India debates a nationwide tenure system
Academic staff disagree on the merits, and the downsides, of scrapping a common year-long probation scheme.
Academic researchers and administrators in India are debating the benefits of adopting a tenure-track system similar to that of the United States in Indian research institutes and universities. A few, including the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, are already using the system, whereas others, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, have a probationary-period process. Under that scheme, the performance of new faculty members is assessed after one year by a review committee, often comprised of department heads and institutional administrators.
Some scientists are calling for the nationwide adoption of a five-year tenure-track review structure. After around five years, research faculty members are reviewed on the basis of their publications and funding received. Teaching ability and service to the institution usually have a supporting role. If the candidate is granted tenure, they receive a permanent appointment. If they are not, the appointment is terminated.
Under the probationary system in India, research faculty members who receive a positive assessment at the end of their first year are given permanent positions as assistant professors. After another five years, they can apply to become associate professors — a position with higher rank and pay. If they are unsuccessful, however, their appointments are not terminated. Faculty members can stay at their institutions as assistant professors until they retire.
Those who endorse the tenure-track system say that the probationary system allows low-performing researchers to remain in their posts. “How do we ensure that quick appointments to a very well paid, highly privileged and permanent position does not encourage complacency?” asks ecologist Vishwesha Guttal, who was awarded tenure in 2016 at the Indian Institute of Science, five years after he was hired.
The issue of tenure-track versus one-year probation has sparked discussion and debate among academic scientists in India, partly in response to an interview published in June in the newspaper Hindustan Times with Jayant Udgaonkar, director of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Pune. In the interview, he advocated adopting the tenure-track system nationally. His comments followed the release of a draft policy in May by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, which oversees higher education in India, recommending a gradual national adoption of the tenure-track system. The ministry could not be reached for comment.
Udgaonkar, a biochemist, says that it is difficult to properly assess a researcher’s progress in a single year. He thinks that the tenure-track system provides scientific accountability and allows a candidate who has been given strong support and regular feedback to receive a comprehensive assessment at the end of five or sometimes seven years.
But many do not agree. Theoretical physicist Arvind, director at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research campus in Mohali, says that a five-year tenure track will increase job insecurity and put pressure on new faculty members to pursue only short-term research goals during that period. “Academia requires stability,” he says, adding that there is a paucity of fallback options for candidates who don’t make the cut. India has few second- or third-tier research institutions where a scientist whose bid for tenure is rejected elsewhere can seek another appointment, and few commensurate industry positions.
Institutional support, easy access to equipment and resources, and timely disbursal of government grant funds have long been sore points in Indian academia; they have also been a talking point in discussions about adopting a tenure system. Gagandeep Kang, an academic gastroenterologist and executive director of the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute in Faridabad, says that institutions and government need to improve access to funding and resources to level the playing field for researchers who are up for tenure and allow for a more-rigorous review process.
Ramaswamy Subramanian, a structural biologist and director of the Bindley Bioscience Center at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, says that if tenure is adopted, the process will need to be uniformly objective and fair. Subramanian, who has held tenured positions in Sweden and the United States, points out that tenure-review committee members in India, usually senior scientists and administrators, are likely to lack personal experience of the process.
A nationwide system is unlikely to be adopted soon, predicts Arvind. “Each institution is autonomous,” he says. “There may, at best, be suggestions that the governing boards of individual institutions can then consider.”
