What could be the challenges for Indian diaspora scientists wanting to explore career opportunities back home during the novel coronavirus pandemic? Sayan Dutta, a doctoral fellow in the Neurodegenerative Disease Research Laboratory at Purdue University, analyses the key learning from a recent global meet.
As the global economy took a hit with the coronavirus pandemic, and science job opportunities seemed up in the air, more than 400 diaspora Indian scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs got together in early September 2020 to make sense of what this ‘new normal’ might look like.
At the Science and Research Opportunities in India (Sci-ROI) annual meet – which was forced to go virtual this year, like many other conferences worldwide – this bunch of engaged scientists and researchers heard 40 eminent speakers over four days, keenly picking up nuggets on the current and future projections of the career landscape in India.
A volunteer-run organization established in 2015, Sci-ROI is a gateway for young scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs in the U.S. to access professional opportunities across academic, industry and private sectors in India. When we were wrapping up Sci-ROI’s annual event in 2019 at the University of Chicago, its founder Prof. Aseem Ansari prodded me gently about the new challenges we had vowed to undertake in 2020. I had never imagined in my wildest dreams that the “new challenges” would entail organising a full-scale virtual event amid a global pandemic.
Back in April 2020, when the first wave of the pandemic shook the world necessitating complete lockdowns, it seemed impossible to organise this year’s in-person event in September. After deliberations, the organising team became sure about two things – that the event should go virtual, and that no one had the slightest hint on how to host a virtual event. But soon enough, a diverse team got working overtime – countless hours of online meetings, event planning, programing, technical troubleshooting, media moderation and visual media creation (all by hidden talents in parallel to being postdocs), were unleashed.
Speakers from 39 Indian institutes joined the panels to address attendees from more than 150 institutes around the world. The deliberations revealed that there has been no major setback in India’s research funding due to the pandemic yet. Most Indian academic institutions are still actively engaged in the hiring processes, and funding agencies have taken steps to mitigate the challenges thrown up by the pandemic, though in the long run things might slow down.
Unique sessions such as entrepreneurial seminars and careers beyond the professoriate spotlighted opportunities in both the sectors. India’s entrepreneurial ecosystem continues to widen its support for new biotech start-ups and deep-science entrepreneurial ventures. The conference also brought forward India’s growing career landscape in the sectors of science communication, management, administration, and policy making available to researchers after Ph.D.
Through online polling, participants at the event, mostly from the diaspora, actively identified some major challenges they face while trying to transition back to India. Among them were the age barrier of 35 years on entry level positions (such as assistant professorship), lack of a centralised and transparent recruitment process, and slow or no correspondence and follow-up emails on their application status from Indian institutes. In view of the pandemic, researchers also strongly advocated making academic applications completely paperless.
Although we did not realize it at the onset, the virtual format of the event turned out to be more informative and far-reaching (involving even the Indian diaspora outside the US) than the traditional format.
A global pandemic got us out of our comfort zones, and we found unique solutions for unforeseen problems. We realized that while in-person interactions are irreplaceable, enabling effective virtual communication is the need of the hour. Sci-ROI’s “by the scholars, for the scholars” event represented a model of such an emerging community, critical for global brain circulation. Alongside the annual event, a virtual recruitment week in October and a central STEM job portal will hopefully enable the growth of stronger collaborations between scientific communities within and outside India.
(Sayan Dutta coordinates collaborations at Sci-ROI, a U.S. based volunteer-run organisation, helping diaspora Indian scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs access professional opportunities in India. He can be reached at email@example.com.)