India – stop looking down on international collaborations

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During my first week at my new job in 2014, a senior colleague called me into his office to share his experience and wisdom. He told me that if a research publication in my lab had foreign co-authors, it wouldn’t matter much to my career progression.

I was stunned. I was starting the position I had always aspired to – as an independent faculty member in my home country – but certainly wanted to maintain the connections I had established during my studies abroad and forge new ones. worldwide. Having trained with three Nobel Laureates, I knew the power of collaboration to drive cutting-edge science.

I noted this advice as one person’s idiosyncratic opinion and continued to nurture a large network of international collaborators. This was crucial for my study of G-protein-coupled receptors, which carry various messages through the cell or nuclear surface and are the target of potent drugs, including those prescribed to treat heart failure, hypertension, allergies and mental illness.

Today, the research in my laboratory relies on many connections across the world. It has been awarded several national awards, which I think reflects a growing appreciation for collaborations abroad. Dozens of students and early career researchers I mentor see how working with scientists from other countries helps them gain better knowledge and holistic understanding. I am incredibly proud of them.

Sadly, I still often hear that committees that evaluate promotions and rewards scorn work that includes collaborators from overseas. This idea arose in informal conversations. Some top scientists consider this to be essential advice, even when writing it in emails. Their challenge? If there is a foreign author on an article, even in the middle of the list, then the article was published in high profile media because of that author and not because of science.

I don’t want to cast a bad light on review boards. My goal is to raise awareness of this bias, which can sometimes be unconscious. It goes against the national strategy.

In recent years, India has invested heavily in huge science projects and international partnerships with institutions such as Wellcome, the London-based research funder and funding agency UK Research and Innovation, and the impact begins to be felt. For example, the Indian government’s Mega Science Vision explicitly supports and promotes international collaborations. The Ministry of Science and Technology, a major funding agency in the country, has launched several collaborative bi- and multilateral funding programs in recent years. India has also partnered with international research funding bodies, such as the Human Frontier Science Program and the European Molecular Biology Organization.

But junior colleagues still sometimes suffer from this bias. One of them told me of an amazing experience during an interview for a teaching position. A senior member of the search committee said he shouldn’t even have been invited because his research papers included foreign authors and therefore it was too difficult to assess his contribution. He was a seasoned scientist tasked with recruiting the next generation of science leaders.

If it is possible to measure the contribution of candidates from international institutes, it is then possible to evaluate the work of a local or internal candidate with foreign collaborators, in particular with so many journals including an author-contribution section. This enthusiastic young researcher was fighting back tears. I felt the system had failed him.

In surveys conducted in 2013 and 2015, conducted by thousands of scientists from the United States, United Kingdom, India, Italy, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Turkey and France, Indian scientists were most likely to say that none of their scientific collaborators in the past year were from other countries (KRW Matthews et al. Account. Res. 27, 477-495; 2020). Yet articles with international authorship tend to be more cited and more impactful.

I have personally seen the power of international collaborations to increase the quality of my research in India. Most laboratories and departments, even those of major Indian research institutions, are relatively small, which limits the number of people available to work together on a project. For example, many crystallographers in foreign countries may simply go to a synchrotron to collect X-ray diffraction data; in India, we have to plan several months in advance to send crystals and collect data on beamlines overseas. In addition, a laboratory cannot acquire expertise in all the possible methodologies to deal with a question, and sometimes the technologies are available abroad before being accessible here: cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) is a good example.

In 2018, an $ 8.6 million (Rs 650 million) national cryo-EM facility opened in Bengaluru, following a lobbying effort across the country. This was followed by four more such installations, approved last year at a total cost of around $ 16 million. Now, protein structures can be studied using this powerful technique in the country. Yet collaborators around the world are essential for support, including, for example, matching funds from Wellcome in an initiative called the India Alliance.

The anti-collaboration sentiment must end. This undermines the willingness of scientists to engage across borders. It limits their own work and hinders the advancement of science in India and around the world.

Competing interests

The author declares no competing interests.


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