Indian initiatives aim to break science’s language barrier
Drive for accessibility sees research relayed in regional tongues instead of English Scientists and policymakers across India are aiming to bring science to the nation’s citizens and residents whose main language is not English. They’re producing content such as articles and podcasts, and giving talks about discoveries and studies in health science, biology, biotechnology and astronomy in some of the nation’s 22 official languages, including Hindi, Marathi, Kannada and Tamil. As one of the languages used officially by the Indian government, English is largely considered to be the country’s language for science — but just 12% of the nation’s 1.3 billion citizens can speak and write it. Those who are trying to broaden the mix note that many more people will be able to access scientific content if it is available in other languages. “Speaking and writing in regional languages makes science more inclusive,” says Maggie Inbamuthiah, founder of Mandram (which means ‘platform’ in Tamil), an organization based in Chennai that seeks to create a platform on which ideas in science and technology are communicated in regional languages, including Tamil and Kannada. Initiatives to write about science and produce science-related content in languages other than English have been under way for several decades, as many urban schools and most higher-education institutions moved to an English-based curriculum. Those multi-language efforts started to expand with the advent of the Internet, which has provided easy access to content, new media, platforms for distribution, and the ability to find collaborators and new audiences. Digital spaces and media have brought new players to the undertaking, and have re-energized those who have been involved in these efforts for years. Language evolution Although digital platforms and social media help researchers and others to communicate scientific findings and discoveries to the public, any such endeavour is pointless if readers, viewers or listeners cannot speak or read that language. Few of India’s languages have an up-to-date lexicon of scientific terms, and many researchers in the country have long become accustomed to thinking and writing about science in English, says Inbamuthiah. Still, she notes, language is fluid and adaptable. “We enrich a language by adding new words,” she says. “With time, we become more comfortable using them.” Today, the effort to communicate science in multiple languages has a number of participants. Kollegala Sharma, a zoologist and senior principal scientist at the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CSIR) in Mysuru, India, has been producing Janasuddi (jana means both smart and knowledge and suddi means news in Kannada), a weekly science podcast, since September 2017. The 20-minute episodes, which comprise science research, news and interactive sessions that might include audience questions or comments, is in Kannada and is circulated through the WhatsApp platform. Listeners mainly include public high-school teachers — about 1,000, up from the 20 or so when Sharma first launched the programme. It’s also available on public radio. The Indian government is supporting the endeavour. K. VijayRaghavan, a molecular biologist and principal scientific adviser for the government, is a vocal proponent of making science accessible to people in their first language. He is working to provide increased funding and support for such efforts, and engages with many science communicators on social media, including Twitter. Spreading influence Other initiatives are emerging. Research Matters, a website that curates science news and articles in multiple languages and has more than 700,000 visitors, launched in November 2016. TED Talks India was launched in December 2017, and features prominent scientists who discuss topics such as neuroscience and astronomy in Hindi, the most widely spoken language in India. In January, the Indian Department of Science and Technology teamed with Doordarshan, a public service broadcaster, to launch two science-communication initiatives, DD Science, shown on Doordarshan, and Internet-based India Science. Both feature science-based programming in Hindi and English. Others are also exploring the podcast realm. Last July, IndSciComm, an online science-communication collective, started Sea of Science, a podcast series in Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Assamese and Tamil that talks about model organisms used in biological research. The series producers say that it is challenging to translate scientific terms and concepts into regional languages. “But working on them is just as much about love of language and wanting to reach out to people as it is an exercise of scientific understanding and language experience,” says Shruti Muralidhar, a neuroscience postdoc at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and one of the producers. She says that they had to turn to online dictionaries, scientific lexicons and Google for support. The producers also worked out a system of ‘romanization’ that helped them to keep some terms intact while maintaining the cadences and sentence structure specific to the language. While writing the script for the Tamil podcast, producer Abhishek Chari, a freelance science communicator in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had to translate the English word ‘metabolism’ into Tamil. Etymologically, it comes from the Greek word metabolē (from metaballein, ‘to change’) plus the suffix ‘-ism’. But trying to directly translate this word into