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The Sciences

Citing DST Budget Limit, INSA Cuts Facilities for Young Scientist Awardees

The INSA council has decided to dispense with the three-year, annual research grant of Rs 5 lakh for Young Scientist awardees post-2014.

New Delhi: The Indian National Science Academy (INSA) has decided to do away with three facilities provided to researchers who won its Young Scientist award due to “continued limitations posed by the budgetary provisions from the Department of Science and Technology (DST)”.

In a September 4 letter addressing all Young Scientist award winners post-2014-15, INSA president Ajay K. Sood stated that the INSA council had decided to dispense with the three-year, annual research grant of Rs 5 lakh, The Hindu reported. The two other facilities that have been withdrawn are one overseas visit to participate in an international conference/workshop and an interim fellowship for three years for unemployed awardees.

“The change is being made with immediate effect. I seek your kind understanding in the matter and we do hope that you will find other avenues of funding to take your science forward,” Sood added in the letter.

According to The Hindu‘s R. Prasad, a letter sent to an awardee reads, “The awardee within five years of receipt of the Award will be considered for a visit abroad with full support for presenting research work at conferences, and/or participating in collaborative/training research projects, wherever possible.” This is why Sood’s letter mentions all awardees after 2014-2015.

INSA vice president (publications) and Banaras Hindu University professor Subhash Lakhotia told The Hindu that the cash prize of Rs 50,000 given to each Young Scientist has not been stopped.

DST denies budget limitations

DST secretary Ashutosh Sharma denied that INSA’s budget has been reduced. “INSA is an autonomous body. What activity they want to fund is their decision. DST doesn’t tell what they should do,” he told The Hindu.

In a tweet, K. VijayRaghavan, principal scientific adviser to the Government of India, also chastised INSA saying it “could’ve handled this a bit better” to ensure that commitments made without looking at its budget are kept. However, he said DST would work “to sort this out”.

Delay in disbursal of fellowship

Scientists and researchers have consistently brought up the issue of delays in disbursal of fellowships. A November 2017 change.org petition calling for timely disbursal received more than 3,000 signatures. As The Wire had reported, researchers said that they were usually paid only once a year. “Indeed, IISc fellows say that fellowships had been irregularly disbursed in most institutions outside a few of the more renowned ones. In DU, too, delays of several months were normal,” The Wire had written.

In a bid to counter these delays, the government had proposed a direct benefit transfer (DBT) in July 2016, for which researchers were asked to link CSIR/UGC fellowships with their Aadhaar numbers. The government claimed that apart from timely disbursal, this would also help identify ‘duplicate’ scholars, but no such data has been revealed since the scheme was implemented.

The DBT has only complicated matters. To quote The Wire‘s earlier report at length:

Since the DBT’s implementation, all CSIR fellows have been required to fill a pro forma with their Aadhaar number, bank account number and other details. Then the institute is also required to send a grant-in-aid bill by the 10th of each month. At the end of each academic year, a student is required undergo a viva voce and submit a three-member assessment committee report to CSIR through the institute or university. Subsequently, the CSIR sends a sanction letter that states that the fellowship has been released for another year.

However, by July 2017, the delays became apparent in the system, with the CSIR stating that fellowships could not be awarded to several fellows because the paperwork had not been coming through from the institutions.

Researchers have often been caught between their institutes and the funding agency. The absence of district-level officials of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has only made matters worse for researchers.

Since 2014, other scholarships have also faced a funds crunch. The Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research – Scholarship for Higher Education (INSPIRE-SHE) scholarship was instituted in 2008 to encourage students to take up “higher education in science-intensive programs”. It offered 10,000 scholarships worth Rs 80,000 each every year to students studying the basic and natural sciences at the bachelors and masters levels in various institutions across the country.

In April 2016, it was restricted to just 585 BS-MS students of the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs), despite the student intake of the seven IISERs combined being 1,300. In February 2018, the dean of academic affairs at IISER Bhopal emailed students citing a DST letter, stating that from 2018-2019, students will have to maintain an annual grade point average of 7.0 or greater to be eligible for the scholarship, as opposed to the earlier figure of 6.0. This move was opposed by the students, many of whom had chosen to enrol in IISERs because of the scholarship.

“Funding has doubled”

INSA had also been in the news a few days ago when an editorial in its journal – Proceedings of the INSA – had claimed that fewer research proposals were being approved, that there were delays in release of funding and that only a fraction of the approved funding was being released. It had raised the issue of constraints on available funds, pointing out that the national research spending has remained at about 0.7% of the GDP  for about two decades. While an increase in GDP has carried research spending up with it, the rise was marginal and also “offset by the increase in the number of researchers and institutions and inflation. The net result is that in real terms, the per capita funds available for R&D activities have not increased but, in fact, may be less,” the editorial notes.

According to The Hindu, DST secretary Ashutosh Sharma once again refuted these claims, stating that funding for science has nearly doubled in 2017-2018 compared to 2014-2015. “It has increased by about 65% in the case of Department of Biotechnology, 45% for Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and 90% for DST,” he said. Sharma added that 90% of PhD scholars received their fellowships on time and that any delay was down to paperwork not being complete.

However, some researchers have refuted the DST’s claims, stating that CSIR Junior Research Fellows had to wait for at least three or four months before receiving the fellowship amount. They concurred with the editorial, saying that funds were drying up and that project money was not released on time. Some pointed the finger at the “bureaucratic sluggishness” of funding agencies for the delays.

DST’s other flagship programmes to retain young scientists to prevent brain drain has faced a rough patch, as The Wire had reported. The INSPIRE fellowship for PhD students and INSPIRE Faculty Scheme for postdocs through contractual and tenure-track positions for five years was intended to provide “assured opportunity for research”. Each scheme handed out 1,000 fellowships a year. While it did not guarantee a faculty position for the postdocs after the tenure, many had expected that “assured opportunity” meant they would be offered a permanent position.

The Wire had reported:

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.

Though the DST provided the scholarship, it did not have the authority to guarantee a permanent position at any organisation or university. Participating in protests, researchers had once again highlighted the delay in release of research grants and, in some cases, even salaries.

Science in India is largely a public funded enterprise, with scientific research being even more so. India spends about 0.5% of its GDP on research, which is comparable to that of more wealthy countries.