With the emergence of India on the global scene as a player parlayed by the information technology revolution, its aspirations have received a new boost. Aside from being an economic power, it now aspires to be a knowledge power; a centre of innovation and creative ideas. However, it is not on track to do so. While India has the resources to make this happen, the absence of fundamental institutional change makes reaching this goal very unlikely.
Historically, the set-up of the Indian S&T enterprise stemmed from the Nehruvian vision of the significant role expected of S&T in the country’s development. With Nehru’s patronage, the renowned scientists of that generation such as Meghnad Saha, Vikram Sarabhai, Homi Bhabha, and C. V. Raman all pushed for building scientific research as a high priority in order to rapidly cultivate a homegrown scientific community and achieve technical self-sufficiency with expediency. Scarce resources were therefore directed to a few elite research centres inspired by the model in the USSR; a few national laboratories in specific subjects. There was lively debate between Meghnad Saha and Homi Bhabha on the locus of where pure and applied research should be situated.
This illustrious generation of visionaries and strong personalities was deeply influenced by the European and Russian models, rather than the research universities in the US. This institutional template choice has left us impoverished today.
Research universities are the backbone of invention and innovation in the US. The tight coupling of undergraduate and graduate training, along with a strong research base, has provided natural incubators to nurture new ideas that could potentially translate immediately into applications, as well as more long-term basic science research that might not produce immediate commercial benefits.
However, as a consequence of this initial historic cleavage in India, university research has failed to garner adequate support and the structural changes required to invigorate and reshape universities to do so, never took root. In the meantime, more and more research institutes have been created in the sciences and social sciences outside the university system.
The foremost casualty of this separation of research from teaching has been undergraduate education in the sciences and technology. It has robbed the undergraduate curriculum of its richness by preventing the building up of critical-thinking skills in post-secondary education, and it has impoverished universities by offering very little incentive to its faculty for becoming scholars, producing a disenchanted generation of academics.
The research centres on the other hand have all mostly thrived, and some clearly are world class. Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Inter University Centre for Astronomy & Astrophysics (IUCAA), National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), and the Indian Institute of Science are exemplars. However, India needs to vastly increase the scale of the research enterprise.
India should urgently reintegrate research and teaching. Universities need to provide time in the form of research leave and resources for faculty to jump-start their research. They need to encourage collaborations with colleagues at research institutes, and funding needs to be provided to do so.
This can be easily accomplished via a targeted grants programme within the Government of India’s Science and Engineering Research Council’s (SERC’s) existing Fund for Improvement of Science & Technology Infrastructure programme. SERC can incentivise this by allocating a grants programme solely for such collaborative ventures. The benefit of launching and actively fostering scientific collaborations between research institutes and teaching colleges is that it will provide channels for undergraduates to be involved in research.
In turn, universities can then introduce undergraduate research projects at least for all honours degree courses. Setting up such a cycle of research involvement will require extending the undergraduate degree to four years.
One move in the right direction that partially addresses this lack of integration of research into undergraduate education has been the setting up of the Indian Institutes for Science Education and Research (IISERs). Five of these institutes have been set up with substantial funding in Mohali, Pune, Bhopal, Kolkata, and Thiruvananthapuram. Research is part and parcel of the undergraduate science curriculum and every student gets a taste of it at the IISERs. However, there is no such analog for the humanities and social sciences.
Another pressing and related issue is the lack of breadth in an undergraduate education. Requiring a broad core curriculum that includes quantitative reasoning, critical thinking, writing skills, and basic mathematical competency needs to be part of undergraduate education at all institutions for all degree courses, including specialised science, engineering, or medical colleges.
The current revolution in online teaching and learning provides an opportune moment to spur and implement a radical shift in educational culture. Initiatives such as Coursera and edX have started offering Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that can be streamed anywhere in the world and material accessed either free or at modest cost. The scale on which these courses can be delivered is staggering. For example, 154,000 people from around the world enrolled this spring in the Circuits & Electronics class taught by Ananth Agarwal, an MIT professor and Director of the edX initiative.
MOOCs offer an attractive option to deliver course material on the scale that is needed for India, especially given the sheer number of young people who need to be educated. In post-secondary education, MOOCs can be used to supplement and update current undergraduate courses by offering a blended classroom with live streamed content, thereby giving faculty more time to invest in their research agendas. MOOCs can standardise course delivery, curriculum, and teaching. They can help bridge the urban-rural divide, as well as transform primary and secondary education.
Another channel to spark research activity in universities is to encourage undergraduate science student involvement in so-called Citizen Science projects. Periodically organising national S&T contests and a National Science Festival celebrating science modelled on the World Science Festival held in New York City, would entice young people to pursue science as a career.
Tapping into international networks would also help. The elite IITs, for instance, were set up with international collaborations. Perhaps renewing ties to the research universities that helped set them up in the first place would help boost the research programmes of current IIT faculty.
With decisive policy interventions, India could shift its educational culture within a generation. India looks to S&T to provide new and innovative solutions to many challenging global problems such as climate change and the growing demand for scarce resources like energy, water, and food.
(The author is Professor, Departments of Astronomy and Physics, Yale University.)
This article is by special arrangement with the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.