This article written by Shreyas Gadge provides a brief coverage of a panel discussion that took place at ISF 2022, which was moderated by Jayant Krishna (CEO- Foundation for Advancing Science and Technology).

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Looking through a prism of timelessness, the moderator, Jayant Krishna described his perspective of the current status of India’s STEM research aligned with the glass half-full metaphor. Indeed, India’s research landscape and technology are thriving. There is no dearth of careers in STEM as we have strong university bases, science colleges, IITs, NITs,
IISERs, and about 38 CSIR labs, 50 DRDO labs, 5 atomic energy centers, third-largest startup base, running on global standards. Top tech-giants in the world are lead by people of Indian origin and there are about 12-15% of scientists in the US and UK of Indian origin. We also made great strides with the homegrown vaccine and have an upcoming National Education Policy (NEP) to catapult the transformation of the education system in India. Dr. Raghavan looks at these advantages, not merely as opportunities for reform but also as imperatives embedded with challenges. Describing the spread of labs and universities across the country as a salt-pepper formation, he pinpoints the major challenge to be of integrating the pepper with the salt. The pepper, that is, the top institutions and labs are isolated from the salt, that is, the local universities for the aim of excellence but Dr. Raghavan believes in breaking this barrier. He mentions the importance of dissolving these elite institutions with the rest of the STEM ecosystem, both geographically and thematically.

One of the ways this integration could happen is through the comprehension of an institutional organization by these competent research labs, which Dr. Raghavan describes to be like a termite hill. This combination of research institutions with the broader ecosystem should at least happen through a clunky manner externally, if not from within. The second way for this salt and pepper to mix is to have all the education at higher levels, bilingual; at least via a speech-to-text translation in talks and such. This is quite important in lifting barriers of mastering a new language for students in local regions and institutes, in order to have proportionate opportunities in STEM.

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India is going forward in terms of building the capacity for STEM research through incremental efforts. There have been some hits but a lot more misses in this process, as pointed out by Dr. Kang. The excellence brimming out of these “pepper” institutions is needless to say, a huge hit. Institutions like the IITs provide the best training and because of the incredible entry-level competition to these institutes, if one can succeed in India, they are most likely to succeed anywhere in the world, says Dr. Kang. It’s not surprising that 10 out of the 20 world tech leaders are Indians, for this reason. However, India lacks a continuum of support after the undergraduate level, and the environment needed to nourish the scientific careers. She also mentions the brunt of bureaucracy that an academic at any level has to carry on their shoulder and the wastage of time that comes with it. Time-motion studies of the Indian academia and getting industries to invest in research are some of the critical suggestions that Dr. Kang gave to do an evaluation of the misses, which are a lot more than the hits.

These evaluations would help us understand the kind of challenges that Indian academia faces in doing high-quality research. Dr. Dhawan believes that there are many paths towards what can be considered high-quality research. One of the challenges that Dr. Dhawan mentions is the lack of enablement to do research at high levels for capable individuals from “non-pepper” institutes. Ensuring an egalitarian way to access paths to quality research through funding programs and outreach is a way of mitigating this barrier.

A critical step towards overcoming these challenges is also a change of attitude through the system, which is not a forgiving one to the notion of failure. So, viewing success beyond just a linear path and incorporating this attitude could make programs more implementable

Due to these challenges, the levels of study, even in institutes like IITs have a gap in the kind of populations at undergraduate, master’s, and PhD levels, which reflects a lot about the facilities in place. Dr. Awasthi talks about major flaws that fail to retain students in higher education programs even at elite institutes. Building a good research ecosystem essentially boils down to taking care of the people doing research, for example, by paying stipends on
time, ensuring institutional accountability for funding, and investing money in filling these systemic cracks. Dr. Awasthi brings to light the importance of regular changes needed to care for people in research.

Dr. Kaushik ponders on the idea of prioritizing the ease of doing research. She mentions the futility of expecting thought-provoking research from early-career scientists bombarded with paperwork and worries about extensions and further adds about the problem of missing personnel and lack of support for the postdoc/early-career researcher community.

Laying foundations for the next generation in Indian academia also involves establishing a connection of the scientists with the masses, especially to inspire young minds. Institutionalization of Science Communication is an important step to take in this regard as a nation. Dr. Kaushik, founder of the initiative ‘Talk to a Scientist’, gives insights into building
this initiative as a passion project in the pandemic which exacerbated the importance of science communication by putting scientists at the center of this global discussion and for giving answers. It also brought unprecedented opportunities for outreach through digital tools of engagement. She puts into perspective the idea of assessment of one’s time spent on outreach and incorporating it into promotions as it would motivate a lot of early-career scientists to invest in these activities without compromising their research.

In the end, it all boils down to institutional responsibility and administrative efficiency, says Dr. Raghavan in order to build momentum and for institutes and research centers to work closely together. The university sector coming to the forefront and being looked at as competition by various research institutions could cause a collapse and there’s a dire need for different pocket institutes to build connectivity while preserving their institutional autonomy.

‘Thermodynamically, the entropy will take over, unless we fight it back,’ says Dr. Raghavan pressing on the need for a cohesive functioning of institutes beyond competence at an individual project level. He also suggests the significance of feedback interactions to the government and the institutes in a bottom-up manner and connecting science to a broader set of people by incorporating more workshops and meetings in diverse settings. Dr. Kaushik and Dr. Awasthi agree upon the need for incentive mechanisms that look beyond publications and towards a broader concept of contributing to the science in the country. Dr. Dhawan presses upon the spread of ideas beyond the mere ticking of boxes demanded by one’s funding agency, while Dr. Gang believes that metrics and measures do matter in bringing a change in attitude. Dr. Gang also suggests having formal programs for mentorship. Dr. Raghavan further adds about having an external forcing function to recalibrate the measure of research outcomes in terms of efficiency.

There are many barriers to overcome in order to lay foundations for the next generation in
STEM and it starts with institutes being measured and not individuals, to actually see an
outcome at a higher level.