Seeds to grow Indian talent

A Wellcome Trust scheme to aid India's fledgling research base could benefit Britain, too. Zoe Corbyn reports

September 11, 2008

An £80 million scheme designed to strengthen the foundations of biomedical science in India was launched this week.

The five-year programme, which will provide fellowships to support mainly early-career researchers in Indian universities and research institutes, has the potential to "have a significant impact on the health and prosperity of India", according to the Wellcome Trust. The trust is funding the scheme in partnership with the Indian Government.

"We aim to nurture and develop a world-class cohort of biomedical researchers," said Mark Walport, the director of the trust. "India has a wealth of academic talent, and it is important that we can support the best researchers throughout their careers."

The money is intended to address a growing problem in Indian research. Thousands of biomedical PhDs are being awarded, but the opportunities for researchers to continue their postdoctoral work there are limited. Many have no option but to go overseas, returning to fill research leader roles later in their careers.

"You have professors and PhD students, and to get between the two you really need to leave India and go and work in Europe or the US. The (aim) is to create an opportunity for a scientific career within India," said Jimmy Whitworth, head of international activities at the trust.

He said the trust was taking a global rather than a national perspective on science. "We're hoping that by broadening the scientific community within India, they are going to be able to bring their expertise to bear on the (poverty) problems of India," Dr Whitworth explained. "There is a real opportunity for the trust to make a difference here."

The fellowships, centred on creating better career pathways in basic biomedical, clinical and veterinary research, are funded jointly with India's Department of Biotechnology (DBT); each partner will contribute half.

About 75 fellowships (40 early-career, 20 intermediate and 15 senior research) are expected to be awarded annually. An independent organisation, the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance, will be set up in New Delhi to administer the scheme. A merit-based, peer-review approach will be used to select candidates; administrators will be UK-trained. The closing date for applications is next year.

For the most part the scheme is new money coming from the £1 billion increase in funding announced by the trust in February, but it also builds on the Indian component of a previous scheme run for international senior research fellows.

Although Dr Whitworth admits that funding for Indian fellowships is not something that the UK academic community is likely to "see as its first priority", he says that there are advantages to the programme for UK researchers, too. First, UK researchers who want to develop a research career in India are able to apply for the fellowships. "It is mainly targeted at Indians wanting to work in India," he said. "But we would be happy for UK researchers to apply, too."

Also built into the fellowships is the opportunity for Indian researchers to travel overseas for extended periods, which means UK academics could benefit as bright early-career researchers from India will be on the lookout for visiting opportunities. "Indian scientists going to study in Europe and the US, as they currently do, is a good and healthy thing that the trust does not want to lose," explained Dr Whitworth.

Finally, as levels of biomedical research in India increase, collaborative opportunities should also grow. "There will be more opportunities for partnerships (with Indian researchers)," Dr Whitworth said.

Vijay Raghavan, director of India's National Centre for Biological Sciences - one of India's major research laboratories - was enthusiastic about the new funding. "These kind of programmes are absent in India. The new programme will help postdoctoral research on a scale that, if it is operated well, will have a huge effect on Indian biomedical research," he said.

Professor Raghavan added that postdoctoral research could be undertaken in India, but it had "until now" not attracted the best people. "Even though there are very good laboratories in India, the best people tend to go abroad, often to mediocre laboratories. This programme allows the best people to go to the best labs in India and abroad, as well as come back and set up their own labs in India," he said.


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