The ‘INSPIRE’d journey of a DST-INSPIRE Faculty

INDIAN INSTITUTE OF CHEMICAL BIOLOGY

The journey to becoming a young investigator is exciting but is also often filled with ups and downs. This transition from being a student to becoming a faculty is like a complete metamorphosis. This is the story of a young DST-INSPIRE faculty member, Dr. Smrutisanjita Behera, who has shared her experiences with us in this short interview.

“I have always been very curious about living systems around me. I wanted to be a medical doctor but could not secure a seat in one of the three medical colleges in Orissa. I ended up studying biology and pursued M.Sc. in Life-sciences in School of Life-sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). It was an eye-opening experience for me as I come from a small town in Orissa. JNU gave me a nice exposure to research in the form of dissertation that was a part of course curriculum. From that time onwards, I was sure of my intentions to continue in research. Receiving a fellowship, I moved abroad for a one-year project at the University of Padua, Italy.  Thereafter, I went to Germany and completed my PhD at University of Munster. I was a postdoctoral fellow at University of Milan for a year. I had plans to return to India, so I searched for fellowships to join an institute in India as a young investigator. I came across the highly competitive and prestigious DST-INSPIRE Faculty Fellowship Scheme, applied for it, and qualified. Since March 2016, I have been a DST-INSPIRE Faculty at Indian Institute of Chemical Biology (IICB), Kolkata, India.”

In 2008, the Department of Science & Technology, Government of India, launched the “Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research (INSPIRE)” program. There are several categories of fellowship available under this scheme that aims to attract the best of brains to academics and research. The INSPIRE Faculty scheme provides a contractual 5-year tenure to brilliant young achievers for conducting independent research in any of the leading national laboratories. Indian citizens and people of Indian origin pursuing postdoctoral research abroad, holding a PhD degree within 32 years, are eligible to apply. This is a wonderful opportunity for young scientists who would later emerge to be principal investigators in the future. For more details, please visit the official website.

This is one of the various available fellowships offered to newcomers. How helpful are the schemes-a reality check!

Dr. Behera feels that Indian funding schemes offered to postdoctoral fellows who are coming back to India are good but unfortunately, they are not enough and mostly fail to serve the purpose. “I like the schemes running under the Government of India, like the INSPIRE-Faculty awards, Ramanujan and Ramalingaswamy Fellowships. These are quite good, supportive, and attractive to postdoctoral scholars who wish to return to India. However, after joining and meeting other contemporary fellows, I feel there are issues in the implementation and execution of the fellowships.  The schemes were meant to provide young investigators an opportunity to prove their worth as independent researchers but unfortunately, these are more like glorified postdoctoral positions. Most students would prefer doing postdoctoral research abroad to doing it in India, including myself. The obvious reasons are advanced technologies, good infrastructural facilities, and sufficient funding. Research is much less time-consuming in the U.S. and Europe. The only way these schemes would attract talented people is by absorbing them at the host institutes through permanent positions. After a 5-year tenure, if you do not get a stable position, then it is a loss of time. In most of the national laboratories, there is an upper age limit for applying to assistant professor positions. This is one of the reasons why these schemes are failing.”

Application process: a cakewalk or a tough nut to crack?

An important factor is the ease of the application process. Dr. Behera shares her views with us. “To be honest, in India, the application process is very time consuming and tedious. If you apply in 2015, an interview call may be expected in 2017- after two years. And then again, the procedure is so long, that you might get to join sometime in 2018/2019. I find that there exists a lack of transparency in the application procedure because after applying, one has no clue if the application is screened, rejected or in standby mode. Majority of the institutes require a lot of paperwork and mailing in of hard copies. Some places like NITs and IITs have an online application system, but it is not updated. There are a lot of regional variations as well, with respect to the interview process. I have been to both central institutes and universities. Sadly, they call too many people for may be a total of 30 positions. Each person gets approximately 2 min to talk about his/her 10 year’s research work which can hardly be useful for evaluation. On the contrary, some institutes offer you a visit. You can meet with the faculty there, give a job talk, and then they call you for a formal interview. I feel that is a more transparent way of processing the application. My suggestions for improvement would be to make the initial phases online. The status should be updated and reasons for rejection could be mentioned, in a way that would help the candidates in their future applications. A timeline of 6 months to 1 year is understood, but 2-3 years is not acceptable.”

