Who will research the researchers

Written by Bhismadev Chakrabarti | Updated: Jan 4 2010, 03:49am hrs
One of the markers of how serious a country is about a knowledge economy is how much it invests in basic science research. More often than not, such research is not accompanied by directly translateable outcomes, such as a pill, or a superbug that clears up the oil spill. A popular example of such research is the discovery of DNA, which would not have happened, had Franklin, Watson, Crick and Wilkins been asked to produce a pill at the end of their research. Basic science research is crucial for human development, across barriers of nations and time. Development of technology is vital, and technology is the human end of science. And one can not really exist without the other; without a solid bedrock of science, new technologies dwindle and in absence of new technologies, scientific research stagnates.

It is at this interesting junction of science and technology that India finds itself. The well-known success of the IITs has led to the setting up of several more of those, but basic science in India flourishes only in select few centres, and in select few subjects.

Given the interdependence of science and technology, this asymmetry does not bode well for the long term. The recent initiative to replicate the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) model by setting up multiple similar institutes (Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, IISER) across the country is a step in the right direction. This approach has been successful in the UK and the US, where Research Councils and National Institutes of Health have set up units dedicated to research on specific topics, across the country. The success of such an initiative relies on a regular external review by a college of experts, failing which the unit is either shut down or its funding reduced drastically. Such a carrot-and-stick approach ensures a system of checks and balances in maintaining high research productivity (indexed by publications and patents, among others). So, one key element for the success of these centres is to constitute an unbiased panel of experts, drawn ideally from both India and abroadto ensure as objective a review process as possible. This exemplifies the top-down approach in tackling the problem.

On its own, this approach is fated to meet with problems in both student as well as faculty recruitment. It is not until university courses have been updated in line with established standards in research-intensive universities in more developed countries, that we can expect such centres of excellence to sustain over a long period. In order to attract the best and the brightest students, there is a need for more schemes such as the Kishore Vaigyanik Protsahan Yojana run by IISc, and the Summer Fellowships offerred by the Indian Academy of Sciences. Such programmes allow students to spend a sizeable period of time at a national research laboratory, get research experience at an early stage, and assess basic science as a viable career option. At a time when popular culture poses engineering and medicine as the most desirable career choices, a wider availability and publicity of such programmes is bound to improve the quality of students coming into research.

Also, a system of increasing performance-dependent grants should be coupled with regular researcher exchange programmes such as the CSIR-Royal Society International Joint Project Schemes. As long as there is a system of checks built into such positions that entail a minimum number of months per year to be spent working in India, this could provide a framework for deriving the maximum benefit from researchers who would otherwise not consider India a research destination. Some EU universities have successfully adopted this model, which allows a researcher to freely move across borders while helping create multiple groups of next generation researchers and raising the research profile of all the universities they are part of. This is the bottom-up component of the research capacity development process.

Most of this, unfortunately, will not lead to immediate results that can be observed within the five-year tenure of one government; and hence needs a strong political will to implement. However, these are essential steps in nation-building, a legacy left to us by Nehru when he envisioned the future of the IITs and Jamsedji Tata when he set up the IISc. It is this vision that we hope the current political ruling class shall carry forward.

The author is a lecturer in neuroscience at the University of Reading, and the Charles and Katharine Darwin Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge, UK