The Sciences

Research Scholars Forced to Leave Labs and Hit the Streets Again for Funds

The Prime Minister's Research Fellowship pays a high stipend of Rs 70,000 – proof that the government knows better research requires better pay. So why doesn't it increase the stipend across the board instead of for a few scholars?

New Delhi: Research scholars across the country have been protesting to have their fellowship stipends revised. It seems India’s niggling problem of adequate fellowship support and its regular disbursal simply refuses to go away.

On November 20, the scholars submitted a petition to K. VijayRaghavan, the principal scientific adviser to the Government of India, for an immediate upward revision of their fellowship money, among other requests.

Their concerns were exacerbated by the Centre’s introduction of the Prime Minister Research Fellowship (PMRF) in 2018. The PMRF is for for B.Tech students who wish to pursue a PhD in an IIT or at an Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research (IISER), with a higher stipend of Rs 70,000 per month. The amount stands in stark contrast to the present senior research fellowship of Rs 28,000 per month and junior research fellowship of Rs 25,000.

The petition requests the government to consider including PhD scholars under the ‘government employees’ category. This would allow their stipends to be hiked together with every revision of the pay commission.

VijayRaghavan said the Department of Science and Technology (DST) had initiated the process before the scholars had started their campaign. He said he expects it will be “completed in December”.

Also read: Rising Discontent Among Science Students as Government Dials Back on Scholarships

“I have told them not to worry. These things are a process and was and is on track,” he told The Wire. “Their (legitimate) fretting will not speed up or slow this ongoing process, in a situation where all involved want to get it done and where everyone is working hard.” He added that he had also recommended a periodic review.

The petition stresses that the economic development of a country is strongly correlated with its research and developmental efforts. The latter, in turn, requires more scientists. “To increase manpower in research, the stipends given to students should be attractive, but the salary of researchers has not been considered for regular revision as is the case in other top-ranked universities,” it reads.

It also cites World Bank data, according to which India had 215 researchers per million people in 2015, up from 152 in 1996 (42% rise ). In comparison, China’s number of researchers per million rose from 438 in 1996 to 1,176 in 2015 (168% rise).

A hike in research stipends is expected to make research careers more attractive and improve India’s research output and global standings as well.

The petitioners have addressed a slew of government agencies responsible for designing and allocating research emoluments. They include the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the University Grants Commission (UGC). The demands are:

  • That junior research fellowships be pushed to Rs 50,000 per month and senior research fellowships, to Rs 56,000 per month as an interim measure
  • That hikes be implemented according to the seventh pay commission
  • That fellowships be hiked once every four years, and
  • That all funding agencies disburse fellowships to students in a timely manner

According to Nikhil Gupta, national representative of Research Scholars of India, an association leading the petition, the MHRD had promised regular revisions in 2015. Gupta is a research scholar at the Centre for Biomedical Research, Lucknow.

At the same time, stipend hikes have been uneven. They were Rs 5,000 in 1999, Rs 8000-10,000 in 2006 (60% rise), Rs 12,000-14,000 in 2007 (50%), Rs 16,000 to Rs 18,000 in 2010 (33%), and Rs 25,000-28,000 in 2014 (56%).

“The government should consider a hike on its own, as it does for government employees,” Aarti Sharma, a PhD scholar at the Institute of Himalayan Biotechnology, Palampur. “We should not be left with no option but to come out on the streets, demanding a hike, before action is taken.”

Aditya Chandel, a PhD student at IIT Madras, agreed. “The current emoluments make it very difficult for us to survive in big metropolitan cities. Some researchers get their stipends after every three or six months. How are we to pay for their tuition every semester, and complete their projects, besides taking care of their living expenses?”

Inflation alone – if not other forces – is driving up tuition fees, hostel charges, mess charges and travel expenses. Students are also expected to bear the costs of attending conferences out of their pockets, Gupta and other scholars have said.

“It is a known fact that with inflation, salary is revised for employees at all levels on a regular basis by the government. The request for an increase in stipend may prove to be more appropriate as most PhD scholars are in the age group 26-34,” the petition states.

It concludes that not taking this matter seriously will only lead to a drop in morale. Given that studies have also shown how scientists are often more productive when they are younger, issues affecting this demographic could also hamper the quality of the national research output.

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

The matter of irregular disbursal only makes things worse. “In some cases, we get our entire consolidated stipend once a year,” says Sharma. “But we are expected to pay our bills for electricity and internet use, and a license fee for the lab furniture and equipment, at the end of every month promptly, even if we do not get our monthly stipend.”

In 2016, the government asked that CSIR and UGC fellowships be linked to scholars’ Aadhaar numbers. This way, the scholarships could be effected via direct benefit transfer and on time. However, the scheme backfired in places like the IISc and Delhi University, prompting one student to tell The Wire, “I will never recommend anyone pursue their PhD in India.”

In this mess, the PMRF has created a two-tier structure in fellowships and an unnecessary hierarchy.

“Two students may be researching on the same topic, in the same institute, but the one who has the PMRF fellowship gets a higher amount. This has created an inequality in research, which is highly demoralising,” Chandel says.

Just the fact that the PMRF stipend is higher goes to show the need for good pay to motivate researchers.

Even here, the Centre fumbled in implementing it, at least in its first year. As The Wire reported, only 135 students were awarded the PMRF in 2018, “with a remarkable bias towards applications that proposed applied science research”.

Gupta thinks that if the lower stipends persist, Indian scholars might just go abroad seeking better prospects.

In October this year, over a thousand PhD scholars from across India participated in a protest in Delhi. They demanded their fellowship grants be increased, and submitted a letter to the DST on October 30.

This is not the first year in which scholars have protested inadequate funds and delay in reimbursements. In 2015, they went on a relay hunger strike to draw the government’s attention towards the same issue. Nothing has changed, it seems, but there is hope the DST will work to resolve the issue soon.

T.V. Padma is a freelance science journalist.

Note: This article was updated at 7 pm on November 23, 2018, to include K. VijayRaghavan’s full quote.