Salaries the priority as India mulls role of new research funder

New funding should be used to lure researchers from industry and overseas, experts say

March 1, 2021
Display of a garland made of Indian currency notes to illustrate Increasing academic salaries must be a priority if India’s new independent research funder is to turbocharge science.
Source: Reuters

Increasing academic salaries must be a priority if India’s new independent research funder is to turbocharge science in the country, experts said.

The government has handed over a 500 billion rupee (£5 billion) budget to the new National Research Foundation, which will provide competitive research funding and coordinate grants offered by government agencies.

But Palash Deb, associate professor of strategic management at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, said the fundamental challenge facing the sector was that “a research career in India is not attractive enough to motivate talented young students”. Even though PhD stipends and faculty pay have improved, they are still not enough to compete with industry.

“Top universities need to delink salaries from the government pay scale and offer Western-style tenure,” he said.

Dr Deb recommended using “a graded system of monetary incentives based on publication quality”, which some Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) were already doing. “Research success will be feted through well-funded national awards that recognise outstanding India-based researchers, and not just in the hard sciences,” he added.

Funding could also be used to bring in overseas “star researchers” on fixed contracts to act as mentors, and support could also facilitate international faculty exchanges and seminars.

Dr Deb’s view echoed those expressed in an opinion article in The Hindu by Philip Altbach, founding director of Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education, and Eldho Mathews, a Delhi-based researcher.

They write that Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) “could not attract a sufficient number of young faculty” because talented researchers are drawn by the better pay and opportunities on offer in the technology sector or overseas.

The pair recommend that some of the weaker IITs be rebranded, allowing elite IITs to be funded “at ‘world-class’ levels and staffed by ‘world-class faculty’”.

Mr Mathews told Times Higher Education that funds could be used to foster research networks, both between India’s elite universities and “institutions located in the academic periphery”, and with global partners.

He emphasised that the social sciences and humanities should be considered with “adequate importance”.

Professor Altbach, meanwhile, put the NRF budget into context. “£5 billion is a significant amount of money, but India’s higher education needs and challenges are quite large, and it is not clear how it might be spent to enhance research,” he told THE, adding that consistent future funding was not guaranteed.

“Research improvement requires sustained support, especially since India has underinvested in higher education generally and in research in particular for a long time.”

Alan Ruby, senior fellow at the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania, told THE: “£5 billion is a great start, but let’s get it in perspective.” US federal research spending in 2018 was $127 billion (£90 billion), and that is topped up with significant contributions from the commercial sector.

“It would make sense to align the Indian government’s aspirations for more research with its goals of building up its best universities, its institutions of eminence,” Mr Ruby said. “But that alignment should not mean creating an entitlement to research money – there still needs to be a competitive model for allocation.”

Mr Ruby said that if he had a wish list, he would spend funding on less “fashionable” but practical research, like improving crop yields and ensuring clean water supplies.

Interviewees said that – aside from financial concerns – India’s higher education sector had to address long-standing issues such as red tape, poor governance and a lack of institutional autonomy.

Campuses needed to reverse “a general lack of motivation, politico-bureaucratic interference and an academic culture built on rigid hierarchy”, Dr Deb said.

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