some work done in Delhi. I wanted to pitch in, and thus applied at IIT Delhi,” Ribeiro said.

“That work is long over but I stayed on because India has changed so much. There is a lot of scope for research that we couldn’t have imagined during our BTech years. Moreover, the students are very bright and teaching is a pleasure.”

Devang Khakhar, director of IIT Bombay, confirmed the brain-gain phenomenon, noting that the number of Ph.D.'s returning has certainly increased: “One of the major reasons is that we are hiring many more faculty … several IIT Bombay alumni are faculty in foreign institutions and we have an alumni network that facilitates recruiting faculty.”

Increased financial support for research has also helped. In the past 10 years, IIT Bombay has had a 10-fold increase in research funds.

Making the Ph.D. Attractive

At IIIT Delhi, a joint Ph.D. with Queensland University of Technology has met the needs of several Ph.D. students. Pankaj Jalote said the doctoral students spend equal amounts of time at each institution and are also guided by supervisors from both institutions.

International collaborations attract students and academics alike. IIT Bombay has a major joint Ph.D. program with Monash University in Australia and more than 100 students are enrolled.

“We encourage collaborations, both within India and internationally, and do provide some funds for faculty mobility. Such programmes make a faculty position at IIT Bombay more attractive,” said Khakhar.

Industry in India is also contributing support in establishing research laboratories, creating collaborative projects between academics and students, and sponsoring research projects. IIT Kharagpur has attracted significant funds from a leading corporation to carry out advanced research in power technology.

The Indian government launched a prime minister’s fellowship scheme for doctoral research with industry partnership last year for science, technology, engineering, agriculture, and medicine. Under the scheme, 100 fellowships will be given to selected candidates working on research projects jointly with industry.

“Several small and medium companies have approached us to support the fellowships to take their research and development work forward. It’s a win-win situation for the industry and the scholars,” said Shalini Sharma, head of higher education at the Confederation of Indian Industry, which has had to decline several requests from Indian scholars working outside India for support under the fellowship.

“I am hopeful that this and several other measures by government, industry and academia will be successful in retaining talent in the country,” Sharma said.