Undervaluing faculty fellowships is bad for scientists, and science

Even after several years, faculty fellowship programmes in India are struggling to find a place within the mainstream scientific enterprise.

October 17, 2023 03:45 pm | Updated October 29, 2023 01:18 pm IST

Representative photo.

Representative photo. | Photo Credit: Rohan Makhecha/Unsplash

Advanced scientific research and education in India is driven mostly by government-supported institutes such as the IITs, the IISERs, and Central and State universities. Along with private universities, they constitute India’s academic science ecosystem. At these institutes, faculty members conduct research in independently-led groups and teach courses for various academic programmes.

Independent faculty members are usually scientists with PhDs and expertise, including several years of postdoctoral training, in a specific domain. After their doctoral education and training, they can apply to be recruited at institutes and universities. Regular faculty appointments are typically continuous up to the age of retirement, with a salary paid by the institute (usually from government allocations) and possibly a start-up or annual research fund. However, faculty members are also expected to secure funding via external programmes and schemes.

Preferences for scientists with funding

External funding schemes, typically multi-year government-funded grants and fellowships, provide research funds and could also support salary costs for a fixed number of years. Around the world, institutes and universities prize scientists with independent research funding and salary support, and vie for tenure-track individuals with self-earned grants or fellowships.

This is in part due to a competitive selection process, often involving multi-step applications and interviews. The institute also benefits from the funds and the new members’ teaching contributions during the specified period, after which it evaluates them for tenure and/or promotion.

In the last two decades, India has also developed structured fellowships to help scientists establish research programmes at institutes in the country. These government-funded fellowships provide for a salary and annual research funds for at least five years (some programmes offer extensions). Faculty members can seek regular positions at any time during or after the fellowship period, depending on eligibility and available positions, at the host or another institute. Some fellowship programmes also allow fellows to avail only funds for research once they have secured a regular position.

Faculty fellowships undervalued

Based on programme award announcements, institutes and universities across India host around 200 new faculty members funded on fellowships each year, of which a large segment includes those without regular positions.

Even after several years, faculty fellowship programmes in India are struggling to find a place within the mainstream scientific enterprise. First, faculty members appointed on fellowships often face challenges in obtaining office and laboratory space and access to common research facilities at the host institute – even though the institute is required to provide these facilities. Second, in spite of a rigorous selection process and access to funds, scientists on fellowships have reported being treated as ‘second class’ faculty members at the host institute, their tenure-based fellowships relegating them to a sub-par status vis-à-vis the permanent faculty.

Finally, several institutes – including autonomous institutes funded by the Departments of Science & Technology (DST) and of Biotechnology (DBT) – have altogether stopped hosting faculty members on short-term fellowships, citing concerns with the uncertainty or inability to offer regular positions after the fellowship ends. This undervaluing of faculty fellowships overlooks the pros of a longer-term vision for Indian science.

A mutual benefits opportunity

Government-funded scientific institutions in India face crippling challenges related to faculty recruitment, with inordinate delays, age cut-offs, and lack of qualified candidates. As a result, several science departments have reported vacant positions even as they deal with increasing student numbers and demand for scientific output.

According to the Ministry of Education, nearly 40% of the teaching posts at IITs (4,502 out of 11,170) and more than 25% of sanctioned posts at Central universities (6,180 out of 18,956) are vacant. At the same time, close to 6,000 students complete their PhDs in India every year, and many seek – unsuccessfully – academic faculty positions. In spite of repeatedly acknowledging the problem, science departments face serious challenges related to approvals and implementation of the recruitment process.

In this context, faculty fellowships present an opportunity for scientists to engage with institutes under mutually beneficial terms. During their tenure, faculty fellows develop a research programme at the institute, with tangible outcomes such as research papers and patents, and also teach students and mentor researchers. For the host institute, these benefits often come at little cost, beyond a term-based appointment and access to research facilities.

Brain drain to ‘circulation’

As India aims to expand its science and technology footprint, faculty fellowships serve as a means to attract international scientific talent while retaining trained scientists in the country. The Ramalingaswami and Ramanujan Fellowships by the DBT and DST allow postdoctoral scientists with extensive international expertise and training to return to India and start their own research groups.

Newly-minted PhD researchers in India also have incentives to embark on research and teaching careers in the DST-INSPIRE and DBT/India Alliance early-career fellowships. So faculty fellowships are a means to change India’s science brain-drain to a brain circulation and address the problem at a more fundamental level by retaining skilled researchers.

Finally, while the fellowships aim to facilitate independent research careers in institutes across India, some fellows often diversify their careers after it concludes. Some examples include undergraduate education, entrepreneurship, and science communication. Scientists with diverse and non-linear career paths bring multiple skills and experiences to the larger scientific enterprise and also facilitate engagement and interactions across academic and non-academic sectors.

Need for conducive environment

For all these reasons, faculty fellowship programmes in India should be viewed as robust and diverse sources of research expertise and talent for the science ecosystem. Institutes need to adopt an approach that supports faculty fellowships and provide fellows a conducive environment to start and build successful research and teaching programmes.

On the other side, faculty fellows could view the fellowship period as a means to better understand professional opportunities in, and diverse ways of contributing to, the scientific enterprise in India. In a space with ambitious targets for science as well as considerable on-ground challenges, successful faculty fellowship programs invigorate research, teaching, and innovation.

Karishma Kaushik is the Executive Director of IndiaBioscience.

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