Of Schemes and Memes

Being a Scientist in India

To supplement this month’s SoNYC discussion, on Of Schemes and Memes we have been delving into the world of minority scientists. Our first installment from Jeanne Garbarino, a Postdoc at Rockefeller University, considered some of the underrepresented groups within science. In our second instalment, Mónica I. Feliú-Mójer discussed her role as the vice-director of Ciencia Puerto Rico, a non-profit, grassroots organization that promotes science, research and scientific literacy in Puerto Rico. In our next post we will hear from Subhra Priyadarshini, an award winning science journalist and the editor of Nature Publishing Group’s India portal Nature India and manager of the Nature India blog, Indigenus. She talks about life for scientists in India.


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Subhra has been chasing deadlines to cover politics and sports, fashion and films, crime and natural disasters in the mainstream Indian media for around 15 years. She finally chose to come back to her first love – science – in 2007 launching the India portal of NPG one year later. She has been a correspondent with major Indian dailies and briefly worked for the Observer in London. Subhra received the BBC World Service Trust award for her coverage of the ‘vanishing islands of Sunderbans’ in the Bay of Bengal in 2006. She is a regular contributor to BBC Radio’s Hindi science programme ‘Vigyan aur Vikas’ (Science and Development). She has been on the panel of many international conferences on science communication and won acclaim in India for her coverage of the Orissa super cyclone in 1999 and the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.

These are boom times for Indian science. The national spending on science and technology has gone up in the last five years and is inching towards two per cent of India’s GDP. Hordes of new institutes are coming up in the nook and corner of the country — 30 new central universities, 5 new Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, 8 new Indian Institutes of Technology and 20 new Indian Institutes of Information Technology are in various stages of conception and completion.

However, many people are of the view that simply increasing the number of institutes will not lead to better scientific prowess. The education system needs a complete rethink in order to attract more students to science and produce world class scientists.

According to a government estimate, India has registered an annual growth rate of more than 12% in scientific publications in Science Citation Indexed journals during the last five years which compares well to a global average of 4%. India’s global ranking in the number of publications also saw relative improvement — from 15th position in 2000 to 10th in 2009.

Given the background, it should look like it is really hunky-dory for scientists working in India. Though good science and research are happening in some brilliant pockets of India, things are not as cheerful in a majority of labs. The lion’s share of scientific R&D in India is government controlled. The pet peeves of a lot of scientists stem from the bureaucratic handling of science — poor pay and personal development opportunities, lack of amenities and stifling work environments where new ideas are not allowed to flow freely.

India is also accused of doing a lot of ‘copycat science’ duplicating work already done in western countries. The Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh actually urged scientists at the largest meeting of scientists – the Indian Science Congress in January 2011 – to think out of the box and ahead of the times. India hasn’t seen a home-grown Nobel Laureate since Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, who got the prize for physics in 1930, and that is something the government rues time and again at scientific meetings.

A lot of brilliant scientists work in labs away from their country and the government has launched new schemes to bring them back home. New programmes and incentives have also been announced for post-docs to carry out their PhD work in Indian labs. At the moment the fad is to fetch a PhD from a good foreign lab or under a Nobel Laureate mentor – that gives them an edge in the job market.

Also, the ‘publish or perish’ principle of scientific success results in a lot of junior scientists complaining that their seniors take credit for their work and fail to acknowledge their scientific contribution. A lot of angry voices in the Nature India forum complain about corruption and one-upmanship in Indian labs. While a handful of such cases have been taken seriously and scientists/administrators found guilty removed from their positions, there is no empirical data to prove that this might be a widespread phenomenon.

Like elsewhere, women scientists in India have their set of problems – mostly stemming from societal pressures that force them to multi-task – not allowing them and their research to grow at par with their male colleagues. The government, however, has launched some schemes that would go a distance and bringing women back to the labs. More on the issues women scientists face in India can be found in these Nature India forum discussions here and here..

Comments

  1. Report this comment

    Narendra Nath said:

    Presentation of Shubra on scientific misconduct in India is part of the nature of highly corrupt society that has been building in the past 20 years or so. Some scientist control the entire science area permanently for years together. They preside over or members of Expert Committee of all the aid granting government agencies. On the other hand we claim to have increasing number of scientists on the scene. Coupled with bureaucracy, scientist who have themselves done hardly any R & D, become heads of Govt. agencies that disburse funds. Even some of them are awarded Scientist Emeritus positions on retirement when they have never done any research work for the near past o/c occupying administrative scientist positions in Government Grants in aid agencies! Then, we supposedly have a professional society called ‘Society for Scientific Values’. Even that stands highjacked by a President for past many terms just because he was Director of an IIT and is no longer an active scientist for the past 20 years, but remains namesake Emeritus Scientist at a National lab. in his home town at the age of over 75 years.

