This is a blog post from
In a recent written reply to a question posed in the Rajya Sabha, Minister of State for HRD Mahendra Nath Pandey confirmed a proposal that was discussed in the August meeting of the IIT council . One of the items on the agenda was to improve the global rankings; another item was to award research fellowships to meritorious students pursuing B.Tech at IITs. Both are different parts of the giant puzzle that is solving India’s standing in World Science.
In the mainstream consciousness of Indian media, the topic of science usually makes the front page in two yearly cycles: one, during the Nobel Prize announcements late in the year; two, when the various annual University rankings surveys are out. A common narrative that runs in parallel to this is the lack of Indian presence amongst the top. Case in point being, the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings (one of the many conducted each year). The highest-ranked Indian university (according to the total score) is the Indian Institute of Science, in 201 st -250 th place. The IITs follow much lower in the table with Bombay (351-400), Delhi, Kanpur, Madras (401-500) and the rest of the universities below the top 500.
The institutions at the top are closer to 100 in terms of individual scores. While these are the rankings of one survey based on the weighted scores of perceived factors, the scores (and positions) would not be too different in other such surveys conducted. A quick glance at the table shows that the top Indian institutions suffer majorly on two counts. The first factor is international outlook. Improving upon this parameter is a bit of a chicken-and-egg question, as people with top skills tend (in a virtuous or vicious cycle, depending on your viewpoint) to herd together in the West where research pedigree is higher. It is instructive to note the second factor — the lower scores in the Research column in the case of the top IITs, which brings us to the aforementioned latter item on the agenda: research fellowships.
The recently approved research fellowship award Rs. 60,000 per month to 1,000 research fellows (called Prime Minister Research Fellow, or PMRF in short). The 1,000 students would be drawn from among B.Tech students studying in the IITs, and having more than 8.5 CGPA (Cumulative Grade point average, an analogue of overall percentage, is a way of expressing the average of grades scored in different subjects). This wasn’t the first time such a scheme was announced but the number of awardees is definitely significant. Back in 2013, a corresponding PM scheme for Doctoral Research was introduced for 100 students annually , albeit for students from all streams.
It is worth critically examining this announcement in view of the existing scholarships and financial landscape. In 2015, the MHRD hiked PhD scholarships to Rs. 28,000 per month (scholars can also draw HRA in addition to this). The doubling of scholarship is also significant since taking up a job is the popular choice among B.Tech students upon graduation. The corresponding placement statistics can be gleaned from the IIT Bombay website. Close to 70% of placement offers (793 out of 1,143) made in IIT Bombay were worth higher than Rs.8 lakh per annum (or around Rs. 66,667 per month). Of course, these salary figures must be taken with a pinch of salt as many of these are likely to be CTC (Cost to company) salaries and hence, inflated. Closing the financial gap to a job offer is quite crucial as many graduating students are often primary breadwinners in their families.
The money ploughed into research is, of course, a very important factor. It is revealing that the top institutions in the world also happen to be the best funded, with their annual budget (Stanford, $5.5 billion, Caltech, $2.3 billion, Havard, $4.7 billion) running into thousands of crores (1 billion USD = ~6,800 crore INR). That these figures are much larger than the budgetary allocation of the Indian government on Science and Technology overall shows the unequal fight that Indian scientists are up against. There are also many other check-boxes which need to be ticked. Money, research facilities, motivated researchers, and subscriptions to top journals are amongst the tangibles; exposure, diversity, culture, a healthy sense cooperation and competition amongst the intangibles.
The money factor can rear its ugly head in a variety of ways. For example, lack of access to expensive research facilities can push certain research subjects off-limits, unless this is tackled via collaboration. On the lower end, import and customs duties can make the cost of an already expensive piece of equipment skyrocket. Then there is the problem of a critical mass and its accompanying effects on the local support industry. From my personal experiences at two institutions, Indian Institute of Science and Imperial College London (full disclosure: I did my doctoral studies and performed research in these two institutions), the old real estate adage about location rings loud and clear.
Institutions in the west also tend to have redundancies in high-class technical equipment needed for research. If one of them goes bad, they can always bank on readily available alternatives at hand. Correspondingly, due to the aforementioned budgetary constraints, even the top Indian institutions tend to be have only one or two such instruments (of a similar class). God forbid, should an instrument go out of order in India, the corresponding service call would have to be made to an Asia-Pacific office (if you’re lucky) or to the West. As a result, the turnaround time is usually in months due to several back-and-forths (this is not including bureaucratic delays at the institute level and customs), which hampers research output. This disadvantage would exist until the private industry steps in to have a fully functional India office to serve Indian clients (mostly institutions). Understandably, university administrations tend to be protectionist with respect to handling machinery and allow only a handful of experienced users to independently handle them. After all, a single inadvertent mishap could push scientific results back by months.
The other side of the coin is in the west, where fully trained post-doctoral research fellows are responsible for the facilities, under the tutelage of a Professor-in-Charge. These research fellows have a PhD degree and have significant research experience and are a level below the Professor in the research group hierarchy. They act as a bridge between the group head and the doctoral students. Often, PhD students intending to have a career in academia take up these post-doctoral research positions in order to enhance their credentials and pick up new skills. The responsibilities of such a position includes being an independent researcher, intellectually contributing to the research of a group, supervising Doctoral and Masters students, devising a research plan, learning to manage a lab setup, etc. In short, this position is expected to be an apprenticeship to a future research career.
Needless to say, research groups in the top institutions of the world have multiple post-docs who already have relevant research experience and are hungry to make the most of their opportunity. In fact, it is not uncommon to have a hierarchy amongst post-docs (senior and junior) themselves in the Sciences, with the seniors taking on greater leadership responsibilities. It also follows that these post-docs are highly prized since they have relevant research skills and experience on day one.
Hence, in light of the government’s best intentions, motivating bright students to stay back is only one part of the research puzzle. It must also be noted that many students are lost in the morass of research due to lack of exposure and guidance; hand-holding scholars during the early stages of their research life is crucial. Therefore, what would serve the Indian government’s interests better is instilling a vibrant post-doc culture, which would go a long way in guaranteeing students a smooth initiation into the world of science. A large program in the manner of the Chinese Government’s “ 1000 Talents ” should be the order of the day to attract the top trained researchers from across the world to India. The best performers could be fast-tracked to faculty positions in the IITs which have ~40% vacancies ( 2014 stats ). Ultimately, if the IITs aspire to have a collective intake of 1 lakh students by 2020 (as per the same report), it would need to have an ecosystem of faculty and post-docs in order to train and mentor these students. Why not start here?