Scientific Nationalism: Is it the Answer to India's Brain Drain?

The rising Covid-19 cases across India and the crumbling of the public healthcare sector have exposed the need to address the problem of brain drain now more than ever. This article looks at the brain drain taking place in India and how this problem can be addressed and tackled.

Scientific Nationalism: Is it the Answer to India's Brain Drain?
via LinkedIn


By Rohit Tyagi

The virulent second wave of COVID-19 has affected India awfully. Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has correctly termed the devastating situation as a "once in a century crisis"—where millions got infected and lakhs of people succumbed to the deadly virus. The unexpected spike spiralled into an unimaginable crisis as the country's public health infrastructure almost collapsed.

Ironically, the health crisis has emerged in a country that produces nearly 50,000 doctors every year, spends almost 70,000 crores annually on the health care sector and has 252 researchers per one million inhabitants. Amid the spike in cases, the Government of India issued a notice calling MBBS students to volunteer in Covid19 frontline services as the nation faced an acute shortage of doctors. India also appealed to the World Trade Organization for an Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) waiver for COVID-19 vaccines, which would accelerate global vaccine production to meet the growing domestic and international vaccine demand.

Although, there are many reasons for this unfortunate situation in India—‘brain drain’ is arguably one among them. One in seven doctors in the United States is of Indian origin. Researchers estimate that somewhere between 2% to 50% of Indians in the health care sector intend on seeking employment overseas. According to the data released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2017, nearly 56,000 Indian-trained nurses work in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. The United States remains the main country of destination for foreign-trained doctors and nurses, followed by the United Kingdom and Germany. India has been the world’s largest source for immigrant physicians since it gained independence in 1947. This reveals the severity of brain drain in India and why it must be addressed immediately.

China was another country that suffered from brain drain. However, over the last two decades, the Chinese government has successfully addressed this problem through programs like the Thousand Talents Plan —which identifies Chinese scientists and researchers abroad, who conduct innovative critical research programs and projects, and provide them incentives, such as lucrative entrepreneurship programs, to bring them back to the county. The Chinese government offers these Chinese nationals abroad job security, better living standards, honorary titles, and modern independent lab in their home country.  The incentives are so desirable that several Chinese nationals have returned to their homeland to ‘serve’ the nation. These Chinese researchers bring back their knowledge, experience, and hands-on expertise acquired using resources mostly available in developed nations. The Chinese government also conducts extensive surveillance on Chinese nationals working abroad, to keep track of their research and collaborates with foreign labs and research institutes. As per Chinese law––provincial governments are vested with the power to design and modulate schemes for overseas researchers—which in turn motivates overseas Chinese to come back and work for their local government. China spends over 378 billion dollars annually—the second-highest in the world—on research and development; research grants and funds are no longer a constraint for local or national level projects in most Chinese labs or research institutes.

Unfortunately, India presents a stark contrast. In the last two to three decades, several efforts by successive governments to reverse brain drain have been futile. A study from 2012 showed that over 153,000 students leave India for higher education every year and having completed their study, only 5.2% of these students chose to return. The current government did take steps in the right direction to address this problem. Similar to the Chinese initiatives, the Indian government had also approached well known NRI scientist to place them in appropriate departments under the Ministry of Science and Technology. Yet, a lot more needs to be done. 

How can India reverse brain drain? 

There are a lot of benefits for NRI researchers to come back to their home country. Apart from the obvious emotional appeal, several reports have shown how Indian-Americans have been victims of racial discrimination. Developed countries are adopting more and more protectionist policies to protect the interests of their citizens and reserve opportunities for them. Although having a well-established diaspora has its benefits, in times of national crisis, such as the one we are facing now, shows why reversing brain drain should be on the long-term agenda of the government. A five-year plan should be chalked out for promoting research and development which is free from political patronage. Corruption has seeped into the higher echelons of education in the Indian system. A separate department, under the direct supervision of the PMO, which manages the research and lab finances of central universities, might help in avoiding the problem of misappropriation of funds and selective bias in choosing proposals. 

A better pay scale, professional environment, better security, and stability are needed to bring back Indian-origin researchers and scientists working abroad. New infrastructure and improving existing facilities should be the first step in this venture. Furthermore, recruitment into specialized educational fields must be kept away from the politics of reservations, political interference, and preferences.

Even though India may be allowed to produce generic anti-COVID-19 vaccines by the WTO vaccine IPR waiver, it will likely face serious difficulty in manufacturing generics of advanced vaccines like mRNA vaccines which are more complicated due to the lack of manpower. The Indian government must utilize platforms such as Pravasi Bharatiya Divas to identify Indian nationals working abroad in crucial sectors such as public health. There should be sustained efforts to bring researchers back to India by igniting patriotism and giving them desirable positions within administrative, military and academic establishments in India. Such Scientific Nationalism—attracting scientists of the Indian diaspora working in critical labs—has to be fostered. These researchers can help India by applying and passing on the technical expertise they have acquired working abroad. It is also an opportunity for an Indian-origin scientist to contribute to Atma Nirbhar Bharat with their knowledge, which could save many lives and equally help India in its economic self-reliance goals.

In conclusion, a proactive approach is needed to get the Indian nationals, Non-Resident Indians, and Person of Indian origin that make up India's valuable human resources capital back to India. It will not happen overnight and requires sustained efforts. To begin with, favourable, reward-based, policies that incentivize scientific nationalism are the need of the hour. Otherwise, for the Indian diaspora, ‘home’ will always be a place they visit once in a while, and the brain drain will never translate to brain gain.

Mr Rohit Tyagi is currently pursuing a PhD in biological sciences. He has done his M.Tech in biotechnology from Anna University, Chennai. Previously he has worked as a junior research fellow at the National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi.

Disclaimer: This paper is the author’s individual scholastic contribution and does not necessarily reflect the organisation’s viewpoint.