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Internal Migration

Tackling India’s Brain Drain: Evaluating the PMRF Scheme

Published on October 3, 2023


Joice Ann Mathew

Brain drain, or the exodus of highly talented, trained, and educated people to nations with better possibilities, has traditionally afflicted poorer or developing countries across the world. India is a notable example of this phenomenon. For decades, millions of young Indian students and employees have decided to move overseas in order to gain a better higher education, better-paying employment, improved living standards, or just for cultural reasons. Initially, this was mostly advantageous since studying or working abroad was utilised as a means to a goal. Many students choose to get their degrees and work in other countries for a few years before returning to India and applying their newfound knowledge and expertise to take the lead in a burgeoning economy, market, and corporate environment. According to a 2023 survey by the Times of India, more than 75% of immigrating Indians opt to move to the United States (US) or other wealthy countries after completing their studies, there is an urgent need to consider the negative externalities this trend may entail.

Just like in other countries, pursuing a career in research and academics in India has developed through time. It is fairly usual for Indians to pursue their scientific interests outside of India. This increases the value of their credentials and allows them to join prestigious institutions in India as bright instructors. However, in the quest for greater opportunities, India is presently experiencing a serious brain-drain phenomenon: the exodus of Indian minds abroad, has serious economic ramifications for India, since its investments in education and training are vanishing along with talent. Countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom are wooing Indian talent, notably in the sectors of information technology, science, and technology, due to their advantageous immigration policies, reputation, better living standards and higher salaries.

To reinforce the brain drain issue, one-third of graduates from India’s finest engineering institutes, particularly the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), travel abroad. A 2021 study by the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP) found that India’s sharpest brains make up one-fifth of the US STEM workforce, with India becoming as the primary supplier of Asian immigrant scientists and engineers. Though some of the  individuals return to India, they are a small percentage of those who leave India. This perplexing pattern raises several crucial questions: What draws Indians to study abroad?  Is India attempting to entice them back, and if so, are these efforts adequate to halt the flow of brain drain and attract back the talent that India requires to thrive? The narrative develops with remarkable insights regarding global talent movement and its influence on India’s prosperity.

Navigating the Challenges of Pursuing a PhD in India

As India grapples with the puzzling problem of Brain Drain, a complex network of causes enters the picture. The lack of working conditions and research facilities in India limits possibilities of scholars. Scholars obtaining a PhD are seen as simple college students. They are rarely treated as professionals. A PhD Scholar in Chemistry from Christ University, emphasised the fact that PhD candidates are acknowledged and esteemed in the international community. It should also be emphasised that there is a lack of access to top-tier education as well as insufficient financial support for their study. Scholars go overseas to pursue their PhD or research interests since their stipends are insufficient to cover their living and even research expenditures. Obtaining a doctoral degree in India, particularly in STEM, is a difficult task in and of itself. A PhD candidate from IIT Madras, claimed that it took her seven lengthy years of labour to earn a doctorate degree. She remarked, “Watching a long queue waiting to try out an instrument for recording measurements essential to our research was exhausting and disheartening.” Doctoral and research applicants overseas are required to complete their work in a tight five-year time frame, with no compromises made to the work’s quality. They receive a good salary, and all of their expenditures are efficiently paid.  While the departure of highly qualified people for research has some good effects, such as international recognition and  remittances, it also has a significant negative impact on the country’s human capital, economic growth, and key services. The battle between the appeal of chances overseas and the pursuit of policies to keep and draw in India’s young labour is poised to be an exciting one. India is at a turning point in its road towards overall national development, with the acknowledgement of academic genius on the line and the desire to build a robust research and innovation environment. India has taken strong action to encourage students and scientists to seek careers in research and development within the nation because it recognises the crucial necessity of research investment. Through a variety of cutting-edge programmes and fellowships, the government has demonstrated its commitment to promoting a healthy research ecosystem.

India’s Steps Towards Achieving Research Excellence

The Ramanujan Fellowship attracts bright Indian scientists and engineers from throughout the world to take up research posts in India, providing them with an exclusive platform to showcase their abilities. Similarly, the Visiting Advanced Joint Research (VAJRA) Faculty Scheme encourages non-resident Indian scientists to do joint research at Indian universities. These programmes, with large endowments, aim to reintroduce the greatest brains to India’s scientific scene. The INSPIRE Scheme is crucial in motivating students to pursue science and cultivating a critical resource pool for the nation’s R&D basis. Similarly, the MK Bhan-Young Researcher Fellowship Programme encourages young researchers to stay in the nation after finishing their PhD. However, because these initiatives were not created to stifle the phenomena of brain drain, they were unable to strategically restrict the flow of talent leaving our nation.

Elevating Scholars: India’s Prime Minister’s Research Fellowship (PMRF) Program

As India continues to suffer from brain outflow, the government focuses on the crown jewel of India’s research initiatives: the Prime Minister’s Research Fellows (PMRF) project, which tries to transform brain drain into brain gain. The plan is the most recent effort aimed at research and academia, having been introduced in 2018. This innovative programme finds and fosters bright individuals with a love for STEM research who are doing PhDs at chosen Indian universities. The scheme gives them unrivalled opportunity to collaborate on issues of national significance. Prakash Javadekar, the then-Union Minister for Human Resource Development, said that the PMRF will “convert brain drain to brain gain” by tapping “the talent pool of the country for conducting indigenous research.” Applications for the PMRF scheme were only accepted through direct entry in the first year, which required students to have completed or be pursuing an M. Tech./M.S. degree by research at one of the PMRF Granting Institutes with a minimum CGPA or CPI of 8.0 (on a 10-point scale) or above at the conclusion of the first semester with a minimum of four courses. Due to the difficulty in meeting this need, the PMRF committee created a lateral entrance channel two years later.  Students who entered the PhD course with a master’s degree and finished the programme in no more than 12 months, as well as those who entered the programme with a bachelor’s degree and finished the programme in no more than 24 months, may apply through this route.The hefty monthly stipend of Rs 70,000 provided by the PMRF plan, together with an additional Rs 2 lakh set aside for emergencies, effectively covers both living expenses and research expenditures.

