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February 14, 2008

Baltimore in Boston: Scientific Outsourcing Comes to India

Baltimore_3Last month, during a trip to India, AAAS president David Baltimore realized just how flat the earth is becoming when it comes to science.

There he visited a firm called TnQ in Chennai whose thousand employees, many of them PhD's, edit and prepare American and European scientific papers. Much like customer support and other industries that have been outsourced to India, TnQ takes manuscripts that have been accepted for publication in journals like Cell and copyedits them and prepares their layout. During Baltimore's visit, the staff showed him his own review paper on RNA—which he had submitted to the journal Immunity—and  which TnQ had processed and edited from its facilities. "[I was] impressed by the scientific knowledge of the staff," he told a room of international reporters this morning at the inaugural breakfast of the association's 2008 meeting.

While the quality work that TnQ provides shows that the country has a good foundation of scientific talent, Baltimore cautioned that editing papers written by others isn't the path to true laboratory science. As the theme of this year's meeting is Science and Technology from a Global Perspective, Baltimore laid out five guidelines for developing countries to grow their technical and scientific strength. Briefly: hire great people, emphasize smaller institutions instead of spreading resources too thin, allow scientists to work in intimate groups and collaborate, make sure that scientists actively train younger scientists, and maintain academic freedom to speak out. 

India and China have yet to follow "Baltimore's rules," as he calls them, but there's no question that the enthusiasm for science is there. The biologist, who won the Nobel prize in 1975, recalled being treated "like a rock star" during a visit to a university in Xiamen, China. "When you go to China and India you're mobbed by these crowds," Baltimore said. At some point the frenzied students have become dangerous, he said. "I've stopped giving autographs because everyone comes up to you with a piece of paper."

TnQ's employees share that excitement. "It was a great day for the staff of TnQ, who never get to see the people behind the science that they work with all the time," the company wrote on a blog entry. "Thank you Dr. Baltimore."

--Eli Kintisch



Outsourcing science is just one aspect of what is happening. The exchange of scientists between these countries is happening more and more frequently. Visiting scientists are given access to resources in North America and often leave after their term returning home to continue great research in collaboration with the scientists here at home.

Testtakers in MCAT/SAT take the help of Cliff Notes, Quickbooks etc to prep them. So do aspirants to Harvard and Yale. Authors of scientific papers need help too to put their thoughts into acceptable format. That is where ThQ comes in. And by the size of their staff, they appear very much in demand.