Tamil (possibly with the term maatram, meaning ‘change’) won’t capture the biological meaning that the word ‘metabolism’ is used to convey, says Muralidhar. “Looking it up on Google Translate, valarchithai came up as a Tamil equivalent of metabolism. This worked perfectly because valarchithai is a compound word consisting of ‘grow’ (valar) and ‘disperse or shatter into pieces’ (chithai), so the term would mean ‘grow plus disperse’,” she says. “The agglutinative (putting multiple words together) nature of the Tamil language came to our rescue.” Last June, Inbamuthiah partnered with the Bangalore Life Science Cluster (BLiSC) to organize The Jigyasa Project, a one-night presentation in Bengaluru of science talks and audience-interactive sessions in Kannada, Hindi and Tamil. A second presentation was held in December 2018. Each event included six scientist-presenters, had 100–150 attendees, and covered topics from genetics to intellectual property. The organization plans to continue to hold events every June and December. The 12 scientists who took part agreed that their presentations were challenging because they required them not just to translate talks into another language, but also to translate the underlying scientific concepts. “I was quite nervous giving a talk in Hindi, and it was a big challenge for me,” says Uma Ramakrishnan, a molecular ecologist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru. “I thought about what I was going to say, and rehearsed it with some of my Hindi-speaking students, just to make sure I was communicating my thoughts correctly. Local benefits Ramakrishnan thinks that the effort to communicate science in languages other than English is very important, especially for field researchers like herself, whose work is local and regional, such as investigating tigers in Rajasthan or biodiversity in the Western Ghats, a biodiversity hotspot along India’s west coast. “Doing fieldwork across India, my team and I have often informally communicated our research in Hindi or Malayalam to local people,” she says. “For the people who live in these places, this is one way in which science can feel tangible and local. Platforms like Jigyasa provide an opportunity to make this more accessible to a larger audience.” Mahinn Ali Khan, spokesperson for BLiSC, says that she observed a real sense of camaraderie between the audience and the scientists at Jigyasa. “Speaking in your own language helps you immediately drop the formality and reserve,” she says. Khan thinks that, although researchers are eager to engage with non-scientists, the shift to accepting science as a subject that can be discussed in a language other than English still faces some resistance from the public. “At this point, these are passion-driven projects for most of us,” agrees Inbamuthiah. If you have a career story that you'd like to share, then please complete this form, or send your outline by email.
India’s Commitment to Science Begins to Pay Off
Illustration by Michelle Thompson; Photos: Getty, Shutterstock A push to reverse its brain drain is providing the expertise to tackle its domestic problems. When Anil Koul told his friends that he would be moving to India to start working at a government research and development organization, most of the reactions were of disbelief, “even sympathy”, he says. “Some thought it was a crazy idea — moving from the world’s largest health-care giant to a governmental, bureaucratic set-up.” Koul took charge of the Institute of Microbial Technology (IMTECH), in the northern city of Chandigarh, in 2016, relocating from Johnson & Johnson in Belgium, where he was senior director and head of the respiratory diseases group. The move to IMTECH — a branch of India’s government-run Council of Scientific and Industrial Research — was atypical. Few scientists return to India after holding top positions abroad, and fewer still move into the less-lucrative public sector. The scientific landscape that Koul has returned to is vastly different from the one he left in 1998. India is now actively participating in and, in some cases, leading advances in pharmaceuticals, agriculture and energy. The country’s efforts in space exploration are a point of particular national pride. India is preparing for its second Moon mission in 2018 after a successful maiden Mars mission in 2014, and is spreading its wings in international astronomy collaborations. The country will host the third laboratory of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) project in Hingoli, while the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics in Pune is working on the design of the ‘Telescope Manager’ — the central command system of the Square Kilometer Array. These could be signs that India is enjoying ‘brain gain’ — Indian researchers are returning to their country of birth with newly minted research skills gained while abroad. This is a far cry from the state of the country’s scientific sector 40 years ago, when entire cohorts of graduates from India’s research institutes left for US institutions in search of better economic and educational opportunities. “We are now in an era of globalization and international cooperation,” says immunologist Indira Nath, a member of the Indian National Science Academy. “Scientists going abroad is no longer a big issue.” To-do list But India still faces significant challenges. It is home to one-quarter of the world’s tuberculosis (TB) cases, and continues to be ravaged by mosquito-borne infections including malaria and dengue fever. Around 700 million Indians (56% of the country’s population) have no sanitation, 