So youve always been good at science subjects in school and are now trying to choose between medicine and engineering? Stop. Theres still time for a rethink. But do sit for that all-India engineering or medical entrance test. If you rank within the first 20,000, but choose to graduate in science, youve got it made. Not only will the Indian government pay you Rs 5,000 every month till you complete your postgraduation, it will also arrange for you to intern with top researchers in the country during your vacations.
Despite India having one of the largest pools of research professionals, research has been slipping down the priority list of students in recent years. The country had nearly 40 million graduates in 2003-2004 but only 22 per cent of them had a bachelor of science (BSc) degree.
The first India Science Report, brought out by the National Council for Applied Economic Research in 2005, also indicated that the popularity of science subjects among higher secondary students dipped drastically between the 1990s and early 2000s. While there was an increase in the number of Plus Two students taking up commerce and economics, the combined trend for physics, chemistry and biology showed a marked decrease between 1992 and 2002.
That trend has somewhat been reversed in recent years, but such students usually prefer the information technology (IT) industry to research. With a phenomenal increase in the number of engineering colleges, even candidates with a low rank in entrance examinations are able to get admission.
It is essentially the leftover candidates who get into postgraduate education in science, wrote G. Padmanabhan, former director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, in a recent issue of Current Science. This, of course, affects the quality of research.
The government has now decided to give talented students a nudge in the direction of research by handing out a number of scholarships. A million or more students — from secondary school to the postgraduate level — who do consistently well in science will be beneficiaries of a flagship scholarship programme called Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research (Inspire) that the government announced last December. The mammoth scheme, its architects hope, will lead to more students opting for a career as a research scientist.
The long-term goal of Inspire is to lure bright young minds to science. The government has promised to set aside Rs 2,100 crore in the 11th Five Year Plan for the scheme, which would cover 10,00,000 school students, 50,000 college students and a couple of thousand doctoral and postdoctoral students over the next three years.
This initiative is important for India in the long term, says T. Ramasami, secretary, department of science and technology (DST), which will manage the scheme. We expect to begin seeing gains in about a decade or so.
Inspire has three components — the Scheme for Early Attraction of Talent for Science (Seats) aimed at school children, Scholarship for Higher Education (SHE) for students who do well in both the X and XII board exams and take up BSc, and Assured Opportunity for Research Careers (AORC) for doctoral and postdoctoral students.
The government wants to catch future research scientists young. So 2,00,000 school children from classes VI to X will get Rs 5,000 every year for work on a science project under Seats. Students will also get an opportunity to interact with renowned scientists to experience the joy of innovation in summer and winter camps.
It is important to catch them young because nowadays some private schools are going for tie-ups with medical and engineering coaching centres. If we dont lure away students at an early stage, they may climb the tech bandwagon long before they reach Class X, says Abhijit Chakrabarti, professor, Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics (SINP), Calcutta. Im involved with a programme for school students at SINP where we allow them to use our laboratory to conduct experiments. If they can be shown the magic of science and innovation at an early age, we will have more research scientists, he adds.
Meanwhile SHE, the mainstay of Inspire, will make earn while you learn a reality for 50,000 bright science students over the next five years. They will get a fellowship of Rs 5,000 a month for five years till they complete postgraduation. Another Rs 20,000 is earmarked for their internship with top researchers during winter and summer breaks. An important feature of the scheme is mentorship for every scholar.
Mentor support is a crucial area. However, identifying good mentors isnt easy. Talent, especially from rural areas, should be nurtured with care. The rural-urban chasm in this country is huge. And real talent in science comes from small towns or rural areas, says Dipankar Home, a theoretical physicist at the Bose Institute in Calcutta. There should be special schemes for children belonging to below poverty line families, he adds.
The AORC will be awarded to 1,000 doctoral and 1,000 postdoctoral students in the 22 to 32 age group. DST officials say that the programme will be implemented very soon.
