To supplement this month’s SoNYC discussion, on Of Schemes and Memes we have been delving into the world of minority scientists. Our first installment from Jeanne Garbarino, a Postdoc at Rockefeller University, considered some of the underrepresented groups within science. In our second instalment, Mónica I. Feliú-Mójer discussed her role as the vice-director of Ciencia Puerto Rico, a non-profit, grassroots organization that promotes science, research and scientific literacy in Puerto Rico. In our next post we will hear from Subhra Priyadarshini, an award winning science journalist and the editor of Nature Publishing Group’s India portal Nature India and manager of the Nature India blog, Indigenus. She talks about life for scientists in India.
Subhra has been chasing deadlines to cover politics and sports, fashion and films, crime and natural disasters in the mainstream Indian media for around 15 years. She finally chose to come back to her first love – science – in 2007 launching the India portal of NPG one year later. She has been a correspondent with major Indian dailies and briefly worked for the Observer in London. Subhra received the BBC World Service Trust award for her coverage of the ‘vanishing islands of Sunderbans’ in the Bay of Bengal in 2006. She is a regular contributor to BBC Radio’s Hindi science programme ‘Vigyan aur Vikas’ (Science and Development). She has been on the panel of many international conferences on science communication and won acclaim in India for her coverage of the Orissa super cyclone in 1999 and the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.
These are boom times for Indian science. The national spending on science and technology has gone up in the last five years and is inching towards two per cent of India’s GDP. Hordes of new institutes are coming up in the nook and corner of the country — 30 new central universities, 5 new Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, 8 new Indian Institutes of Technology and 20 new Indian Institutes of Information Technology are in various stages of conception and completion.
However, many people are of the view that simply increasing the number of institutes will not lead to better scientific prowess. The education system needs a complete rethink in order to attract more students to science and produce world class scientists.
According to a government estimate, India has registered an annual growth rate of more than 12% in scientific publications in Science Citation Indexed journals during the last five years which compares well to a global average of 4%. India’s global ranking in the number of publications also saw relative improvement — from 15th position in 2000 to 10th in 2009.
Given the background, it should look like it is really hunky-dory for scientists working in India. Though good science and research are happening in some brilliant pockets of India, things are not as cheerful in a majority of labs. The lion’s share of scientific R&D in India is government controlled. The pet peeves of a lot of scientists stem from the bureaucratic handling of science — poor pay and personal development opportunities, lack of amenities and stifling work environments where new ideas are not allowed to flow freely.
India is also accused of doing a lot of ‘copycat science’ duplicating work already done in western countries. The Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh actually urged scientists at the largest meeting of scientists – the Indian Science Congress in January 2011 – to think out of the box and ahead of the times. India hasn’t seen a home-grown Nobel Laureate since Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, who got the prize for physics in 1930, and that is something the government rues time and again at scientific meetings.
A lot of brilliant scientists work in labs away from their country and the government has launched new schemes to bring them back home. New programmes and incentives have also been announced for post-docs to carry out their PhD work in Indian labs. At the moment the fad is to fetch a PhD from a good foreign lab or under a Nobel Laureate mentor – that gives them an edge in the job market.
Also, the ‘publish or perish’ principle of scientific success results in a lot of junior scientists complaining that their seniors take credit for their work and fail to acknowledge their scientific contribution. A lot of angry voices in the Nature India forum complain about corruption and one-upmanship in Indian labs. While a handful of such cases have been taken seriously and scientists/administrators found guilty removed from their positions, there is no empirical data to prove that this might be a widespread phenomenon.
Like elsewhere, women scientists in India have their set of problems – mostly stemming from societal pressures that force them to multi-task – not allowing them and their research to grow at par with their male colleagues. The government, however, has launched some schemes that would go a distance and bringing women back to the labs. More on the issues women scientists face in India can be found in these Nature India forum discussions here and here..