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Beginning of end of brain drain?

November 28, 2004 15:00 IST

For fifteen young innovators of Indian origin who were honoured with the MIT Global Indus Technovators awards, the question of 'brain drain' has always been a seminal one.

Many of these achievers, chosen from an eclectic mix of graduate students, professors, grassroots development workers and even successful entrepreneurs, seem to think staying back in India is no longer an obstacle to success.

"The brain drain trend is reversing. Many colleagues have decided to stay in India and many of my students from India are planning to return," says professor Vijay Pande, currently developing new methods for computational drug design.

"Much of this reversal stems from the strength of IT in India."

"Physical location is a cliche in today's world and certainly not a barrier to innovation," says entrepreneur Anand Chandrasekaran, whose company Aeroprise develops desktop applications for mobile users.

But was the 'brain-drain' a bad thing in itself? Perhaps, researchers and entrepreneurs in India found it difficult to escape from the shackles of poverty and anonymity, and wanted greener pastures to feed their passion for creativity.

"Well, as far as brain drain goes, aren't we all thankful that Ramanujan went to Cambridge rather than stay in
Kumbakonam," says Chandrasekaran.

"The brain drain was a brilliant move as it permitted India to send thousands of ambassadors to the world -- ambassadors who gained the respect of the world with their intelligence and hard work. And in return, the world invested in India," says Dr Sanjay Sarma, an IIT alumnus researching the applications of Radio Frequency Identification technology.

"But it's possible to do great research in India because there is capital now -- the one ingredient lacking in the first forty or fifty years after independence," says Sarma.

Vamsi Mootha, whose research into diseases like diabetes could potentially help millions of Indians, feels India will be very competitive on a global scale in the coming decade.

"Given its brainpower and manpower in this Internet era, there is no reason why India can't thrive in multiple disciplines," he says, in an e-mail response.

But twenty-eight-year-old Kailas Narendran, inventor of a low-cost electromechanical device for people with spinal cord injuries, seems to think there are two aspects -- cultural and economic -- to the brain drain issue.

"One reason for so much hi-tech research in America is the wealthy economy that can consume those goods. More money is flowing into India now and this problem will be solved," says the US-born innovator.

"The cultural problem is much deeper. Indians are generally risk averse whereas in the US, risk is encouraged and admired. The best part is that it's subsidised by the government in the form of grants."

"Other countries can provide the education and inspiration to Indian entrepreneurs, but it's up to India to provide the motivation for them to come back to the country of their origin. Innovators and researchers need an environment that encourages risk and exploration. It's up to the government to set policy decisions that encourage this," adds Narendran.

Another innovator who stresses on the need for more financial resources for research is Ravi Kamath, who has developed new methods for rapidly identifying gene functions on a large scale.

"In some areas of research, the ability to be successful is directly related to having a sizeable commitment of financial resources dedicated to those efforts, which in turn attracts talented people from all over the world.

Ultimately, it's the person you work with who determines your level of success," says Kamath.

As a solution to India's brain drain, Kamath suggests that the government needs to demonstrate to researchers a sincere commitment to supporting research while allowing scientists to remain as independent as possible.

"There is such a wealth of talent in India that I do not think it would take long for even a small number of successful researchers based there to attract others and make India one of the world's leading nations for technical innovation," says Kamath.

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