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Dinesh Mohan: The mirage of ‘world-class’ research

Delivering the Sir Asutosh Mookerjee Memorial Lecture to mark his 150th birth anniversary celebrations organised by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and Asutosh Mookerjee Memorial Institute, the President of India is reported to have remarked that: “It saddens me when I find that in the list of 200 world-class universities… a single Indian institution does not find place. Why? That is the question that haunts me,” and further that “It makes me very sad and I almost repeat like a parrot in every academic congregation.”

The solution, according to the president (and everyone else in the country), was greater collaboration between institutes, focus on research and innovation and better academia-industry collaboration.

It appears that I have been living in a zoo of parrots ever since I joined the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi more than three decades ago. The same complaint and solution have been repeated thousands of times by everyone – politicians, industrialists, bureaucrats and even some scientists. If the same views get repeated over decades, it stands to reason that something is not going right. There must be something in our environment that is different from societies that we see as doing well as far as research and development (R&D) in science and technology (S&T) is concerned. Some of the more obvious attributes of “successful” societies that are different from ours can be listed as follows:

  • More than 90 per cent of all children attend government schools and obtain a free education
     
  • Almost all those who want to pursue a scientific career and show an aptitude for research are able to get a free education up to PhD level
     
  • Most public sector organisations offer a large number of job opportunities requiring a research degree
     
  • Most branches of the government invest heavily in research centres in academic institutions.

The privatisation of education in India from the primary to the tertiary level has ensured that we cannot identify the best talent from our population. Children from lower-income backgrounds who have a superior native aptitude for a career in S&T remain submerged in the deadweight of disadvantage and their skills are lost forever. Relative skills can be judged only when children have similar opportunity. It does not really matter whether the schooling is “excellent” or “mediocre”. Because of this unequal paid for schooling, we probably lose a majority of the brains available in the country.

Rich people’s children do not opt for mundane research jobs (most are) in any country of the world. In all societies, the bulk of S&T workers come from the middle and lower middle-income families. These young men and women look for permanent stable jobs. Those who have the burden of loans or family obligations do not opt for higher degrees. I have lost a number of bright students who could have become good researchers since their parents had already spent far too much on their school and undergraduate education. In a society like India, where most families live at the margin, a career in S&T is not viable for most youngsters who have to start earning as soon as possible.

Planning a career in research is not an attractive option for many of those inclined that way in India. The only job option available easily is that in teaching. A reasonable proportion of those with interest in S&T do not like the idea of teaching and will prefer pure research careers. Besides the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and Defence Research & Development Organisation laboratories there are very few research jobs around. None of the ministries, public sector organisations, or industrial groups in India have many research jobs on offer. We produce around a thousand PhDs in engineering a year and many of them have to go abroad to find a decent job. If we started producing 6,000 or more (like China does) there would be no jobs for them.

The recently released National Transport Development Policy report brings up this issue starkly in its chapter on human resource development. The statistics show that in per capita terms, Indian S&T output is way behind other BRIC countries. The report also shows that India is bereft of technical expertise and institutions in the public sector, where it is needed. For example, the department of transport employs thousands of scientists in the US, and the ministry of railways over 10,000 in China, but the ministry of road transport and highways (MoRTH) and the ministry of railways in India do not have a single respectable job opening for someone with a PhD. In most western countries, many with a PhD in S&T consider a job with their environmental protection agency, the bureau of standards, or their municipality a prized job. When did you last meet a person dying to get a job with the Indian Central Pollution Control Board, Bureau of Indian Standards or MoRTH?

The fact is that all countries with a successful manufacturing and research activity provide high-level research opportunities in all areas of public interest. These job openings provide a constant source of employment for scientific talent, give informed information for government decision-making, and provide subsidised trained talent to the private sector. A large number of well-trained personnel in private industry have shifted from the Indian public sector.

Research studies from Europe and the US show that industry-university-government collaboration takes place more often when professionals of similar calibre work in all the three organisations. People with similar backgrounds and professional friendships from university days, but working in different organisations, make for higher probability of cross organisation collaboration. Typically, a student spends four to six years in graduate school and over that period comes across most of the people who are working in a specific area at conferences and seminars. That makes it easier for those who opt for government or industrial careers to reach out to their counterparts in research institutions. Such a mechanism is in its nascent stage in India.

S&T policy studies also show that private industry is more likely to approach those groups in academic institutions that have had a successful history of grants from government organisations. This ensures that the infrastructure and expertise already exists in that group and the private sector gets its work done at a reasonable cost. Research collaboration between different groups is more likely to be successful if the people involved develop mutual trust and hopes of continuing their collaboration. This happens more often when the industrial or commercial group funding the work has a policy of investing more than two to three per cent of its turnover on S&T. The number of private or public sector companies in India that have this level of investment in research and development is almost negligible.

Exhorting our academic institutions and Indian scientists and engineers to produce “world-class” work is focusing on the supply side only. Unless we take care of the demand side and other structural problems, we are not really going to get anywhere. In the 1950s and 1960s, we had the courage and foresight to establish a large system of S&T infrastructure under very difficult circumstances. We will have to do something similar once again with a much more ambitious vision.


The writer is Professor Emeritus, IIT Delhi

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