They are no longer seen as students receiving stunted stipends because the amount they get covers all of their expenditures. Along with receiving this assistance, scholars must put in 50 hours of research time and fulfil teaching duties at neighbouring institutions or through the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL). The quality and significance of academic researchers’ research are evaluated annually under the PMRF programme. The PMRF funding awarded to the scholar is revocable should these assessments show unsatisfactory results. Although the stipend amount seems sufficient to cover research-related costs, this assessment process emphasises the significance of maintaining a strong research trajectory during the fellowship.

After learning that several of her IIT Madras colleagues who were in her Master’s programme had moved abroad to pursue their doctorates, an IISc PMRF scholar, said she had also given it some thought.  She says, “Getting the PMRF scholarship motivated me to stay back in India and pursue my PhD here. “ Overall, the PMRF scheme looked really good and promising on paper and makes the dream of “Brain Gain” seem attainable, gradually.

Uncovering the Cracks in the PMRF Initiative

Despite the potential benefits of the PMRF system, there are certain operational flaws that have hampered its effectiveness. “Despite a projected capacity for over 10,000 PMRF scholars since its inception, the actual number of beneficiaries remains at around 2000 scholars today,” said, a PMRF scholar from IISER Bhopal. The first year of the PMRF scheme’s implementation, 2018, witnessed a significant difference between the planned intake of 1000 scholars and the ultimate selection of just 135 students. Despite the fact that the PMRF intake has expanded inch by inch, it has not achieved the predicted number of academics that the government was ready to finance. The PMRF flaws do not end here. According to a VIT PhD student in Physics, there is a clear bias in favour of research projects in applied sciences. Additionally, he said that students submitting PMRF applications with proposals for basic research are typically not approved.

Although it is not a requirement for PMRF applications, this pattern has been in place since 2018. If this were the case, it may have an impact on the program’s research domain variety and breadth, as basic research is just as significant as applied research. A PhD student in Physics at International Institute of Information Technology (IIITP), voiced concern about not being able to apply for PMRF because his institute is not on the list of PMRF-granting institutes in India. The PMRF selection procedures are inherently exclusive, with just 3.5% of candidates chosen based on National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) rankings. This method disproportionately benefits students from universities with higher NIRF rankings, reducing chances for those studying at schools with lower NIRF rankings. Such a selection method limits access to this coveted fellowship, leaving just a small percentage of the larger research community with government-backed recognition and financial help. Great brains have a propensity to leave the nation when they are rejected by PMRF financing institutions, as a result.

Innovative Pathways to Strengthen India’s PMRF Scheme

A rational way to leverage the PMRF plan to reduce the brain drain is to expand the number of beneficiaries and institutes to include all centrally sponsored universities.  Given the increasing number of PhD degrees conferred in recent years, the PMRF’s limited intake capacity of 1000 seats contradict the needs of the rising research environment. This constraint is highlighted when compared to the massive growth in overall PhD admissions, demonstrating that just 0.4% of the student research community receives government-sponsored financial assistance and recognition. This shows that a more inclusive and thorough strategy for developing research talent is required. Furthermore, the budget for the PMRF programme increased significantly in the fiscal year 2023-24. Despite this expansion, there hasn’t been a formal announcement about a comparable rise in the number of seats or awards available inside the programme.

This raises concerns regarding the strategic use of the strengthened budgetary provisions and its possible effects on the growth and reach of the PMRF programme. Additionally, applicants’ options are limited by the opaque selection process and the cap on the number of attempts at two. Candidates have no opportunity to improve or submit a new application after failing on their first two attempts under this approach. To increase the usability and fairness of the PMRF programme, it can be thought of providing candidates with additional opportunities for improvement or reconsideration, encouraging a more equitable and dynamic selection process. Statements from interviews with PMRF and non-PMRF researchers from a variety of schools with high and low NIRF rankings also indicate that there is some political interference in the choice of scholars for the PMRF depending on the institutions they are a member of.

India has contributed to the development of outstanding brains and abilities in the fields of science and academics. There have always been ups and downs, but India has the potential to become a great pioneer in patents and discoveries.  PMRF is a concept that is well on its way to realising its goal. Regardless of these flaws, Brain Drain would continue to be a major issue with substantial implications for both the economy and the reputation of our country. Policymakers should thus prioritise changing the plan to choose additional beneficiaries and expanding PMRF awarding institutes to at least the top 100 NIRF institutes. In order to cultivate India’s intellectual capital and promote the nation’s rich research ecosystem, the PMRF programme may be improved by creating an environment that is inclusive of growth and innovation. The government should also implement measures to address the fundamental problems that underlie talent movement, such as improving research infrastructure, workplace cultures, and academic salaries.

Benefits provided to PhD students must be structured such that they are no longer viewed as ordinary college students but rather as professionals. Accordingly, India will soon become a country that encourages research and makes it feasible to offer a seamless research experience to all scholars in our nation so that even PhD candidates are recognised and driven in the community.

Joice Ann Mathew, currently pursuing MSc in Economics and Analytics at Christ University Lavasa Pune Campus. With a profound passion for analytics, Joice delves even deeper into the realms of development economics, environmental economics and policy research.