Think global, promote local

PhD student pushing button about Doctorate of Philosophy concept  

India needs to increase the quality and quantity of its research. There are many compelling reasons for this; a critical one being its necessity for the innovation ecosystem. It is clear that economies have become much more innovation-driven. And innovation uses new knowledge to generate value.

For example, algorithms created by machine-learning researchers are being used for innovation in a range of sectors and domains. Further, in the process of innovation, knowledge gaps are often found and further research is required to plug them. Therefore, a thriving innovation ecosystem requires a parallel in research and both need to thrive cohesively.

The Indian research ecosystem is relatively small and far behind leading nations in terms of quality and capability. Perhaps the most important indicator of the health of the research ecosystem is the quality and quantity of the doctorates it produces.

In the U.S., while two million graduate from Bachelor’s programmes, the corresponding number for Ph.D is 185,000; i.e. about 9% of undergraduates go on to do Ph.Ds. In India, the total number of students enrolled in undergraduate programmes is about 28 million, and the corresponding number for Ph.D programmes is around 140,000 or less than 0.5% of the graduates.

There is no doubt that there is a need to increase the number of Ph.Ds. The near-term goal must be to encourage 1-2% of graduating students to opt for Ph.D. But there has to be an equal increase in quality. For this, we need to attract bright and talented graduates into Ph.D programmes. Currently, many students who join Ph.D programmes are those who could not get a job, or want to prepare for a competitive exam, or are teachers who need a Ph.D for promotion. In addition, we should also ensure that their output is of high quality. The institutes also need to have the systems and faculty in place to achieve this. In the U.S., the top 50 institutions account for 50% of the Ph.Ds.

Luring talent

To understand what may motivate graduates, a small survey was done a few years ago. Graduating B.Tech students in some IITs were asked what they would require to enrol for a Ph.D programme in India. While better stipends and infrastructure were among the answers, a top sentiment was “the ability to spend a year in an overseas university”.

This can be addressed by providing Overseas Research Fellowships (ORFs) to top universities to send Ph.D scholars abroad. The only condition should be that the work done during the overseas period must form part of the Ph.D thesis, preferably under a joint programme with or a co-guide from the foreign university.

This programme could be awarded only to those institutions that have a good ranking and rigorous Ph.D evaluation systems, a good past record of producing quality Ph.Ds, and the capability and research record/standing. ORFs could be awarded each year to 100 institutions, leading to a rejuvenation of the programme. If 25 ORFs worth $20,000 each were awarded to an institution, the total would be $50 million per year. This is not a large amount, even by Indian standards.

Collaborative efforts

In the next round, the the number of ORFs given to an institution can be based on how many it was able to utilise, the universities its students went to, the number of joint publications, support provided by partner universities, and so on.

Given that ORFs can be established only with universities that are not likely to dilute their standards, a programme like this will raise the bar for Indian students. Another key advantage would be that the student is enrolled in an Indian institution and will go abroad only for a year and return to India to complete the Ph.D. The genuine collaboration in such programmes can lead to other collaborative research projects.

There is no doubt that we need to attract talented students to go in for research and also ensure that the output is of good quality. Without increasing the quantity, quality and variety of research, India risks playing the “catch up game” perpetually.

The views expressed in this article are personal.

The writer is a Professor and Founding Director of IIIT-Delhi and the author of Building Research Universities in India (Sage Publications).

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Printable version | May 17, 2021 10:40:31 AM |

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