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24 Jun, 2017

 

Science education for next generation scientists
R. RANGARAJAN

If India wishes to be a technology super power in the future it is essential that it has a large science base, as today's science is tomorrow's technology, says R. Rangarajan, opening up a discussion on enhancing undergraduate science education in India.

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To create a pool of good scientists who can cater to industry and academic requirements one will have to address the issue of science education, particularly at the beginning of the pipeline, namely at the undergraduate level.

If India wishes to be a technology super power in the future it is essential that it has a large science base, as today’s science is tomorrow’s technology. However the percentage of bright high school students opting for undergraduate science programmes, rather than engineering or medicine, is low, and for those who do choose to study the basic sciences and are genuinely interested in pursuing a career in science the options for good undergraduate science education are limited.

Below we present a proposal to (a) provide bright and motivated students from each state access to better undergraduate (UG) education by creating a prestigious UG programme in one state university in each state, (b) support and enhance the existing research programmes in these state universities by creating National University Professorships tenable only at these universities with the UG programme.

We also provide suggestions on enhancing the level of research in colleges and increasing the employability of students who pursue higher degrees in science.

As mentioned below, existing schemes of the Goverment of India with some modifications can cover the implementation of these suggestions.

To create a pool of good scientists, who can cater to industry’s and academia’s requirements one will have to address the issue of science education, particularly at the beginning of the pipeline, namely at the undergraduate level. Ideally students at the UG level should come in contact with those doing research who can inspire them to consider a career as a scientist. Currently, in the field of physics, there are a few universities, seven IISER’s, a few IIT’s, IISc and Chennai Mathematical Institute (CMI) that provide an excellent opportunity for a bright student to get a good undergraduate (or integrated B.Sc.-M.Sc.) degree in physics, with a challenging curriculum and inspiring faculty. But not everyone, particularly those from weaker and less exposed sections of society, are aware of these institutions or can clear their entrance exams, or may be permitted to travel very far away from their homes (for a non-professional degree).

An alternative plan that can reach a larger number of students is to have one (or more) university in each state provide an enhanced UG programme in their department. Since university faculty do some research, as opposed to most college lecturers, they can expose students to research. Such a programme should be treated as more prestigious than the standard B.Sc. programme at affiliated colleges. Admission to these programmes in each state could have a high cutoff to ensure that the level of the programmes remains high (recall that we are trying to create the next generation of Indian scientists).

Students in these programmes would be provided monthly scholarships, and opportunities for internships in the summers at academic or industrial research centers.

This would require the Government of India to extend the DST INSPIRE Scholarship for Higher Education Programme (SHE) to all students in UG programmes at university departments (similar to the institutional mode earlier provided to all IISER students -- see INSPIRE scholarship scheme).

It will be important that the faculty associated with these programmes should be active researchers. The proposal for National University Professorships given below would enable such universities to hire more such faculty and thus increase the likelihood of success of the proposed new UG programmes.

The model of B.Sc. programmes run directly by university departments is already in place at some state universities in India, such as Allahabad University (when it was a state university), Lucknow University and Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda, and some of these programmes are considered more prestigious than the programmes at the local colleges. These programmes can be supported and strengthened, as needed.

The number of B.Sc. students in a state who may genuinely want to pursue a career in science and have the capability to do so, may not be very high. The above programme at one university in each state, admitting about 50 students in each state each year, would match the needs for such students, at least for now.

National University Professorships :

It is envisaged that such UG programmes can be initiated in the state universities. However many state universities are underfunded and the faculty strength in many departments is below the sanctioned strength. The quality and quantity of research of faculty in some of these academic institutions is not sufficiently high. How can the central Government help?

The government can institute a very large number of National University Professorships. Young (and older) scientists can be selected by panels created by well known academics from prestigious academic institutions (IISERs, IITs, central and state Universities).

The National University Professorship would be
(i) tenable at any State University that has the UG programme (could be extended to all state universities later),
(ii) salaries, retirement and medical benefits and other perquisites would be provided by the central Government, at par with benefits at central universities,
(iii) the service rules and promotions would as per the rules of the University,
(iv) the University would receive some grants for each National University Professor that joins it,
(v) the number of National University Professors in a department can not be more than 25% of the sanctioned faculty strength,
(vi) a selected National University Professor could approach the department of any university she is keen on joining, while the department can also directly approach anyone who has been selected as a National University Professor depending on their requirements.
(vii) a National University Professor would be free to move to another institution (after spending a minimum of 5 years at a university).

The above provisions would provide incentives for the university departments to seek such professors (additional grants, salary paid by the central Government) and to implement good academic policies (national professors will leave, and others will not join, if not satisfied with the academic environment).

To implement this would require the Government to effectively use the UGC Faculty Recharge Programme that shares many features with the proposal above (see http://www.ugcfrp.ac.in ) and/or extend the DST Faculty Scheme for researchers from 27-32 to 27-retirement, and make it tenable at state university departments. See INSPIRE faculty scheme for the current programme).

This would be an effective way of enhancing the level of research at universities and creating good UG programmes for the next generation of Indian scientists.

The large number of faculty positions created would also provide an incentive to bright students to consider pursuing undergraduate and higher degrees in science.

Supporting research in colleges :

In addition to the National University Professor programme, which enhances research at universities, the central and state governments can also consider programmes that encourage research in colleges. There are some college lecturers who are keen on doing research but can not pursue it because of the long teaching hours and other responsibilities. The central and state governments can include in the DST Research Grants to college lecturers a provision to pay the salary of an ad hoc lecturer who can take over part of the teaching load of the lecturer receiving the research grant. The college would also receive a supplementary grant for each such grant received by its lecturers to pay for the associated administrative expenses (including selecting the ad hoc lecturer), and as an additional incentive to accept such an arrangement.

Students in such colleges would then benefit by interacting and working with these faculty with research interests. The college lecturer could pursue her research either in the college, if facilities are available, or at any nearby larger educational or research facility.

Increasing employability :

Currently in India most high school students in the science stream opt to study engineering or medicine in college. Students opt for professional courses in college because there are fewer well paying jobs in science. To address this issue perhaps the government may consider the following.

In addition to Make in India the government should promote Discover in India in a concerted way. In practical terms this could involve more generous, and less bureaucratic, funding for science based start ups, an increase in the number of academic jobs, an increase in the number of science based jobs in government scientific and industrial research organisations, such as ISRO, DRDO, BARC (but these institutions may already be recruiting at the level of their current requirements). In addition, this could also involve a campaign through mass media that highlights not just the excitement in science but also the opportunities in science (while being honest about the level of academic excellence expected).

The steps mentioned above can increase the number of well paying opportunities for students who opt to pursue higher degrees in science (M.Sc. or Ph.D.), which can act as a pull for good high school students with an interest and an aptitude for science.

Undergraduate science programmes could also be redesigned to make those who wish to seek a job after a B.Sc. more employable, possibly through appropriately designed elective courses. This too is important as it increases the pool of good science students in colleges by making UG programmes in science more attractive.


R. Rangarajan is a professor of physics at Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad, India with research interests in astroparticle physics. He is passionately interested in science education and is one of the coordinators of Physics Training and Talent Search programme that attempts to identify physics talent from among college students who lack access to quality science education. He can be reached at raghavan@prl.res.in.