Monday, 30th October 2017

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Science talent disparity

Most institutes fail to get fellowship

By G.S. Mudur
  • Published 18.09.17

New Delhi, Sept. 17: The past two decades' winners of a prestigious government research fellowship came from just 35 of India's 800-odd academic institutions, underscoring what scientists say is India's failure to spread talent.

Only two of the country's 213 UGC-recognised universities - the University of Hyderabad and Jawaharlal Nehru University - figure among these 35 institutions, a survey by the human resource development group of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has found. ( See chart)

It also found that just two institutions - the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai - accounted for 53 (37 per cent) of the 143 Swarnajayanti Fellowships awarded by the department of science and technology between 1997 and 2016.

The fellowship, established in 1997 to provide scientists in academic institutions with "unfettered freedom and flexibility" in terms of expenditure, offers Rs 25,000 a month for five years with additional grants for equipment, computational facilities and travel.

It is available to early-stage researchers who have a PhD in science, engineering or medicine and are active in frontier areas with evidence of outstanding contributions through peer-reviewed papers.

The survey has also found that 43 per cent of Swarnajayanti Fellows have gone on to receive the CSIR's Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize, widely considered India's most prestigious science award.

Indeed, seven among 10 Swarnajayanti Fellows who received doctoral training under former Bhatnagar awardees themselves went on to win Bhatnagar prizes, says the survey, accepted for publication in Current Science, a journal published by the Indian Academy of Sciences.

Science policy analysts say the survey has revealed how scientific talent in India is concentrated at a few academic institutions and affirmed longstanding concerns that the country isn't doing enough to draw, nurture or sustain talent in the universities.

"Overall, the Swarnajayanti Fellowship scheme should be viewed as a great success - the fellows do excellent work, many earn the Bhatnagar prize, but they're concentrated in only a few institutions," said Inderpal Singh, principal scientist at the CSIR HRD group that led the survey.

Science policy makers and academics believe that the persistently narrow distribution of talent reflects how successive central and state governments have failed to invest adequately in the universities and unshackle varsity departments from academic bureaucracies.

"The solution lies in raising funds to improve the research infrastructure and facilities in our existing good universities," said IIT Delhi director V. Ramgopal Rao, a former Swarnajayanti Fellow and recipient of the 2005 Bhatnagar Prize.

Rao said that innovative ideas might be needed to attract talent to the universities.

"As of now, we estimate that the IITs, the Indian Institute of Science and the IISERs can absorb about 5,000 faculty (members) over the next seven years," he said. "We need new initiatives that will get some young talented people to turn to the universities."

One option, he said, would be to offer IIT-grade pay scales, which are higher than standard university pay scales, to select young teachers who join universities. "This might encourage some to work in universities, maybe in their hometowns."

A senior department of science and technology official, Milind Kulkarni, said the narrow distribution of Swarnajayanti Fellows was not surprising.

"The selection criteria for awarding the fellowships are rigorous; the selection panels maintain high benchmarks," Kulkarni said. "And most of our universities are in a poor state; talented people are unlikely go there."

Kulkarni said the research output and career trajectories of the Swarnajayanti Fellows reflected the success of the programme.

"All have outstanding publications, many get Bhatnagar awards, and some have become directors of leading institutions, including the IITs."

A senior scientist who requested not to be named said the trend of establishing new institutions, such as the new IITs, many of which lack faculty and research infrastructure was drawing funds away from existing universities.

He said that some of these universities could be improved through more funds.