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Brain drain hits reverse gear
‘Home’ work draws scientists
- Pioneer rediscovered

Bengal is getting back some of its better scientists in a brain-drain reversal coinciding with Mamata Banerjee’s call for “a new Renaissance” on the 151st birth anniversary of a pioneer almost forgotten in the scramble to celebrate Rabindranath Tagore.

“Today is the day to pay our respectful tribute to Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray — a great academician, chemist and founder of Bengal Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals…. His contribution would no doubt set an example to the young generation that their talent can unfold on the soil of Bengal instead of joining the ‘brain drain’,” the chief minister posted on Facebook.

Mamata, who had garlanded a portrait of P.C. Ray earlier in the day as part of a Writers’ ritual, would be glad to know that some who had left are already returning to the call of emerging opportunities in institutions such as the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, coinciding with a growing lack of job security in the West.

“We have recruited 15 to 20 Indian scientists from the US and Europe in the last two years,” Milan Kumar Sanyal, director of the Saha Institute, told Metro. “Many more are waiting for the right opportunity.” Of the scientists that Sanyal has recruited, one used to work at Harvard University, three at the University of California and two at Germany’s Max Planck Institute.

So is this a rekindling of the spirit of P.C. Ray who had surmounted the odds to set up India’s first pharmaceutical company in Bengal or a silent transformation beyond political rhetoric?

Sanyal attributes the reverse brain drain to lab facilities in the top institutes becoming almost on a par with those in the US and Europe. “Also, our pay packets no longer deter them from coming and joining us. Where we lack is in mega science facilities like synchrotrons and cyclotrons,” he said.

The current job situation in the US is definitely a factor. This is seconded by Besu vice-chancellor Ajay Ray, who was on a recruitment drive for the Shibpur campus in the US recently. “We are receiving a lot of applications from Indians in the US and Europe. This I think is because people are finding it difficult to get permanent jobs there,” said Ray.

And for those from Bengal, he added, familial duty towards old parents is a contributing, though not clinching, factor.

For Sandip Chakrabarti, who returned to Calcutta in 1996 after stints at Chicago University, the California Institute of Technology and Nasa, home is where the opportunity is despite the hurdles. “One needs to remember that Bengal still produces the maximum number of students to top scientific research institutes in India and abroad. If I had been in Bangalore or Mumbai or Pune, I would perhaps have been in more committees and got more accolades, but my research would have suffered. Here I can work peacefully,” said the Dean, Academics of the SN Bose National Centre for Basic Science.

When he returned to Calcutta in 1996, many thought it was the end of his career. “But it was the beginning. Most of the significant achievements have happened here. With minimal budget we are doing global-level research. I completely agree with Acharya P.C. Ray’s vision of doing high-quality research based in Bengal.”

Brindaban C. Ranu, a J.C. Bose National Fellow and senior professor of organic chemistry at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, thinks those who left would gladly come back if offered proper infrastructure.

Koustubh Panda, head and coordinator of the department of biotechnology Calcutta University, should know. He was a staff scientist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, US, before home and newer opportunities beckoned.

Panda called P.C. Ray “an inspiration for all scientists” wanting to return. “He not only stayed in Bengal but also thought of science for the common man. It’s possible to do world-class research in Bengal, provided funds are disbursed in a more organised manner. There’s too much of bureaucratic control now.”