    There is no hope for any improvement as our entire top Government machinery is deep into corruption of all kinds, as has become evident in the past week by the movement against corruption led by Anna Hazare on the national scene. God runs this country as one US scientist on a visit here told me personally. Well we have depth of spirituality but in practice on ground we are one of the most corrupt nation on the world scenario!

  2. Report this comment

    Rahul Agarwal said:

    Education on Science and technology is increasing day by day and more and more young generation are choosing their career as a scientist like Subhra. So Go ahead Subhra and I wish for your bright future……………

  3. Report this comment

    Shivasankari Gomathinayagam said:

    Need of the hour, an article like this. The situation in India is pathetic. When you go elsewhere in the world, every institute will atleast have an Indian working there. Why are they not in India then ?? I ve seen a lot of PI s having published in very good journals during their post doc/pre doc, but after becoming a PI !!

    And ya someone does the work and someone takes the credit !! It frustrates you to the core. I have been a victim ..

    Many of the institutes are living with their past reputation !! Whats the point in increasing the number of the institutes ?? Its high time we realise and do something ..

    We gottu change this scenario soon :)  Hope to so :)  

  4. Report this comment

    Prakash Doddapattar said:

    Actually, science has become a business!!! people are more oriented towards just publishing data rather than its application to core science which makes it even more bitter to digest!!

    In India, there is a lot of unhealthy competition in Science.. they need to be more into   collaborative research which woould generally result in mutual benefits not only in sharing ideas but in increasing the quality of science, ultimately in getting good quality paper.

    About taking someone’s credit, they are on the top order but its quite present in most part of the science world.

    It is realy true that there is a huge knowledge pool in India and the researchers are smart but in most of the cases facilities are not supportive not just because of funding problem, but because of the delay in getting the things done, starting from the passing of papers etc. for ordering the scientific stuffs and all.

    Mainly the GURU (PI) must  work selfishlessly. They must know about good scientific practices. Good scientific practice like charity begins at lab/home.

     

    These are few of my views.. :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :)

  5. Report this comment

    Revathy K said:

    I feel the pay we get in India to do science is megre when compared to the outside countries!! This makes our people to go abroad for doing good science. Until and unless our government realizes this, its very difficult to hold people in India. The pay difference between a phD and postdoc is just 5K. How are we going to attract people from abroad? How are we going to do a true international science if this is the case? The worse part is, welcome trust fund for an independent scientist has been reduced, for the reason that the fund is higher than the faculty pay!!

    India, if has to be super power, its science and technology should reach a great height!! for which retaining and recruiting high quality people, in home is need of the hour!! Dont we have another Venki Ramakrishnan, another Khorana, another Ramachandran, another Raman in home? definitely yes, provided they have given oppertunity in the right time at the right place under the guidance of a selfless great mind!! In that way am bit lucky to be in one of the great institute in India. And wish to see every Indian Institute to be Centre for Potential Excellence. Its possible if people like shiva can come back home to do their service in home after their degree!!!

    As shiva says an article indeed for the time now.

    How many of you know ibio Science? (http://www.indiabioscience.org/)

    This organization is started by NCBS faculties and is becoming an independent organization of its own now. The idea is to bring back our home people to our nation, and to say the research oppertunities that exists in our home. Apart from that it also encourages public private collaborations. If you have any thoughts you can post in the same website.

     

  6. Report this comment

    Suresh VR said:

    I have been watching a particular “senior scientist” get funding from these government agencies for terrible projects without any track record in those areas, publish papers that are not worth publishing in journals whose editors are known to her and give out degrees to her students without any data worth speaking about.  

     

    All of us have wondered about this and have become very disgusted with the situation. Is this the story about the Emperor’s new clothes or the one about how Ratnakar was reformed to Valmiki by Narad? Is it about people being too afraid to open their mouths and criticize because they may be seen as being too stupid to appreciate the “great science” supposedly being done by an “eminent scientist” who has been given random awards? 

