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Reverse brain drain as many scientists flock back to India

Hundreds of Indian scientists working in some of the best universities around the globe, including Harvard, Princeton, Cambridge and Oxford, have chosen to pack their bags and wing their way back to their native land.
This reverse brain drain has been possible thanks to the Ramanujan fellowships established to encourage research in scientific institutions without the compulsion of hunting for regular jobs.
Dr Manoj Gopalkrishnan, presently doing research in thermodynamics of computation at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai, is happy to have returned to India after working as a research assistant professor in the Mathemathics department at Duke University. Explaining why he chose to come back, Dr Gopalkrishnan said, “TIFR is an exciting place to work in. I am originally from Mumbai and my family is here. It is possible to work on more long term problems from India unlike in the US, where for a fresh Ph.D., there is more short term pressure to write grants and publish. I also have more independence (here) to pursue the research I wanted to pursue.”
“The government’s generosity with funding has allowed me to participate in international conferences and workshops and keep in touch with colleagues and collaborators from around the world,” Dr Gopalkrishnan added.
Another scientist, Dr Dibyendu Nandi who had put in a tenure as astrophysicist at the Harvard Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, chose to return to India. “I wanted to contribute to the science and technology sector in our country and help develop the next generation of scientists. There were also personal reasons as I wanted to be with my parents and extended family members who were in India,” Dr Nandi explained.
The Ramanujan fellowship facilitated this relocation. Dr Nandi, whose research extends to understanding how magnetic fields are produced in the sun’s interior and how their subsequent dynamics influence the earth, pointed out, “Scientists are being supported by new initiatives and investments by the government although this is not at the same level as say China or South Korea; but our investments are growing and the quality of our science is improving. This is the right time to be back in India.” Dr Nandi leads the Centre of Excellence in Space Sciences in IISER Kolkata apart from being chairman of the Working Group on Solar-Stellar Environments of the International Astrono-mical Union and a member of Aditya India’s first space mission proposed to observe the sun.
The Ramanujan fellowship set up eight years ago by the department of science and technology offers a fellowship of `75,000 per month apart from an additional grant of `5 lakh per annum to enable scientists attend conferences and meet other expenses for a maximum period of five years. While most scientists are attached to an institution that helps facilitate their research, the majority end up getting absorbed by these very institutions so that they do not have to look afresh for a job once the fellowship ends. Acknowledging the boost this fellowship can provide to a young scientist, Prof C.N.R. Rao with the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research said, “If I were young today, I would have preferred something like the Ramanujan fellowship which would have left me a free person. I like independence of mind.”
Rao believes these recipients must “come up with good ideas that form the basis of their future careers and at the same time publish some outstanding papers as well. I do hope these fellowships will act as a source of the fountain of a new science.”
Certainly the fellowship has triggered off a spate of research as also the publication of several research papers. Biologist T.N.C. Vidya is currently undertaking the largest study of Asian elephants across thirteen countries.
“This is the largest programme of monitoring Asian elephants in the world and we have already identified over 700 individual elephants,” said Vidya, who did her post-doctoral research at Stellenbosch University, South Africa before returning to join the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research.
Another distinguished biologist is Sachi Gosavi, who after doing post-doctoral work at the University of California. She joined the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru where her group is “looking at protein folding as well as its design and evolution.”
The screening process for these fellowships remains rigorous and the rejection rates are also high. But as Dr T. Ramasami, secretary of DST, said, “The scheme was set up to attract the Indian diaspora. The mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (after whom the fellowships was named) was an exceptional scientist and these younger scientists must live up to his reputation.”
The last word must be given to physicist Aman D. Sood, who was researching out of Subatech, Nantes in France but is presently doing theoretical physics at the Punjab University. “My salary (in France) there was a little over a lakh. Here I am getting almost the same amount of money but I get a chance to work out of my hometown Chandigarh,” said Mr Sood.

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