Suresh Yenugu, an assistant professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Hyderabad (UoH) in India, needed computer-assisted sperm analysis equipment to measure sperm quality and motility for an experiment he was working on, but he couldn't afford it. With Yenugu's blessing, Narmadha Ganapathy, a Ph.D. student in his laboratory, asked scientists at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) for help. On a different occasion, Ganapathy approached the National Institute for Research in Reproductive Health in Mumbai. Both times, they got the work done. "We learn to do more with less, and we improvise and find a way," Ganapathy says.

Courtesy of Suresh Yenugu
Suresh Yenugu

Before joining UoH in 2007, Yenugu was a Fogarty International Trainee in the Laboratories for Reproductive Biology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in the United States. After that, he became a research associate in the same lab. Later, he had a brief stint as an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Pondicherry University. Now he works on reproductive endocrinology with an emphasis on solving local problems. "We should focus on problems where level of awareness is less, and sexually transmitted diseases are serious in our country," he says.

Just as there is a wide disparity in research resources at the world's richest and poorest countries, there is a wide disparity in the resources available at India's elite institutions and the country's universities, where research and teaching go hand in hand. India's central universities are generally somewhere in the middle, and UoH is one of the better-resourced central universities, with a biosafety level-3 lab coming online in the near future. Even so, researchers there must share equipment if they want to be productive. They work within a three-tiered system in which modest equipment is shared at the departmental level; more expensive equipment is housed in university central facilities, and still more expensive, specialized equipment at larger national facilities such as the CCMB. A kind of friends’ network exists among students, below the radar of the principal investigators, through which, as a student puts it, "borrowing an instrument for a few hours or days" is a common practice.

This week's Science includes a special News Focus section on money in biomedical science, which should be read by anyone interested in academic biomedical careers. See our tie-in companion article "Scarcity Breeds Opportunity." Also related is Beryl Benderly's review of Michael Teitelbaum's new book.

Accustomed to abundance, most researchers in richer countries continue to seek larger budgets even in less prosperous times. In contrast, researchers in modest settings, including India's universities, have learned from experience that a paucity of resources need not always lead to inferior outcomes. In any case, away from India's well-financed national research institutes, Indian scientists have learned to adapt, make do, and get science done.

Starting without start-up funds

Within a year of joining a university as an assistant professor in India, one can apply for a start-up grant from the University Grants Commission (UGC), the organization that administers the university system. UGC startup grants provide the equivalent of $10,000 to 12,000 to be spent over a period of 2 years, with the caveat that you cannot receive another UGC grant until the 2-year period is over. Some researchers decide to skip this step and go straight for bigger grants from the UGC. It's a risky strategy though: Those bigger grants are more competitive, and it takes longer for them to come through. In addition to UGC grants, university researchers can apply for grants from the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), the Department of Science and Technology (DST), and other funding agencies.

Courtesy of Bramanandam Manavathi
Bramanandam Manavathi

 "Although it’s very tough to start off without any startup, you need not feel so helpless. Lots of things can be done meanwhile, like planning and designing your research, and thinking about setting up lab, and working with others to think about different projects," says Bramanandam Manavathi, an assistant professor in UoH's Department of Biochemistry since 2007. While waiting for his start-up funds, he wrote grants to various funding agencies and visited labs around the country, exploring collaboration opportunities. He also did some bioinformatics, which doesn't require a well-funded laboratory.


Courtesy of Ravi Vijayvargia
Ravi Vijayvargia

When resources are limited, science gets done via a combination of entrepreneurial instinct, hackers’ habits, and do-it-yourself ethos. Ravi Vijayvargia was appointed as an assistant professor in the biochemistry department at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in Gujarat, India, in August 2013 following a rather long, well-resourced postdoctoral stint in well-funded U.S. laboratories. He has applied to the UGC for a grant to support "population screening to determine prevalence of Huntington's disease in India," and another as a co-investigator on a collaborative proposal sent to the DBT. As he awaits those funding decisions, he is spending his time researching new ideas, developing new proposals, and helping two graduate students do their dissertation work using resources and facilities found elsewhere in the department.

Equipment and supplies are expensive in India so many Indian scientists explore more frugal ways of doing science. Vijayvargia has seen researchers replacing disposable labware with glass petri dishes and pipettes that can be washed, autoclaved, and reused. When all the autoclaves in a lab are in use, he says, researchers substitute modified pressure cookers; some say they work just as well. Vijayvargia’s team of master's degree students recently designed and built a DNA gel electrophoresis unit with power pack and ultraviolet illuminator that would cost as much as $2000 commercially; their version cost about $35.

Courtesy of Milind G. Watve
Milind G. Watve

Many scientists, of course, have worked their way up through this startup stage, within the limitations of the research system, and are well established now. Milind G Watve, now a professor of biology at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune, has worked in challenging conditions throughout his career, and has contributed to many fields. Watve believes that research constraints can be good for science. "Constraints force you to explore alternative ways of thinking and sometimes it clicks in a big way," he says. Just look for interesting, fundamental problems that don't demand huge resources, he advises. "The only thing needed is open-minded thinking. Material constraints are different from thinking constraints. If you can let loose your imagination, material constraints become minor."

If this emphasis on making do with less seems depressing, consider the employment outlook. UGC says there are some 5000 faculty vacancies on faculties at India’s central universities. Indeed, according to Roddam Narasimha, the DST Year-of-Science Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Jakkur, Bangalore, the big problem with research in India's university system is not so much funding as "the difficulty universities have in attracting gifted scientists from within the country or abroad." Narasimha took part in reviews at various stages of "Mangalyaan," India's Mars Orbiter Mission, including the cryo rocket program. That mission, he says, is "the result of the innovative, low-cost answers to critical constraints."

An international perspective on constrained resources

A professor of anthropology and pediatric nutrition at University College London's Institute of Child Health in the United Kingdom, Jonathan Wells has always worked with "shoestring" budgets. His collaborative projects in challenging conditions are operational in places as diverse as the United Kingdom, South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. "Equipment can be borrowed, obtained second hand from groups that have updated to flashier kit, or bought cheap in a tool shop, and people often work for free, just for interest," he says. Working with less "makes you realize that most science funding is consumed by activities that are peripheral to the research itself." 

After two decades of research, Wells says, "I have no more success at getting grants than when I started, and yet I am doing the studies I want. When you are used to a lack of funds, you already know what the other options are. The biggest reward is that I have done the studies I really wanted to, and [have] met a lot of very generous people along the way."

G.B.S.N.P. Varma is a freelance journalist based in India.