Why India Needs a Different Way to Support Climate Research and Education

The answer can't be tenure, which might just make things worse.

Climate science has been an accidental tourist at the debate dominating human discourse in the last two decades. Developing countries like India are being forced to strike a fine, but often impossible, balance between pushing aggressively for economic development and mitigating the unavoidable environmental damage that comes with such development (because of, among other reasons, reliance on dirty energy, unmanaged land use and natural resource exploitation).

Economic development however  also facilitates higher investments in the human and computational resources required to advance weather and climate predictions as well as to setup educational and research institutions for research on climate, water, food, energy and health.

India has used a model whereby faculty members at academic institutions get a full year’s salary and the students are typically funded separately by government fellowships. The pressure to write proposals for grants should thus be minimal. However, the pressure to institute a US-like tenure system, with salaries corresponding only to teaching time (up to eight or nine months a year) and funding students through grants instead of government scholarships, has been on the rise. In fact, the scramble for grants has already precipitated greater stress among faculty members of all disciplines.

In this regard, the following alternative paradigm may be worth a shot: inviting the formation of  multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional teams to identify and address climate change and related problems. So instead of having to negotiate time-consuming proposal calls, submissions and review panels, teams can present the problem they wish to solve and the methods they wish to use to do so to an expert panel empowered to rapidly assess and decide, together with inputs from other experts.

Such a setup could also render funding decisions more transparent as well as free India to focus its limited resources on becoming a weather- and climate-resilient nation.

Climate education also needs to face up to the urgent need for a climate-aware workforce and the fact that no institution can by itself provide the full suite of natural and social science aspects of climate awareness to all disciplines, including medicine and journalism. Institutions already have an opportunity to synergise courses through MOOCs and wired classrooms equipped to broadcast lectures.

Disciplinary boundaries within a given institution as well as cross-institutional PhD theses should be possible with a committee that facilitates research on climate solutions that India desperately needs. Competition drives innovation but competition doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game; India certainly can’t afford that to be the case between its research bodies.

This new paradigm can be justified by considering historical investments in education and the corresponding payoffs. India benefited the most among all countries by exploiting the outsourcing boom, due to its large skilled workforce, itself a product of many decades of investment in education. Employment tends to be the main criterion for judging success, so all science and engineering disciplines tend to drift towards the IT and financial sectors.

On the other hand, climate science tends to produce graduates that are neither easily attracted to other sectors and nor absorbed there. As India continues to produce more climate science PhDs, with each new IIT and IISER wishing to commence climate programmes, the government hasn’t been giving much thought to whether India really needs so many climate scientists.

As a result, we need to carefully deliberate on funding for climate education and climate research, together with the country’s needs in terms of its commitment to the Paris Agreement, such that we don’t end up overspending on one and underspending on the other. Indeed, India can’t afford to generate highly qualified but jobless climate scientists: employment prospects are limited around the world, not just in the subcontinent, especially to a few labs and universities and which typically focus on producing their own climate PhD-holders.

Despite the daily barrage of headlines about climate change and its impact, more climate scientists are not what the world really needs. This endless production line may in fact already be nearing the employment ceiling in the US and Europe.

I know from personal experience that the cycle of proposal-writing and producing PhDs has caused the number of proposals submitted in the US to balloon together with the failure rate (i.e. the ratio of proposals funded relative to the number submitted has dropped). Together with a drop in climate funding itself, thanks to the vagaries of the shifting political priorities, the situation is fairly dire. This is especially so for researchers whose entire salaries are drawn from proposals, as well as for faculty members who need to raise funds for a quarter or more of their own salaries as well as the funds to take on graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.

As a result, most faculty members tend to spend up to 150% of their available time writing proposals! Ultimately, the labor cost incurred tends to be much higher than the funds being disbursed. Most of the community is thus spending time unproductively, and no business can survive if this modus operandus continues.

The unique thing about climate science is that it has already begun to negatively affect daily life as well as the country’s water, food, energy and health systems. Funding blue-sky research that may not be of immediate value to the country’s climate problems will have to be balanced with the practical needs of dealing with extant climate challenges. While drafting proposals offers that creative tension in a competitive environment, India will only do itself a disservice if it adopts a Western system blindly without considering all the pros and cons of its impact on the country’s own needs and ambitions.

Raghu Murtugudde is a professor of atmospheric and oceanic science and Earth system science at the University of Maryland. He is currently a visiting professor at IIT Bombay.