Indian Flagship Programme to Retain Young Scientists Hits Rough Patch

About 35% of the initial batches of INSPIRE faculty fellows now find themselves at the end of the road, with neither a job in hand nor any encouraging prospects.

One of India’s flagship programmes to retain young scientific talent and prevent brain drain has run into rough weather.

The Department of Science and Technology’s (DST’s) ‘Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research’ (INSPIRE) programme, launched in 2008, aims to attract people to the study of science at an early age by providing an “assured opportunity for research” through two types of 1,000 fellowships every year. One is the INSPIRE fellowship for PhD students and the other, the INSPIRE Faculty Scheme for postdocs through contractual and tenure-track positions for five years. It is the interpretation of, and expectations from, the latter that has caused angst in a section of the INSPIRE faculty scheme recipients.

The recipients search for a host research institute or university department to conduct their research in. The term “assured opportunity” has led to expectations that they would eventually be absorbed by the institute or department. But about 35% of the initial batches of INSPIRE faculty fellows now find themselves at the end of the road, with neither a job in hand nor any encouraging prospects.

Many of them recently took to Twitter to vent. Most contacted by The Wire said on condition of anonymity that an uncertain job future apart, there were other problems that made matters worse: problems with delayed research grant disbursal, salary payments and generally a negative attitude at some – if not all – host institutes.

“The DST mentioned INSPIRE Fellows would be potential assets as faculty,but sadly, host institutions are not considering us as assets even after our performing well, which is an utter violation of the undertaking they endorsed during our joining,” a representation by some 300 INSPIRE faculty fellows facing an uncertain future says. INSPIRE Fellows “have been hanging between these two (DST and host institute) bodies.”

It continues: “Our developed research facilities will either be used by other permanent faculties or will be wasted.”

Strictly speaking, neither the DST nor the host institute offer a job guarantee with the fellowship. “The DST is clear it is a five-year fellowship. Many top institutes, including the IITs, make it clear at the outset that the DST-INSPIRE fellows can avail of a postdoc tenure for five years. But they not do assure a permanent faculty position,” Dheeraj Sanghi, a professor at the department of computer engineering at IIT Kanpur, which has hosted some INSPIRE faculty fellows, told The Wire. He speculated there could be a miscommunication between “INSPIRE Fellows who seem to be expecting a permanent faculty position” and institutes “offering only a fixed period postdoc position”.

Ashutosh Sharma, secretary of the DST, explained that the fellowships “empower young researchers to work at … salaries at par with those of an assistant professor in IITs, strengthen their CVs and [help them] get a job in academia.” However, the DST does not guarantee a job for the faculty fellows.

Data released by the department show that 65% of initial INSPIRE fellows have found permanent positions. “Even globally, about 5% of PhDs get into academia. In the INSPIRE Faculty Fellowship, the odds are evened out on a big scale,” Sharma said. “Even if 50% of the INSPIRE faculty fellows are getting a job, it is a big achievement.”

Also read: We complain about brain drain, but are Indian universities prepared to gain brains?

Part of the problem is that while the DST provides the INSPIRE fellowships, it can’t cannot guarantee a permanent position at an organisation or university. It is up to the entity hosting the fellow to decide whether it can, or wants to, offer a permanent position to her depending on whether her interests and the host’s needs match. The host is also obligated to abide by the rules of their parent organisations, such as the Department of Biotechnology, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research or the University Grants Commission (in case of university recruitment).

Some, however, are of the view that since the DST is a central government body that has the opportunity to work with other departments, it can further help INSPIRE faculty fellows get a job with their host institutions.

In some cases, a university may be willing to absorb an INSPIRE faculty fellow permanently – but a ban by the University Grants Commission on hiring new faculty, instituted in 2015, comes in the way. This is perplexing because there are large faculty shortages in several IITs, with no new staff being hired. “Faculty shortages at India’s universities are commonplace, typically in the range of 30-40%,” according to Pushkar, director of the International Centre, Goa. The reasons include a short supply of qualified faculty, especially in select disciplines; inability of state universities to hire new faculty due to financial constraints; and the unwillingness of departments/universities to hire a new generation of faculty members who are better qualified and are expected to challenge the ‘old guard’.

Sanghi cited the example of his institute – IIT Kanpur – where the average teacher-student ratio is 1:14 or 1:15, against the recommended ratio of 1:10. This shortage in faculty is due to a general funds crunch for Indian higher education institutes.

One of INSPIRE’s aims is to retain young scientific talent or get them back to India if they travelled abroad for studies. But there are larger, more generic problems with that also. “There is a mismatch between the interests and expectations of the returning scientists and the institutes,” Pushkar said. “There is a huge misfit between the researchers who are returning and the way institutions respond to and handle their applications and research interests.”

Also read: From Patna to Panaji, no one’s taking university faculty shortages seriously

Many of the INSPIRE fellows who are protesting said that they have also been struggling with problems of delayed release of research grants, and in some cases salaries.

“The scheme on the whole has been well designed with the good objective of supporting talented youth in science. However, the funding is not what it was promised in the beginning,” Ashwini Rajasekaran, an INSPIRE fellow and PhD student at the department of human genetics, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bengaluru, said.

“The least we expected is a regular release of funds every month and this is the worst part. I always got my fellowship once in a year and never at any fixed time of the year. One has to check for the release of fellowship almost every day throughout the year. Getting the funds is so hectic as” – after the fellowship is okayed by INSPIRE – “institute rules set in”.

“The situation is all the more tough and pitiable for those in smaller cities and towns across India.”

T.V. Padma is a freelance science journalist.