240 million have no access to electricity and 97 million lack clean drinking water. Natural disasters such as droughts, floods and storms — already common across Southeast Asia — are set to increase in frequency and ferocity as the world’s climate changes. It falls on publicly funded research to take the lead in finding solutions. Since India gained independence from British rule 70 years ago, every prime minister has emphasized the role of science in the country’s development. The current incumbent, Narendra Modi, told a meeting of leading Indian science officials in July that science, technology and innovation are the keys to the progress and prosperity of India and that the government aims to apply science to solve the country’s problems. As various policy initiatives make clear, India is betting on science to address its pressing challenges in energy, environmental protection, food, water, sanitation, health care and unemployment. To achieve this, the government is hoping to find more scientists like Koul, who sees his role as an “opportunity to address bigger social as well as scientific challenges”. This is a tall order, and there’s an elephant in the room. Government funding for Indian research and development has stagnated at around 0.85% of gross domestic product for more than a decade, compared with at least 3% invested by technologically advanced nations such as Denmark, Japan and Sweden. Koul is nonetheless optimistic, and has helped to forge a collaboration between IMTECH and Johnson & Johnson, announced in August. They will work in parallel on four new molecules as potential drug targets and explore shorter, safer and more-effective oral treatment regimens for various strains of TB. Biopharma strides Koul’s collaboration is well placed to take advantage of the success of India’s pharmaceutical industry. Building on the solid foundations of the country’s expertise in academic chemistry, major pharmaceutical companies have set up factories to make affordable generic antibiotics, vaccines, and diabetes and HIV medicines. This strength is paying dividends. According to Hyderabad-based Sathguru Management Consultants, India’s pharmaceutical industry was worth US$18.8 billion in 2010 and $41.1 billion in 2017, and is expected to expand to an estimated $72.4 billion in 2022. One-fifth of the world’s generic drugs are made in India, and around half of this manufacturing is based in Hyderabad. The production of generics has certainly helped the sector, but many people hope to see the country grow beyond manufacturing. “We now need to be recognized for new drugs that address unmet medical needs,” says Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, managing director of biopharmaceutical company Biocon in Bangalore. The firm’s growing pipeline of biologics ranges from oral insulin for diabetes to monoclonal antibodies for use in cancer therapy. “There is incredible potential within India to become a powerhouse driving biopharma innovation in the Asian market,” says Vaz Narasimhan, himself a second-generation Indian American and chief executive of Novartis, a pharmaceutical company in Basel. The biopharma industry is increasingly looking for new types of talent, says Narasimhan. He gives the example of data analysts and mathematicians who he says are driving the next wave of medical innovation. Meenakshi Diwan works on a solar panel in India’s Odisha state in 2009 — then part of a burgeoning solar grid with a capacity of less than 10 MW. Now, India has a solar capacity of more than 6,000 MW.Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith/PANOS Narasimhan’s confidence in Indian pharmaceutical development is significant. Most pharma companies have been reluctant to take on costly research and development to combat ‘poor-man’s diseases’ such as malaria and TB, says Soumya Swaminathan, one of India’s leading experts on TB. Swaminathan was appointed deputy director-general for programmes at the World Health Organization in October. She has led an effort to consolidate India’s fragmented TB research, previously supported by four separate institutions, under one umbrella organization — the IndiaTB Research Consortium. “These diseases are our problem,” she says. “And it is pointless expecting Western pharma companies to be interested in them.” When asked, Indian pharmaceutical companies say they are reluctant to take up research in these areas, citing a lack of government funding for early-stage research, and reams of red tape once a product reaches clinical trials. Pollution pains In April, a collaboration between researchers in Germany and Anil Dayakar, an environmental activist in India, reported that Hyderabad’s pharmaceutical manufacturing was polluting the region’s water system to an “unprecedented” degree, and hurrying the development of drug-resistant forms of bacteria (C. Lübbert et al. Infection 45, 479–491; 2017). The researchers suggested that more regulation was needed to prevent further pollution in the region. The pharmaceutical industry in India is not the only source of contamination — pollution is common to many of the country’s cities, and India’s capital, New Delhi, spends its winters wrapped in smog. Krishna Ganesh, director of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Tiruptai, hopes that science can help. “The focus in chemistry is now shifting into areas that involve green and sustainable chemistry,” he says. Research topics include non-toxic chemicals, environmentally benign solvents, organic production and renewable materials. “The main aim should be to get rid of toxic chemicals produced