     

    Or is it about people who, like Ratnakar’s family, don’t really care how and what is being done as long as they get their reimbursement for travel and get to go sightseeing in another town when they leave their own cities for committee meetings or due diligence visits arranged by her? Does it make a difference to the deterioration of scientific values and the demoralization of the few fools who are sincere enough to WANT to do research to publish and do research instead of just going through the motions? 

     

    Whom does one approach—the people who are willingly blind to all this or the people who don’t care and perhaps are getting their shares out of government funding? There is so much emphasis on the “young scientist”, especially the ones under 30 years of age whom the government is wooing to bring them back to the country and seat them in certain places because they look good for the image of Indian research. The old ones travel around and heap awards on each other and give each other Padmabhushans, Padmashris, Bhatnagar awards…. 

     

    Even if they are caught in plagiarism or fraud allegations, the government- or institute-appointed committees spend some time looking busy and then exonerate these characters. They even give them important positions after the mayhem has quieted down. But where do the researchers in the middle go? This layer gets crushed between the upper powerful slice and the lower photo/brochure candy. Even though there are funds, they won’t reach this layer easily. 

     

    Collaborating with people, especially the ones on top, would improve one’s chances of getting money for research but also curtails one’s freedom and demoralizes the sandwiched researcher as the senior researcher controls the submission process and hinders it if not given the lion share of the credit for lending their name to the work.  The aforementioned senior scientist routinely stops faculty from submitting manuscripts and proposals to funding agencies if she is not made corresponding author or principal investigator. Even over the age of 60 years, their careers seem to be more important than even those of researchers half their age and they never hesitate to trample on the careers of junior scientists. 

     

    In their rush to get their hands on government money for research, many Indian universities fall over themselves to force all faculty to do “research.” Proposals are supposed to be sent to research committees in an attempt to improve chances of funding by getting valuable input. Unfortunately, this leads to rampant and deliberate plagiarism as proposals begin to “circulate” and in some cases, inadvertent plagiarism as proposals remain in the minds of those who begin thinking along those lines because of this opportunity to read someone else’s proposal. The problems are many. 

     

    Even knowing that scientific misconduct is happening and there’s data fabrication and bending of evidence to suit people’s hypotheses leaves one feeling very helpless because there’s no one to take any action. In fact, bringing attention to fraud is injurious to one’s career and health in India. All this simply ruins the image of science, hinders progress and gives onlookers (especially students and younger researchers) the wrong idea that it is not scientific research that makes one’s career, it’s how well you bend the truth and the system to your convenience. Since we are also teachers, this makes us useless. 

     

    Because these senior scientists have been around and have a stronger network of contacts which includes journal editors (if they are not editors themselves), they manage to publish their papers easily. For younger researchers, this process is a lot harder without the names of these seniors. Journals (under well known publishers’ umbrellas) are beginning to turn away manuscripts right after submission by giving the excuse that they don’t have enough publication space. At least these don’t waste more than ten days of authors’ time. But others send the manuscript out to review after getting preferred reviewers’ names from authors at the time of submission and these reviewers sometimes come back with comments and questions that suggest that these reviewers did the reviews in the last minute without reading the manuscript carefully. 

     

    The proposed changes and the questions are not well thought and they don’t fit into the objectives of the study being described in the manuscript. It is very disheartening to spend time on research, writing up manuscripts, submitting them in the desired format to journals and then have them turn authors away like airlines turn overbooked passengers away, or wasting even more time with useless reviews. Journals ask authors whether or not they have submitted the same work to another journal and prohibits them from doing so for some period of time should the work be published in that journal. 

     

    I have always been an opponent of sly practices by some of these scientists where they lie during the submission process and say they are not submitting the work to any other journal and go ahead and quietly send it to two or more journals. A colleague justified this as being similar to a job search. One didn’t send one’s CV to just one employer because even pumping up that employer’s ego by that act of flattery would not improve one’s chances of being hired if that person had already made up their mind to give someone else the job. So why this foolishness in research? After facing all of these hurdles with such frivolous reasons from journals and seeing others’ students without data getting degrees and well-connected people get funding and publish useless work in these journals which then run out of publication space, I wonder who is the idiot: myself or these crooks. 

     

    A review of journals to resubmit our manuscript to showed me how many journals have cropped up over these years. Even though impact factor is a misleading or inadequate criterion to consider in judging the worth of a journal, some journals are so new and each geographical region has begun to throw up journals for its own researchers to bypass the hubris and exclusiveness displayed by the more well established, “higher impact” journals. Maybe it’s the way it goes: if we don’t get what we like, we better like what we get.