Improving science and technology ecosystem in India: Short term measures

Here are a few recommendations to invigorate the research ecosystem in India and work towards making India a leader in science and technology. These are based on the book “Leading Science and Technology- India Next?”. The following recommendations are those that could be implemented in the short term. The book also details holistic long-term policy recommendations.

Minor additions/changes in the program of Institutes of Eminence

The setting up of Institute of Eminence is a great initiative. It will help some of our institutions become world-class by providing them the much-needed autonomy. Some improvements in it can be as follows:

  • Currently, the committee of the IOE has no member with science or engineering background. Two members are from the business education background and another from political science and the head is a government representative.  In contrast the majority of the applications are from science and technology institutions. At least two members from science and engineering background should be added to the committee.
  • The UGC guideline currently doesn’t explicitly mention any regulation on faculty salary. Our institutions should be provided autonomy to decide faculty salaries, staff salaries and promotion rules. The government may set rules around minimum wages. If full autonomy isn’t possible, broad salary bands may be prescribed. Another way is to give universities to use non-governmental funds to top up faculty salaries.
  •  The selected institutes should be made accountable, asked to set goals and be reviewed by an expert panel every three years. Their further grants and support should be linked to their performance. High performing institutions should get more resources and low performing ones lesser. Similarly, every five years new institutions should be provided a chance to become a part of the IOE initiative. Even if funds are not increased, they should be provided with autonomy.
  •  A major problem with regard to research at our universities is the slow and bureaucratic procurement of equipment and funds. According to our survey, this is rated as the most critical limiting factor by our researchers at top universities. This currently comes under the gambit of DST, other funding agencies such as SERB and also guided by Public Procurement Bill. This needs to be simplified greatly to help our researchers compete with others across the world, especially in experimental research. We need to let our researchers purchase things according to their judgment with a regular financial audit of any wrongdoing.

Start a National programme to popularize the research career and our PhD programs

Our surveys show that very few top undergraduates, around 18%, are interested in pursuing research as a career. There is hardly any awareness about both research and Indian PhD programs. Students are uninformed about the various fellowships available, the quality of research faculty in India, research infrastructure available and the career prospects. Less than 25% of the top could name a research paper or a journal. Only 5.5% of our top undergraduates report that any university visited their campus to pitch a PhD program. To attract top students to research, we need a National Program to market the research career and our PhD programs to students. The Human Resource Ministry may spearhead such a program with the following components:

  • Provide widespread TV and newspaper advertisements pitching the advantages of research as a career, the strengths of our institutions, along with relevant testimonials. A private agency may be empanelled for the task through a tender process.
  • The different campaigns should be backed up by a permanent website on the subject, regularly updated and used as a resource center for PhD applicants.
  • Provide funds to our eminent institutes to set up a professional office to enable outreach to top campuses about their PhD programs.

Making minor additions to the Prime Minister’s Research Fellowship

The PMRF scheme to give fellowships to PhD students is a great idea. This was one of the recommendations of the book, “India Next?”. Students from top institutes cite low PhD stipend as one of the three reasons for not pursuing a research career. A few minor additions to the PMRF may make it more impactful.

  • Make the scheme open to top performers of GATE and NET exams. The students who score above a particular score should be eligible for the fellowship. A lot of meritorious students are in tier 2 colleges. They need to be motivated towards research. We have a greater chance to attract them to PhD programs in our top institutes and help them build our research programs. From the IITs and others, we will continue to have limited impact on attracting students. The fellowship should be open to both. Of course, who is finally selected should be based on additional tests and interview.
  • Complement the fellowship with an active marketing program as mentioned in the point above.
  • It will be great if the government can open the PMRF to specific institutions/countries outside India as well. There are a lot of bright students in South Asia, South East Asia and other developing countries, who could enrich our research environment.
  • The scheme has a list of institutions where students can enrol themselves into a PhD program. This list should be revised every 3 years based on research performance of different institutions and of PhD students in these institutions, both with fellowship and without. This will allow focussing the fellowship to institutions that are performing well. It will also create incentives for performance and disincentives for non-performance among our institutions.

Institute a Faculty Fellowship Program

Great PhD students will only join our institutions if they have world-class researchers and vice versa. To enable this, we need a faculty fellowship program to complement the PhD fellowship program. This idea is discussed in detail in the white paper, “Artificial Intelligence: India Next?”. The broad idea here is to institute a fellowship to get 500 high performing research faculty into our institutions. These positions should be distributed across universities competitively, based on a call for proposals. Each university should justify how will they build a world-class research program, and why should they receive fellowship and what quantum of fellowships should they receive. I would recommend that 50-75 of these positions be extended to our current high performing researchers, to make it just and fair, to everyone. More details about this may be found in the note, “Artificial Intelligence: India Next?”.

Develop a program of research grants to understand India’s historic contribution to science.

India has had a great historic contribution to world science and technology. We should focus our energies on unearthing the contributions that are ‘evidence’ based. There would be plenty of these, but a systematic study has not been done around these. The Ministry should issue a call for proposals to researchers to unearth India’s contribution to world science and technology in different areas. The proposals should be competitively evaluated by a panel including Indian and Western experts. An annual conference should be announced to present findings by the researchers who receive the grants. CBSE, NCERT and other boards should be made a part of these conferences, so that the findings of the researchers could be actively included in the textbooks for the next generation.

First Published: May 2018