in industrial manufacturing,” and to prevent gases escaping into the atmosphere, he says. Nanotech hopes India’s strength in chemistry has aided its effort to become a leader in the interdisciplinary field of nanotechnology. It’s an especially tempting area of research because there’s a deep vein of funding to mine, says Kizhaeral Subramanian, a researcher in the department of nanoscience and technology at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore. “Global funding for nanotech had increased from $1 billion in 2000 to $2 trillion in 2016,” he explains. On top of that, Subramanian says that the country has a strong talent pool to draw from owing to the proliferation of nanotechnology degree programmes across the country. From a developmental perspective, the field is a sensible focus as well. As India’s population swells further, the demand for food and clean water is rising. “Nanomaterials can help in water cleansing from bacterial and metal contaminants,” says Ganesh, and nanomaterials may also be able to help with crop protection. For example, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University is researching the production of non-toxic herbicides and fertilizers, as well as emulsions and films that improve the shelf life of fruits and vegetables. Energy dark holes Of India’s 1.3 billion citizens, almost 20% still lack electricity. To help combat this, the country has launched an ambitious renewable-energy plan, broadly focused on solar and wind power. Overall, the country hopes to produce 175 gigawatts from renewable energy sources by 2022 — meeting around 20% of the country’s predicted electricity demand. According to Tata Narasinga Rao, associate director of the International Advanced Research Centre for Powder Metallurgy and New Materials in Hyderabad, India enjoys between 250 and 300 clear sunny days each year — ideal for solar technologies. The energy plan is helped by cheap land, a vast pool of talent to draw from and enthusiastic government support and infrastructure, says Rao. In a review published this year, the International Renewable Energy Agency lists India among the six countries — with Brazil, China, Germany, Japan and the United States — that accounted for most of the renewable-energy jobs in 2016. One research programme, the Solar Energy Research Institute for India and the United States, brings together the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Denver, Colorado, to accelerate the development of solar electric technologies by lowering the cost of production. As part of this venture, scientists developed a new nanotechnological solar absorption system in 2015. The prototype, Rao says, costs half as much as the non-vacuum tubes currently used in solar collectors worldwide and have enormous potential for industry. There are local quirks to take into account before any company starts cashing in on a solar goldmine. Manufacturers still haven’t worked out what to do about monkeys and rats, which relentlessly and indiscriminately chew telephone, electrical and fibre-optic cables across the subcontinent. Meanwhile, Indian researchers are using crop residues, normally burnt as waste by farmers, to develop advanced biofuel systems and products such as biogas and biomaterials. “India’s strong knowledge base in biotechnology, chemistry, engineering and process engineering can be tapped to do research in the biofuel sector,” says Ahmad Kamal, a chemist at the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology in Hyderabad. Calling young scientists back To achieve its grand ambitions, India needs to nurture its new-found brain gain, and is fighting to make itself as attractive as possible through the Department of Science and Technology (DST), one of India’s largest research-funding agencies. In June, for example, the DST announced endowments of $10,000 a month for researchers who choose to move to India from labs overseas. Lipi Thukral, a computational biologist at the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology in New Delhi, thinks that the Indian research sector has been unfairly stereotyped abroad. “It is a myth that Indian salaries for scientists are low. They are very good when one factors in the purchasing power of the rupee,” she says. “One can do great science here, too.” Thukral uses high-performance computers to study the movement of biological structures and to model protein folding. After a PhD in Germany, and a postdoc in the UK, she returned to India in 2012 under another DST scheme. Shalini Gupta, a chemical engineer at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, returned to India in 2009 after earning a PhD in chemical and biomolecular engineering from North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, and a postdoc from Imperial College London. Gupta’s team is working on cheap, portable medical tools to rapidly diagnose sepsis, a serious complication of many bacterial infections. For her, India makes the perfect laboratory. “We have the advantage of having ready access to patients, samples and field trials.” Meanwhile, the Indian government plans to develop 20 existing universities into ‘world class’ research institutions with an incentive of $1.54 billion of funding. Policymakers hope this will free the country’s best universities from reliance on the country’s grant commission and associated red tape, and encourage greater institutional autonomy. “There are always challenges in working in a third-world country, but India’s role in the development of next-generation technology cannot be ignored, especially in the fields of pharmaceuticals, agriculture, energy and environment,” says Gupta. “If you are situated close to a problem, you have a bigger advantage in terms of solving it.” Nature 552, S41-S43 (2017) doi: 10.1038/d41586-017-07771-y
