Centre orders six-year cap on tenure of scientists working on research projects at AIIMS

G.S. Mudur
G.S. Mudur
Posted on 31 Jul 2023
06:09 AM
All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi.

All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi. File picture

Faculty members and scientists say the order will wreck projects and careers

The Union health ministry has imposed a six-year cap on the tenure of scientists working on research projects at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, angering faculty and scientists who say the order will wreck projects and careers.

Sections of faculty have described the ministry’s directive, which says project scientists and staff “should not be allowed to continue or (be) hired beyond six years of cumulative engagement”, as an autocratic order that signals the ministry’s attempt to micromanage how AIIMS conducts research.

The directive will mean each of over 3,000 scientists and staff, currently engaged in projects on cancer, epilepsy, dementia, diabetes, pain, respiratory illness and infections among other health disorders, can work at AIIMS for at most six years.


“This will in effect sabotage research,” a professor who’s spent more than 25 years at AIIMS told The Telegraph. “The order appears to reflect zero understanding of how research is done and a callous disregard for scientists’ and staff careers.”

AIIMS authorities have rejected appeals from the Society of Young Scientists (SYS), a body of scientists at AIIMS, to decline the ministry’s directive communicated to the SYS on July 18. The SYS representatives, who were invited to meet AIIMS director M. Srinivas on July 20, were told that the institute is “bound to implement orders issued by the ministry”.

Multiple faculty members have also opposed the directive in meetings with Srinivas.

“This is an autocratic order,” said another professor at AIIMS. AIIMS is a central institution and gets health ministry funds but, the faculty member said, “it is an autonomous institution — the ministry cannot impose such decisions”.

All faculty members and scientists quoted in this news report requested anonymity and that their departments not be named and project details not be disclosed, fearing they might face reprisals.

The health ministry and the AIIMS director have not responded to queries sent by this newspaper seeking their perspective on the concerns among faculty and scientists about the six-year cap and asking about the provenance and purpose of the directive.

The institute — ranked highest in India on biomedical research — relies on 3,000 to 4,000 scientists and technical staff for projects supported by various funding agencies such as the Union departments of biotechnology, health research and science and technology.

The faculty — doctors and surgeons — are the projects' principal investigators. The scientists and technical staff, collaborating with faculty, acquire and process patients’ blood samples, brain, colon, liver, prostate, and other organs’ tissues, conduct genomic studies, run lab measurements and tests, generate, analyse and statistically validate data and write research papers.

A project is typically funded for two or three years. But the broad research goal, another faculty member said, could take five, 10 or even 20 years. While faculty acquire funds for new projects every two or three years, the scientists and staff “hop” from one project to another and avoid discontinuity in research.

“The six-year restriction will be a huge loss to faculty, scientists and staff,” said the faculty member who is herself engaged in long-term research goals. “Once trained, the scientists and staff mentor those who join the next project — this continuity is critical in the process of research.”

AIIMS authorities, in meetings with faculty and scientists, have explained the ministry’s directive as a step needed to prevent project scientists and staff from seeking to be absorbed into AIIMS after 15 years of continuous work, according to participants in those meetings.

The institute had committed to absorb project employees who've worked continuously for 15 years or longer, under an affidavit filed by AIIMS in the Supreme Court in 2003.

Faculty and SYS members have asserted that numbers don’t bear out concerns about demand for absorption into AIIMS. Among an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 scientists and staff employed at AIIMS since 1992, fewer than 200 have sought and been absorbed, the SYS has said.

“Research demands rigour and familiarity with complex scientific protocols and instruments,” a faculty member said. “It is impossible to get trained people. We cannot keep training new sets of people. Am I going to see patients in the hospital or keep training new generations of people?”

Many scientists and scholars at AIIMS are worried they'll be forced to abandon their research midway.

A scientist in one AIIMS department, for instance, trying to decipher genetic mechanisms underlying an intractable health disorder expects she will need four more years to achieve her research goal. But the six-year rule will require her to leave in two years.

Another scientist looking for genetic markers for the early diagnosis of a specific disease said he needs three years to complete the project. But he's already spent nearly five years and the six-year cap means he will need to leave next year.

“This is wrong — it would be unethical to treat trained scientists and staff in this manner, they're people who have no one to plead their case. And AIIMS will lose people with precious skills," said a faculty member who has been with AIIMS since the early 1990s.

She said: “To address concerns about absorption, the six-year cap is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. This will harm research and harm people’s careers.”

SYS members say those compelled to leave midway through research projects would lose the freedom to continue on research and career pathways they had chosen and might even find they have wasted time and efforts on something they can no longer pursue.

Last updated on 31 Jul 2023
06:10 AM
Read Next