We have already disbursed money to nearly 400 students who won SHE and the rest of the applications are being scrutinised, says Ramasami. DST has tied up with the State Bank of India for disbursal of the scholarship money. Each winner has been issued an ATM card and money will be deposited into his or her account once every four months, the DST secretary adds.
SHE fellowships are given one year after eligible students complete Plus Two, but they will receive the money for the first year in retrospect. For instance, if a student passes Class XII in 2007 and becomes eligible for the scholarship, he or she will start getting it from 2009.
This is done to ensure that they stick to the science stream and do not quit for medicine or engineering, says Amlesh Mukhopadhyay, a DST official. The dropout rate (to take up engineering or medicine) is generally the maximum during the first year of BSc.
All scholarship programmes, except for school students, have two routes of entry. The normal one is on the basis of marks scored in board and university exams. Bright students who somehow fail to rank first in school or college can enter through competitive exams such as engineering and medical entrance tests, says Ramasami.
But is it really going to work? Will these schemes attract the talented? Kishore Vaigyanik Protsahan Yojana (KVPY), an ongoing programme started in 1999 by the DST to attract youngsters to science, has shown that scholarships do not necessarily attract bright students. Says Jayanta Bhattacharjee, dean of academics, Satyendra Nath Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences, KVPY has failed to prevent students from choosing IIT to pursue BTech or integrated MSc programmes. Theyd rather pay for the IIT brand and skip scholarships in basic science. Even those who took KVPY grants didnt hesitate to take jobs in the IT sector in India and abroad after passing out.
Counters Gagan Prathap, director, National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources, New Delhi, Even if some students who receive these scholarships leave for greener pastures abroad, many will still be around to take up research, because of the sheer number of students who benefit from the programme. Ramasami believes that even if five per cent of SHE scholarship winners stick to a career in science, the programme will be a great success.
However, Bhattacharjee is convinced that government doles do not attract good students to science. Instead of introducing scholarships like Inspire, the government should revamp science education at the secondary level. Schools, particularly those in the rural areas, should be offered grants so that students get better teachers and books. Emphasis should be laid on hands-on learning; children will then find lessons inspiring, he says. According to him, infusing a genuine spirit of enquiry is the best means of nurturing scientists.
Home, however, believes that Inspire is a laudable effort. To make it more effective, the performance of scholars should regularly be monitored and those who excel must be rewarded. Unless these children are nurtured well we may not see the project bear fruit, he says. Only then will Inspire inspire young people to pursue research instead of seeking cushy techie jobs. After all, in this age of instant noodles, no one wants to wait too long for the rewards of hard work.
Additional reporting by Prasun Chaudhuri in Calcutta
Sops for research
Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research is a Rs 2,100-crore project aimed at 10,00,000 school students, 50,000 college students and a couple of thousand doctoral and postdoctoral students over the next three years. It has three components:
Scheme for Early Attraction of Talent for Science (Seats)
Eligibility: Children aged between 10 and 15. Science teachers recommend students.
Salient point: The one per cent students who top Class X boards will be given the opportunity to interact with global leaders in science in summer and winter camps.
Scholarship for Higher Education (SHE)
Eligibility: Students in the 17-22 age group who are among the top one per cent in both Class X and Class XII board results. Also those who rank within 10,000 in the Joint Entrance Examination of IIT or the first 20,000 in the all-India engineering or medical entrance examinations and still opt to graduate in science
Salient point: Scholars will be assigned research scientists as mentors with whom they will work during vacations.
Assured Opportunity for Research Careers (AORC)
Eligibility: Doctoral students in the 22-27 age group who top MSc or MTech. Postdoctoral students between 27 and 32 years.
Salient point: Also meant for students of engineeering and medicine. Postdoctoral students get contractual or tenure-track positions for five years with salary equivalent to that of an assistant professor at the IITs while doctoral students get a stipend equal to what junior and senior research fellows (CSIR / UGC) get.