The India connection

Introduction People Projects Statistics

The first recorded Englishman ever to arrive in India was from Oxford: Father Thomas Stephens, from New College, arrived there in 1579, sending back letters to his family which laid the foundation of Anglo-Indian literature. In the twenty-first century, with India the second most populous country in the world, the connections with Oxford are still strong.

Oxford University is one of the leading centres in the West for the study of India. It houses the leading collection of Sanskrit manuscripts outside India itself. The Asian Studies Centre, founded at St Antony's College in 1982, brings together specialists in a wide variety of different disciplines for single-theme seminar series, conferences, lectures and other activities. In 2002 Oxford's first Professor of Indian History and Culture was appointed, and in 2008 an MSc in Contemporary India was launched.

‘I want to do everything in my power to dynamise the study of contemporary India,’ says Professor Barbara Harriss-White, whose research interests include India's socially regulated capitalist economy and who was instrumental in setting up the course. 'India is a fascinating country to study: it is the largest democracy in the world, a regional superpower and has had great IT business success on the one hand, but there is political violence, widespread environmental degradation and human development failure on the other.’

Firing neutrinos from Oxford to India

India street sceneThe research links between Oxford and India comprise not only research about the country, but collaborations between Oxford and India on international research questions across the disciplines.

One thriving area of collaboration is that of theoretical physics. ‘India has built up a strong position in theoretical sciences since independence, so as to be arguably the most influential in Asia today. Leading Indian research centres now attract back young physicists from prestigious institutions abroad,’ says Professor Subir Sarkar, who is one of the drivers of a research network between Oxford physicists and several high-profile Indian institutions.

‘When we started our collaboration, our philosophy was to work from the ground up and establish links on an individual level, so that we ensure that mutual interest is maintained.’

What started as individual research links has now developed into an Oxford-India network in theoretical physics which includes, among others, the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics in Kolkata and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai.

The network has been funded by the John Fell OUP Research Fund, which was set up specifically to foster creativity and kick-start research projects with the hope of attracting further external funding - an aim that has now been achieved.

Professor Sarkar says: "We are very pleased that our activities have just been recognised by an award from the UK-India Education and Research Initiative which will allow us to continue the collaborative visits after the Fell Fund project ends.

'Some of us participate in another UKIERI-funded project (which involves experimentalists as well) where we may even benefit from the physical distance between India and Oxford because they would like to shoot neutrinos through the Earth from the proposed UK Neutrino Factory in Oxfordshire to the India-based Neutrino Observatory.

'One of the amazing discoveries of recent years is that neutrinos change from one kind into another as they travel through space and it turns out that 7,000 km is a "magic baseline" for testing certain fundamental laws of Nature in these ghostly transmutations."

Addressing pressing health problems

But theoretical physics is just one area of thriving collaboration between Oxford and India – another research network that was recently established focuses on a pressing health problem.

‘It is estimated that by 2020, India will see about three million cancer cases a year – that is 17.5 per cent of all cancer cases world-wide,’ says Professor David Kerr, Rhodes Professor of Cancer Therapeutics and Clinical Pharmacology at Oxford, who leads the India-Oxford Cancer Network.

The Network, which was established in 2005, includes a number of India’s leading senior oncologists at six Indian cancer centres and is the first collaboration of its kind.

Initially supported by GlaxoSmithKline, who provided funding for the infrastructure, the Network now works closely with other collaborators in running feasible and appropriate trials within India.

It evaluates new cancer treatments for a range of cancer types, including gall bladder, liver and cervical cancers, which are more prevalent in India than in Europe or North America. It aims to help move novel anti-cancer therapeutics from the laboratory into the clinic and to test their promise in each stage of clinical trials. It also helps Indian colleagues to better utilise their skills and expertise in research areas that were once dominated by their pharmaceutical colleagues in the west.

Growing momentum

Dr Heather Bell, Director of International Strategy at Oxford, is excited about the array of activities: ‘It’s terrific to see such momentum being built in our engagement with India across university. There is so much going on: we also have a new MPhil in Modern South Asian Studies, which enrols its first students in October; Vinay Menon and our colleagues at the Business School are currently working hard to create an India Business Research Centre; Maria Misra, who leads the overseas interviewing effort, has a new book out on the history of India, Vishnu’s Crowded Temple; and Stephen Kennedy continues his longstanding collaboration with southern Indian academics on the causes of endometriosis. It’s an exciting time.’