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Issues Involved in Diffusion of Knowledge Through Migration of Scientific Labour in India

Dinar Kale

Principal investigator(s):   David Wield

Affiliated staff:   Joanna Chataway   Paul Quintas   Steve Little

Funding: ESRC Science in Society Programme

April 1 2005 – March 31 2006


In the past, ‘brain drain’ has proved to be a big curse for developing countries like India and China but in the emerging global competitive environment, the brain drain can provide crucial advantage to these formerly backward regions. Through successful diffusion of knowledge the communities of such scientists and engineers can provide the skill and know-how needed to help local firms shift higher value added activities. Such ‘knowledge transfer’ played an important role, for example, in the emergence of firms in South Korea and Taiwan to as global leaders in IT production.

Aims and objectives

This project explores the dynamics of scientific labour markets and its implications for international knowledge transfer.

The project focuses on the reverse brain back to one country: India, and back into one industry, pharmaceuticals.

Our previous research suggested that Indian firms are developing capabilities in innovative R&D by hiring Indian scientists working in multinational firms’ R&D laboratories. Building on that this project explored process of knowledge transfer through interviews with scientists who have moved back from the US to work in innovative Indian pharmaceutical firms.

Key findings

Brain circulation

India has suffered massive brain drain over the decades, mostly in the form of the migration of scientists and engineers to technologically advanced countries.  These emigrants have often enjoyed impressive professional economic success. However, economic development and firms’ strategies have played a key role in converting brain drain into brain circulation, with the success of the pharmaceutical industry resulting in the movement of non-resident Indians back to India.

Firms are trying to fill knowledge gaps by hiring Indian scientists based in the United States and the UK, and working for major pharmaceutical firms.  However, they are also realising that hiring scientists is not sufficient – such knowledge must also be assimilated, and made useful.

Assimilation of the knowledge

Scientists from two generations are returning to work in Indian firms - junior scientists who have recently finished their doctoral or post-doctoral training, and senior scientists with extensive experience. The former, who are mostly concerned with learning news skills, find assimilation comparatively easy.

There is also a mismatch between the broader requirements of Indian firms - for example, skills associated with 'whole drug discovery' - and the narrower sets of skills possessed by returning scientists, most of whom have specialised knowledge in particular disciplines or therapeutic areas.

Working cultures

Differences in the working cultures of Indian and western firms are an important issue - especially in the case of returning senior scientists, used to professionally managed organisations.  By contrast, most Indian firms are family-owned and controlled, and strong on 'process' research and development skills - the legacy of the 'generic market' mindset associated with the era of 'weak' patents.

Social infrastructure

The research also shows the importance of social infrastructure on the decisions of scientists based in the United States to return to India, which suggests an important role for the government.  Indian firms have responded to this issue by adopting global R&D practices, with firms introducing more open management structures, and offering junior scientists the chance to develop management and leadership experience. Firms provided support to returnees to adjust to their new environment by facilitating settling down in a new place of living. However the findings also suggest that firms require support from government policy in attracting returnees.

Further information

For further information contact Dinar Kale,