Breaking the Curse on Science
Open data can help us avoid inherent biases in our work, says Ayushi Sood Better Science through Better Data writing competition winner Ayushi Sood Recently, an economist friend told me that “scientific inquiry is inherently cursed.” At first I was offended. But I had to agree after he elaborated further – science today suffers from something economists enigmatically call the “winner’s curse”. The first scientific journals were print editions — something akin to a printed memo — circulated among researchers to update them of the findings of others in the field. To submit a paper for publication, only the observations required to prove results needed to be included in a manuscript, and rightly so: if every paper included every shred of data, journals would run into thousands of pages. This means, though, that what was communicated to the scientific community was only a fraction of what could have been communicated: only the observations that were ‘winners’ – the ones which best supported a result – would be presented, and the others would be effectively relegated to obscurity. Although we’re not limited by paper and page counts today, the same pattern of data use continues. This leads us to the problem of the winner’s curse: by the process of selection, the ‘winning’ observation oversells itself. In economics, the winner’s curse refers to situations in auctions where the winner tends to overpay, because the actual value of the product is the average of the bids, not the highest bid. In scientific research, the curse takes hold in scientists who aim for publication in the most selective journals, with the most impressive results being favored. This ignores all the other results — the ones which weren’t so impressive — while giving disproportionate importance to the ‘winning result’. The problem with this phenomenon isn’t immediately evident — isn’t the result what actually matters? The data is, after all, just a tool, necessary only to prove what’s important — the conclusion. In looking for conclusions in data, however, researchers can forget to ask: “does the conclusion effectively justify my repeated sampling of the real world?” In other words, is reality accurately reflected by the dataset presented? All the observations we take, whether they are inconclusive, negative, or ‘winners’, represent an analysis of the natural world. By only reporting the ones that work, the other sampling efforts cannot be used by anyone else. This process confers on a small, selected number of observations the authority to predict an unpredictable future! Back in the auction house, this would mean the value of the product is set only by the winning bid. When we report only the best set of data, we are relegating the less impressive observations to obscurity, even though these also represent an analysis of the real world, with real potential to inform. So what does this mean for us? How should scientists avoid falling into the trap of the winner’s curse? One way would be to save, store and share all data — not just positive results. We are only human. By making our data openly accessible, we can avoid internal inconsistencies. The smallest of mistakes would be corrected by fresh eyes poring over the very same data. More importantly, open data could prove to be a shot in the arm for scientific inquiry as a whole. What data I find important may be perfect for my study, yet a small cluster of ignored numbers in my dataset could lead to a breakthrough for someone else, possibly in a way that I could never have imagined! Gene expression data in cancer cells could provide insights into cell signaling pathways in neurodegenerative disorders. Algal bloom observations in polluted lakes could help in effective biomass production for algal biofuel. The analysis and application of open data could usher in a new age of scientific connectivity, with the available knowledge transcending traditional discipline boundaries in way never seen before. Well, if it’s so good, why hasn’t open data been the norm since science began? We come back to the thousand-page journal here — the question wasn’t of why not, but of how. Transmitting every single byte of data through papers and talks was impossible before the advent of computers and the emergence of the internet in the 1990s. In 2017, however, we have the tools at our disposal to store, parse, organize and retrieve every single digit. The burgeoning field of data science and analysis is ours to exploit, just waiting to script the next scientific success story. So, I have to hand it to the economists on this one — the winner’s curse is alive and kicking in science. But, like any good scientist, I’m thinking of solutions, and every clue suggests that open data, accessibility and collaboration could be just the spell that breaks this curse. Ayushi Sood is an undergraduate microbiology student at Amity University, India. Her interest in what makes life tick made her fall in love with bacteria and astrobiology, and her passion for making scientific research more efficient and accessible led her to explore bioinformatics. She has been a part of research projects investigating nanoparticle-plant interactions, transgenic algae, and bacteria-algae associations. Ayushi enjoys dance, writing, and functional DIY craft. You can follow her work on Bitesize Bio and connect with her on LinkedInor Facebook.