Are there enough positions?

An article published in 2014 gives an estimate of the situation abroad. On an average, in engineering a professor produces approximately around 7.8 PhD students in the entire tenure and only one of the graduates can replace the professor’s position. This implies that 12.8% of PhD students acquire academic positions. Less than 17% of all PhDs including STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and health sciences obtain a tenure track position. In India as well, the situation is very grave. According to the data released by the All India Survey on Higher Education for 2017- 2018, a total of 36.6 million students are enrolled at different higher educational institutes. The employability report however says that the share of employable college graduates remains below 50%. Many departments across 903 Indian universities have less than 6 full-time faculty members, thus making it very tough to carry on with full-fledged master’s and PhD programmes. Additionally, there is no fixed age for retirement in research which in a way has increased the duration of the academic career but on the other hand reduced the number of slots available. These trends pose a relevant question- Are too many PhDs produced than can be supported?

Dr. Behera shares her outlook with us, “Considering the total population, a small number of people are getting jobs in India, especially in academia. I feel this problem can be solved by the Government through proper planning. Many institutes like IITs and IISERs, universities and colleges are running short of faculty. For example, in my institute IICB, there should be 120 faculty members. Now, we have only 55 faculty members. As a country, we do not spend enough for science, technology, and education. If more money is allotted in the budget, then automatically there would be more jobs.”

Amendments need to be done for improving the situation. “We have to be open minded and have scientific temperament. In general, there is a lack of scientific temperament in India that is reflected in the way funds are channelized. No product can be properly developed without basic research and funding bodies need to understand that translational research should go hand in hand with basic research. Projects should be interdisciplinary because nothing in nature occurs in isolation. There should not be any bias in science! For example, I am a plant biologist, and it is a bit neglected in terms of funding both in India and abroad. But it is important as a model system and for agricultural research. You never know what the demand in future would be. A change needs to be introduced from the school level such that students learn to think and ask the right questions. Unfortunately, in India, asking questions is often not considered good. This must change. Infrastructural facilities need to be improved starting from the basic level. A robust training ultimately pays off. Today as we all can see everyone is waiting for a vaccine against coronavirus but only scientists can help!”

Indeed, there are lots of bias and prejudices in how we perceive and practice science. Several social and psychological factors other than just the subject area or nature of research exist. A paper published in the prestigious journal PNAS discusses some of those factors. Scientists are often pressurized by national policies and funding agencies to publish, which leads to bias and questionable research practices. Sadly, there is still a lot of gender discrimination that persists as a form of bias. Male scientists are more likely to get higher status, importance, and funding than their female counterparts. It is true almost in all parts of the world including in India. If India wishes to really excel then it must break all the biases and prejudices.

Advice from Dr. Behera to the newcomers- “The key to success is the scientific temperament! Collaboration is particularly important. The present trend in science is interdisciplinary. Nobody knows everything. Setting up a lab from scratch in India is subject to availability of space. It is also a very time-consuming process. As a newcomer, you do not have all the facilities in your lab, and this is one of the ways in which collaborations can help. For me, collaborations in India have been fruitful. It is important to also have international collaborations that could be a boost to your career.”

If we go by international comparisons, India is amongst the countries producing the largest number of doctorates. If we consider the Indian higher education sector, there are few students registered for doctoral programmes. Even fewer are finally getting a job in academics. It is like a vicious cycle- as there are lower job opportunities, less students are enrolling in PhD programmes. Consequently, we are losing talent and a considerable brain drain is happening. India must undertake necessary changes to reverse the flow of talent.

References

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