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The COVID-19 pandemic has galvanised the Indian scientific community. Each of us is asking how we can apply our skillset to the problem: no task too trivial, no ask too little. The repurposing of research laboratories as testing centres, coming together of engineers and start-ups for making ventilators, relentless multilingual scientific communication and insta-grant schemes by our government science funding agencies have altogether heralded a moment of reckoning for Indian science.
Now, how do we keep this momentum going given that a severe long-term economic slump is inevitable?
In academia, the most vulnerable section to be hit will be early career scientists – especially those whose research doesn’t concern viral infections. Senior PhD students, postdoctoral scholars hoping to be on the job market and new lab heads banking on competitive grants to start their research program are anxious. As funding will be slashed, so too opportunities for these individuals. Funders are likely to (rightfully) deploy resources to address COVID-19-related vaccine and drug research. However, the basic science that underpins much of research that eventually leads to cures still needs to go on. How can early career scientists survive in this regard?
That is, how can we sustain the spirits of non-COVID-19 research and researchers in our country? Will funders continue to support research in other scientific disciplines? These questions require engagement by our science policymakers.
The first thing all early-career researchers should remember is that this too shall pass. While India’s science funding has been a dismal 0.6-0.8% of its GDP, investment in science education and research has increased leaps and bounds in the last 15 years. Senior researchers might remember a time when travelling abroad was a bonus and procuring a reagent took more than a year. We even have a cohort of senior researchers who have lived through both famine and feast, and today’s early-career researchers should ask them for good survival strategies.
Briefly pivoting research goals to current’ priorities, re-thinking resource-intensive projects and increasing domestic collaborations are potential ways to survive. Overseas academic activities, crucial for networking and collaborations may have to be paused. Publishing, the gold standard of success in academia may have to be curtailed to writing up smaller protocol or research papers. Mid-career and senior researchers can play a more decisive role by opening their labs to junior colleagues from universities, actively supporting grant applications and facilitating collaborative, interdisciplinary projects. A healthy collaborative spirit has inoculated Indian science. Senior researchers can help ferment it. Research that happens in silos should be pushed to the backseat.
A postdoctoral stint abroad is an unwritten norm in Indian research training, but which senior PhD students are unlikely to get in the short-term (12-18 months) thanks to travel restrictions. Historically, India has a skewed export-import STEM personnel training cycle: we export a large number of PhD scholars in STEM fields, and import a tiny fraction as faculty members after their postdoc ends. Ironically, both sets are heavily funded by the government.
Funders have increased grants for postdoctoral scholars in India but unsuccessfully so. The pandemic now offers an opportunity to retain this cohort in India and ameliorate brain drain. Perhaps short ‘internship’ fellowships, of 3-18 months each, for PhD students and postdocs to explore career opportunities in India can now be encouraged? These can help them explore not only academic research but also industrial R&D, biotech start-ups, policy and education. Since foreign travel is going to be difficult, government schemes that support visits abroad may be repurposed for these fellowships.
The COVID-19 emergency has seen a welcome increase in domestic collaborations between scientific disciplines in India. Physicians, engineers, biomedical scientists and public health experts have found common interests and are pressing ahead with research projects. This needs to be sustained and encouraged, not just for national emergencies but also to drive basic research to address national priorities such as clean air, water, sustainable power, malnutrition, biodiversity, etc. A carefully thought-out deployment of scarce monetary resources to balance applied and basic research must be articulated.
While we seek a science funding policy for the post-lockdown era, some measures are already within reach. The research ecosystem in India is principally supported by government agencies with an ambiguous and opaque grant-giving process. Remarkably, agencies and government science bodies have shown flexibility, speed and decisiveness to fund science-based solutions for COVID-19. This imperative should be harnessed and become business as usual. More specific measures including a six-month no-cost extension of ongoing grants and rapid communication on grants and feedback will be key for early-career researchers to survive and grow.
At the national level, funders may consider grouping research projects from a particular area and encourage individual principal investigators to consider submitting joint applications. Making funding more open by only ring-fencing staff salary and overheads will be useful. Allowing scientists the flexibility to allocate funding as per individual circumstances can also encourage more exploratory research as well as provide for retraining of staff.
The entire country has shown remarkable trust in their scientists and in treating us like assets. Let us seize the moment and together #wecandeliver.
Neha Vyas is an assistant professor at St John’s Research Institute, Bengaluru. Megha is an assistant professor at the University of Trans-disciplinary Health Sciences and Technology, Bengaluru.
The authors are thankful to Dr Karishma Kaushik, SPPU, Pune; Dr Rama Rao Damerla, KMC, Manipal; and Prof T. S. Sridhar, SJRI, Bengaluru, for their feedback.