International Collaboration: A View From India

Shahid Jameel, Chief Executive Officer of the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance

When I emigrated from the USA in 1988 to set up my lab at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), New Delhi, I worried about remaining professionally competitive while working in India. Having trained as a biochemist, molecular biologist and virologist, I worried about infrastructure, colleagues and funding in India. But above all, I wondered if I would be able to build international collaborations so critical to my field of research.

My very first grant application in 1989 to the WHO Tropical Disease Research (TDR) Network was successful, but I had to get permission from the Government of India to accept it. After two years of waiting, this permission was denied. However, with a supportive institution and fantastic colleagues, I kept looking to build my international networks. A Rockefeller Foundation Biotechnology Career Fellowship helped me to visit my former postdoc lab in the United States each summer for three years. This allowed me to continue conversations, pick the brains of my peers and get access to resources at a time when email and internet were not available and letters took 2 weeks to cross the Atlantic.

Unlike me, researchers setting up labs in India today no longer have to wait for a telephone or internet connection, or to buy a car, or to get their first international grant. India has come a long way in the delivery of public services, open market systems, and the growth of its research ecosystem. Today, India publishes the 6th highest number of research papers — a figure that’s growing at an annual rate of 14% compared to the global average of 4%. And though still under 1% of GDP, the funding for science and technology has increased each year over the past two decades.

India is a leader in homegrown satellite technologies

Besides being a leader in homegrown nuclear and satellite technologies, India sees the value of international collaboration, not as a beneficiary but as an equal partner. It has active bilateral science and technology agreements with over 40 countries, and participates in global megaprojects like CERN, the Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory (TIO), the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and Gates Grand Challenges, to name a few.

India also supports three science and technology centres: independent organizations established under inter-governmental bilateral agreements with France, Germany and USA. And the government contributes to international networks such as the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) and the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP). While knowledge and skill development are major drivers, many of these partnerships have also provided Indian researchers with access to equipment and research infrastructure that is not available in India.

The VAJRA scheme launched by the Government of India aims to attract about 1000 overseas research leaders to teach, support and mentor younger colleagues in India. An independent report showed that, in 2013, about 17,000 papers resulted from international collaborations — that’s 16% of India’s scholarly output in science and technology. Papers from international collaborations were also cited 39% more than the world average. This makes a strong case for sustaining existing links, building new ones and making it easier for researchers to collaborate across geographies.

India Alliance recognizes the value of international mobility early in one’s career

The Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance (India Alliance), which I now head, is also a part of the vision to co-fund, partner and learn from global best practices. We search hard for the best people, fund them generously and flexibly, and nurture them to become the future science leaders of India. We also recognize the value of international mobility early in one’s career, and have therefore set up enabling mechanisms, including overseas work experience, funding for international collaboration and meetings, partnerships such as the India-EMBO Symposia and the Africa-India Mobility Fund, and the India Research Management Initiative. These help us, and the Indian scientific community, learn from and contribute to the global science ecosystem.

Even though India has taken many steps to develop and sustain international scientific collaborations, significant challenges remain. These include variability in hiring practices, mentorship and evaluation of researchers, and lack of research management structures at Indian institutions. These need to be improved to attract foreign researchers to India and to support international research exchanges.

Policy changes, such as internationally competitive salaries and simplified conference and research visas, would allow Indian researchers and institutions to host overseas students and colleagues more frequently. For instance, currently, irrespective of the duration of contract, the Indian work visa needs to be renewed annually — this can be a deterrent for many foreign researchers. Indian researchers also face restrictive visa regimes overseas. The government would do well to establish strategic partnerships with key countries to ease this movement. It should also increase funding for international networking and training opportunities for early career researchers.

Several major global challenges — such as climate change, infectious diseases, resource depletion, overpopulation and environmental pollution — plague us today. Solving these requires local knowledge and global efforts. There is no better argument than this for international collaboration and increased mobility of researchers.

Shahid Jameel, is Chief Executive Officer of the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance. Prior to this he established and led the Virology Group at ICGEB, New Delhi.