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Wanted: Elite team to run for science olympics

Mumbai, Sept. 3: The square root of 45384 in 60 seconds' If this one is for you, it’s time you signed up for the toughest test of numbers and logic on the planet — the International Science Olympiad.

Worried that in the race for the top dollar young minds were increasingly opting for professional courses such as engineering, information technology and management, leaving pure sciences in the academic lurch, the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education has stepped up its drive to get together a bunch of students, with a thing for numbers, to represent the country in centres across Chinese Taipei, Greece and Belarus for the “Scienceothon” next year.

The tough run will begin with about 250 toppers of the National Standard Examinations for Physics, Chemistry and Biology slugging it out at the National Olympiads.

The best 30 in each group will then form an elite core to train for the international event at the Olympiad Training Camp at the Homi Bhabha Centre.

Though India has done consistently well ever since it took up the challenge in 1989 at the Olympiad, which began four decades ago, the ruling elite still come from countries like China and Russia.

“This is what we want to change,” says Arvind Kumar, national co-ordinator of the Olympiad. “India has the potential but not the requisite participation. We can easily be in the top league if the best minds come forward. India is in the top ten, but not in the top three, which is what our mission is all about.”

The International Olympiad, billed as the world’s most challenging academic competition, is a rigorous contest that tests a person’s intellect, patience and innovation. The Olympiads now attract students from 83 countries.

The Homi Bhabha Centre observes, rather morosely, that though no student in any subject has returned without a medal or at least an honour in the last four years, the overall performance by Indian teams are “commendable, not outstanding”.

India ranked seventh out of 83 countries in Mathematics in 2001, fourth out of 65 countries in Physics, seventh out of 54 countries in chemistry and sixth out of 38 countries in Biology. This has been our best ever performance till date.

But “despite the increasing incentives”, most Olympiad students opt for professional courses like computer sciences, engineering, medicine and management.

From informal information, the Homi Bhabha Centre says that “only a few” of the Olympians continue with pure sciences or opt for careers in basic sciences.

“We want more students to go ahead with pure sciences,” says Kumar. For this the various science bodies have not only increased fiscal incentives for the winners but is now mooting an assured career scheme that would guarantee jobs for these students “provided they pursue careers in sciences”.

But most scholars and scientists believe enough is still not being done to encourage students interested in the sciences. For instance, national Olympiad winners automatically qualify for admissions to courses in coveted institutions in some countries.

Not so in India. In India, the Olympians have to concurrently prepare and appear for a large number of entrance exams.

“Many things are changing and many more have to change, we are making an all out effort to put Indian science in the forefront of the world powers,” Kumar says. “Science paves its own way, but you have to allow it to do so.”

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