India's scientists return as opportunities beckon

India's scientists return as opportunities beckon

INDIA - In returning to India to work as a scientist two years ago, Dr Praveen Kumar Vemula achieved two things in one stroke: one, to work in the virtually virgin market for biomedics and the other, to repay a debt to his motherland.

"I came back with a scientific vision," says the 39-year-old former Harvard Medical School-Massachusetts Institute of Technology fellow, who left India in 2006 to research biomedical technologies.

"My dream is to do high-quality translational science from India," says Dr Vemula, referring to his field of work in which he develops ways to build and monetise new biomedical technologies.

He now works at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, southern India, and is among a growing tribe of Indian scientists who are returning home, drawn by a fast-improving environment for high-quality research.

For a long time, India's brightest scientific brains left for the West, especially the United States, attracted by its world-class research facilities and job opportunities. Nearly all who did their doctorates abroad stayed on to work. This left India with only a very small pool of qualified scientists.

To reverse the tide, the Indian government, its elite teaching institutions and industry began to take initiatives about a decade ago to build world-class research facilities, give generous fellowships and research grants, and offer well-paying jobs.

For most returning scientists, three fellowships have proved a major draw. The Ramanujan and Ramalingaswami fellowships carry high grants and salaries, while Britain's Wellcome Trust is co-sponsoring a 10-year, US$250 million (S$319 million) fellowship for biomedical scientists.

"One has a lot more freedom in fellowships, using the funds and choosing the right institute to join," says Dr Balasubramaniyam Virappan, 35, a Ramalingaswami fellow who returned from London last year to do research on liver diseases.

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