Friday, August 6, 2010

JRF and its worth - India on scientific research front!

My first post is about a topic very close to my heart – scientific research in India.  This area has got great significance for our progress and growth because any country aspiring to be a superpower cannot neglect the importance of scientific research and technological superiority.  But are we doing enough on this front?  Are we making our country strong on the scientific arena?  Here is my take on this vexed issue:

JRF stands for Junior Research Fellowship which the Indian government offers to young and meritorious candidates to pursue higher research (PhD) through either CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) or UGC (University Grants Commission). While CSIR offers fellowships in the areas of science, UGC offers fellowships in the areas of humanities and social sciences. The selection is based on a highly competitive written exam conducted twice a year in the months of June and December. The exam also selects candidates who are deemed eligible for the post of lecturers in various colleges and universities (or at least that is what the notification or brochure states!!). If the candidate who clears the JRF is above 28 years or if he has not secured a rank higher enough, then he is considered for Lectureship. The eligibility criteria is a Master’s degree in the required subject with at least 55% marks for General category (for the other lucky privileged…oh sorry….unlucky underprivileged categories, the marks can be as low as 50% plus the age limit as high as 33 years… will talk about that afterwards…no hard feelings guys….let’s get back to our point).

Now, let us keep our burning hot emotions on one side and look at hardcore facts. The fellowship awarded to a JRF or Junior Research Fellow or simply a Fellow, is around INR 12,000/- per month currently. It was around INR 8,000/- about 2 to 3 years back but after the recommendation of the sixth pay commission when all our hardworking babus got a raw deal with increments as high as 50%, the Fellows also got “substantial increase” of 50%...technically an increase from 8000 to 12000 is an increase of 50%. But now the question is…..IS THAT REALLY ENOUGH? Is this the money that a country pays to its researchers who are going to bring something new to this society and to the world in general? Ah…yes…and sorry that I forgot to mention…they also get 10% HRA (house rent allowance) or free accommodation in a dingy hostel room and free mess food (which most of the time is a mess!!). This amount is even less than the take home salary of a sweeper in any city municipal corporations of our country or to be more respectful, just a little less than what is the current take home salary of a class D government worker like peons, clerks, guards, etc.

Now let’s try to answer our question…is it really worth to take the JRF? The answer is both yes and no. ‘Yes’ for those who are really love research, really like science from the deepest corners of their heart and are willing to sacrifice their personal and family lives for science and also willing to live under severe financial and other stressors for a long period which could extend up to 5 years and may be if you are unlucky, even after that. The preparation for the exam is really tough and competitive, thanks to the high level of unemployment in our country, every Tom, Dick, and Harry fills the form and appears for it. But the real competition is only given by about 10% of the applicants. The syllabus of the exam covers virtually everything under sun discovered by science and even those things yet to be discovered by science (just kidding)!! The exam consists of two parts – a prelims where class XII through Bachelor’s level knowledge is checked and is objective in nature and a Main exam where Master’s level knowledge is assessed. Now another question is, the test does not assess the practical or laboratory skills of an individual which is very crucial for doing the long hours in the lab. Anyone who is a bookworm (like me, who qualified it in the very first attempt….he he he!) could also get through the exam, but that’s a secondary issue. The primary thing is, is it worth the effort to clear an exam after studying so much, so hard, burning the midnight oil, slogging over obscure heavyweight books putting both a strain on your neurons and your muscles, just for a paltry sum of money and no respect compared to others (come on now…even a traffic havaldar wields more influence and power than a PhD scholar)!!

And after that what?? What after you finish your PhD? If you do from a really big institute like IISc, IIT, CCMB (big for Indians but in reality Indian researchers hardly produce 0.01% of the world’s total scientific publications…even the Koreans are ahead of us…but again we will discuss that later). If you manage to get a good PhD from such reputed institutes, then you can go for higher Postdoctoral Fellowships (PDF) aborad or (if you get no where) then in India itself. Or you can join some college as Lecturer or Assistant Professor. And then what? You sit your entire life and do little research, teach the same topics again and again to yawning students, and retire after about 30 years of service. Or if your love for science sustains, you pursue further research for which you will have to wait for 2 to 3 years to get your grant approved from babus at the Ministry who know nothing about research and sometimes may question your abilities.

Coming to another aspect, what if you just manage to clear the Lectureship? An ironic fact is that technically a lecturer earns more than a PhD scholar, as far as that is what you see when you do the number crunching. The pay scale of a lecturer (or Assistant Professor as re-designated by UGC) is in the grade of around approximately 15000-30000 basic plus allowances according to UGC. But the big question is, do you really get the job of a lecturer after clearing the lectureship eligibility test? A very disappointing answer is NO. I know many people who have cleared not only lectureship but also JRF (like ME!!!)  and wanted to work as lecturers for some time and then pursue PhD, but they did not get job anywhere. Reason: Some colleges prefer employing cheaper candidates who are mere postgraduates and pay them a paltry some which can be as low as INR 4000, and they do get people, in fact, loads of them for this job, and even though there is a tough regulation against this by UGC, still no one bothers to implement it. The corruption is so deep-rooted that no one fights back and no one bothers to question. Some private universities have idiotic postgraduates not only teaching but also guiding students in their postgraduate thesis work!! Great way to produce brilliant scientists you see!! At least, this is an area where we are giving China a stiff competition, at least in the cheapness (no pun intended) of our scholars!!!

And we feign surprise why we don’t get regular Nobel prize winners or at least innovators from India? We hardly produce 0.01% of the total research publications in the world. I don’t want to go into the Nobel prize list because I personally believe they are not a 100% indicator of the best in the world (Mahatma Gandhi was never given a peace prize by them, while George Bush managed one nomination!!!), but I do want to emphasize the fact that we are not investing in our R&D and much less not investing in our human capital.

Looking at the hardcore facts, a recent survey by a leading UK-based thinktank has found that China is the second largest investor in R&D after the US at present. And where are we? Sorry boss…but we don’t figure anywhere. We are very proud of our IITs and IISc but as a matter of fact, they only produce engineers, but no quality research and no research papers publishable in journals of repute. I don’t want to say much…just take a look at this article published in Business Week titled "Trouble with India."

I have much more to say but I think whatever I have said is an overdose for a single reading. I will put in more light later on over this complex issue and together we might find a way out. Please do not get disheartened over this. This is the reality and it can only be changed if we face it and fight it, if we really love our country and want it to progress, and if we really want to give our children a better India to live in.

Jai Hind!

P.S:  Your comments and suggestions - positive or negative - are very valuable and appreciated.  Please feel free to express your views.  (If possible, no personal attacks on each others please!).

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