“It made me and others grow”

“It made me and others grow”

On the 20th anniversary of the partner group programme in India

April 03, 2024

No other country has as many active partner groups as India: 85 partner groups have been founded in India since 2004, of which 27 were active in March 2024. To mark this 20th anniversary, a delegation led by Max Planck President Patrick Cramer visited the metropolis of Delhi at the beginning of April 2024. One aim of the trip is also to intensify existing collaborations. And to explore what further opportunities for cooperation with India there are for Max Planck.

The world's most populous democracy and fifth largest economy harbours great and diverse research potential. Max Planck President Peter Gruss recognised over two decades ago that it would be important to expand cooperation with India in view of demographic change in Germany. On the occasion of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's visit to India in 2004, Gruss signed a Memorandum of Understanding on future scientific co-operation between the two countries.

Within a short period of time, not only did the number of PhDs and postdocs from India increase, but the partner group programme in particular developed into a very successful and sustainable instrument for cooperation: for 20 years, it has supported Indian postdocs to conduct research in their own country after a stay at an MPI – and to maintain intensive relations with their former Max Planck Institute.

One of the first partner group leaders in India was Naveen Garg. Today, he is Professor of Computer Science at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Delhi, one of India's leading universities. Leading a partner group in India and the associated financial support have not only had a lasting impact on his own scientific career, but also on that of many young Indian researchers. Talking to the professor, who researches and teaches algorithms and complexity in theoretical computer science, about his scientific successes, it quickly becomes clear that his time as a partner group leader in India has had a lasting impact on him – even today.

The reason for this lies not so much in Garg's individual life story, but in the structure of the Indian academic system, which is considered one of the most complex in the world: almost 80 per cent of Indian students are enrolled on Bachelor's programmes and 11 per cent on Master's programmes. Less than 0.5 per cent complete a PhD or its preliminary stage, the MPhil (source: DAAD). There are still very few positions for postdocs. This also explains why Naveen Garg decided to continue his research as a postdoc in Germany. "After completing my PhD at IIT Delhi, I was drawn to the world. I wanted to work with the best in my field of research." And Garg found them in Saarbrücken in the group of Kurt Mehlhorn, then Director at the MPI for Informatics. This was followed by two inspiring years as a postdoc and one and a half years as a research assistant from 1994 to 1997.

Just like Naveen Garg 30 years ago, many students in India still feel the same way today. "We have many talented scientists in our country. However, if they want to become world leaders in their field of research, institutions abroad can offer them a better environment – at least for now," says Garg, assessing the situation of India. According to Garg, it is crucial that young Indian researchers abroad benefit from the intensive exchange with other international doctoral students and postdocs. Many of them find this environment at one of the current 84 Max Planck Institutes: in 2022, one in twelve young foreign researchers at Max Planck Institutes came from India – an increase of more than 21 per cent in the last five years. This makes Indian doctoral students the third-largest foreign group at Max Planck Institutes overall (after young researchers from the EU and China).

Despite the excellent conditions at the MPI for Informatics, Naveen Garg felt the need to return to India to be near his family. "For many people, returning to India can be a professional setback, for example because you lose the ties you have developed at your host institution. I returned to the IIT in Delhi with the certainty that this would not happen to me." Thanks in part to the partner group programme set up in 2004, he was able to maintain and intensify his close ties with the MPI in Saarbrücken.

As a partner group leader, Garg received 20,000 euros a year over a period of five years: "I used the money effectively to expand my research, employ doctoral students and postdocs, spend regular research periods in Germany, take part in international conferences – and organise a particularly successful and sustainable workshop in Delhi." He not only succeeded in inviting leading researchers in the field of approximation algorithms. He also funded over 100 Indian students to take part in the workshop. "Even today, some of these students still come up to me and say that they came to algorithmics through this workshop. That's something I'm very happy about. Because many of them are now very good researchers."

Today, Naveen Garg can look back on numerous successes: his department at the IIT in Delhi comprises more than 100 doctoral students and 5 postdocs. His activities in the partner group led to the first Max Planck Centre in India in 2010, which has been continued as a collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems and the Max Planck Institute for Informatics from 2010 to 2016. He is a Fellow of the Indian Academy of Science, Bangalore, and was honoured with the SS-Bhatnagar Prize for Mathematical Sciences in 2016. Whether through his professorship, his partner group or the Max Planck Centre, which he helped to establish: Garg is particularly pleased that numerous students and doctoral candidates from India have benefited from his own merits and are able to follow their own path in science. "My own experiences have been translated and scaled by them in many ways. That makes me very happy!"


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