Indian diaspora strides ahead in US research sector

H1B visa problems turn India’s brain drain into brain gain

Diaspora

September 16, 2021

/ By / New Dehi

Indian diaspora strides ahead in US research sector

Some Indian PhD scientists are forced into taking low-paying post-docs positions to be able to stay in the US (Photo: Prasesh Shiwakoti/Unsplash)

Many aspiring Indian researchers are drawn to the United States for its enviable science and technology infrastructure and boundless career opportunities, but often they encounter administrative hurdles and intense competition on their way to the top.

The global rush to manufacture vaccines since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic has hugely reiterated the immense importance for each country to possess a vibrant scientific research and development ecosystem. For decades, the United States has held the leadership in this domain and has attracted talent from around the world to an R&D industry that has a massive market size of USD 241 billion, including both governmental and private sector investment.

Amongst those that opt to make the US their home in order to work in the best laboratories with the most generous funding are several Indians who have been over the decades making a beeline to the US. They were also propelled due to poor infrastructure and near absence of funding in India, a situation that has hardly changed, despite economic growth and the increased realisation about the importance of inhouse research and development.

In 2016, Indian immigrants and Indian-origin scientists made up the largest group of foreign workers in the S&T sector in the US, nearing one million and outstripping workers from both Philippines and China, which also saw a steep rise in researchers working in America. Ashni Vora, is one such aspiring scientist, currently pursuing a PhD in Biomedical Sciences at Rockefeller University, New York.

“I chose to come to America because they have really good research facilities and institutes and some of the highest research funding here compared to other countries. One other really big plus is they have funded PhD programmes here, so you don’t have to look for your own funding. Many Indian PhD graduates often stay back after completing their degrees because there are better opportunities and better pay here,” Vora tells Media India Group.

“When I moved to the States in 2007, the research infrastructure was definitely not as developed as it is now. 10 to 15 years ago, most places did not have lab instruments like high-end microscopes. The US PhD process is also a lot more streamlined, and devoid of so many administrative duties unlike what many experience with Indian mentors,” explains Dr Kasturi Pal, who has spent more than a decade in biological research at renowned US research institutions such as the University of California and University of Texas.

Visa restrictions stunt career growth 

Over the years, there have been quite a few renowned Indian researchers heading influential laboratories in the US, such as Indian-born structural biologist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and Dr Sethuraman Panchanathan, who became Director of the National Science Foundation, America’s top science funding body, in 2020.

However, especially in biological and medical fields of research, Indian immigrants believe making a name has become harder over the last few years, due to a combination of increased competitiveness in the industry as well as stricter visa regulations, especially for newer immigrants, making getting a Green Card the only avenue towards landing a desired job.

“In the last decade since 2010 or so, it has been extremely difficult to land a faculty position. After your initial student and work visa runs out, it is difficult to find a job because companies do not want to sponsor you for an H1-B since you go through the lottery. Especially for biology, which is a rapidly evolving field with new technology coming in every six months, you need those extra 2-3 years of post-PhD training, known as post-doctoral research, because it is a rapidly evolving field. Previously that would have been enough, and really competitive for a green card application, but during Trump’s presidency and the extremely bad press that immigrants got, the evaluation process got much more intense and caused some difficulties for researchers from India,” says Dr Pal.

Vora explains that many Indian immigrants are forced to take up low-paying post-doc positions in US labs despite having ample experience and pursuing research outside of academia, simply to ensure their stay in the country. In fact, she says that during the pandemic, labs in the US actually experienced a shortage of post-docs for important research, simply because many immigrants had been forced to return to their home countries.

“There is often a high demand for postdocs because they get notoriously bad pay and it is something you can end up doing if you don’t have a choice. The sudden shortage during the pandemic was because most American citizens wouldn’t take up those kinds of jobs because they’re so low paying and they have the liberty to look for other jobs,” says Vora.

“I have seen Indian Principal Investigators (PIs) but it is definitely a lot harder for a person of Indian origin to become a PI. For example, my friend’s father had made huge progress in his research, published influential papers and done every degree required, and the next step was to head his own lab but he faced so many hurdles because he wasn’t a White man, so he just moved back and started his own lab. At the top, there isn’t much diversity,” she adds.

US loss becomes India’s gain as brain drain turns to brain gain

Despite having six years of post-PhD training, being denied the opportunity for career progression means that many researchers like Pal choose to return to India. Pal, who returned at the start of the pandemic, is now a professor at an Indian research university, and enjoys the freedom of conducting her own research at a much higher salary.

“I wouldn’t go back to the US only to be stuck as a post-doc again, as I feel I am independent enough to work as a PI, carry out my own research and not need a mentor to tell me what to do. Because of this green card issue and since you don’t know how long it’s going to take, your best bet is to work as a post-doc, but that is often difficult to accept that with so much training, you are still under the tutelage of someone else, and being paid less than you deserve,” she adds.

Concerned about the rapid rise in expatriate Indian researches and the proposed “brain drain,” the Indian government has launched several schemes to attract highly talented scientists back to the country and increase investment by them back home. The government organised some meetings last year and the importance of connecting the Indian diaspora abroad with Indian academic and research institutes was stressed at the latest meeting of department of science and technology in August, which had participation from several influential Indian-origin heads of US universities.

Thus, even if they are making strides in US, many Indian researchers also want come back to be part of India’s rapidly growing research sector. Vora, who completed her undergraduate studies in the one of the biggest biological hubs of US, San Diego, says although many Indians feel the standard of living is better in America, one of her goals is to go back to India and use the skills she has picked up to pursue a career in the country’s emergent pharmaceutical research industry.

“Personally, I would like to come back eventually because there is a lot of Pharma companies doing cool stuff and a lot of scope there too, and I would like to work in rapidly evolving fields like cancer biology preferably, or stem cell regeneration,” she says.

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