Why ‘hike fellowship’ is a recurrent war cry for India’s researchers

Microbiologist Yogesh Chawla was part of the team that led the protests demanding hike in research fellowships in India during 2014-15. He rues in this guest post that not much seems to have changed in the country’s treatment of its research scholars since.

Following months of agitation by young scientists across India, the Indian government announced a hike in fellowships for research scholars earlier this month (February 2019). The stipends for junior research fellows (JRFs) were raised from a monthly Rs 25,000 to Rs 31,000, and that for senior research fellows (SRFs) from Rs 28,000 to Rs 35,000.

The research scholars have been protesting every few years to bring to light the abysmal pay parity, delayed and irregular disbursal of stipends, semester fee charges, and scarcity of fund allocated to science. The protests typically last for a few months reaching a crescendo on social media, and finally end with the science administration promising and then delivering a hike. India’s current government has enhanced their fellowship twice, almost doubling it from Rs 16,000 in 2014 to Rs. 31,000. It is a step, albeit small, in the right direction to bridge the gap in pay disparity of researchers.

However, the challenges facing India’s research scholar are far from over.

History of protests

During the fellowship hike movement of 2014-15, five of us scholars represented the protesting researchers in negotiations with the institutional authorities and government representatives. Several issues were discussed at length then, and still remain unresolved. Policy changes that were mooted then to streamline the system are still pending. A hike is not the only thing to fulfill the vision of better scientific rigour or improvement in the quality of Indian science. One of the objectives of such fellowship hikes is to attract talent to science disciplines by providing economic emoluments parity, laurels, awards and recognition.

The need of the hour is to have a multi-pronged approach to bring Indian science at par with world standards, to make Indian research relevant to the country’s needs, to transform India into a torch bearer of scientific excellence, technological advancements and innovations. These are important but imposing challenges for India and the country’s science policy is a key tool to overcome them.

Rewarding merit

How do we bring rigour into India’s science? Can we have measures to reward scholars – the backbone of our scientific quest – who work tirelessly beyond stipulated office hours? Will rewarding the first author for publishing quality research be a game changer?  Publishing in high impact journals may not be the ultimate or accurate parameter of judging the quality of science but it is a practical parameter. A thorough scientific study in a reputed journal does suggest a work of excellence. Impact factors, citations or the impact of research on problems specific to India can be taken as criteria to judge merit. The overarching idea is to reward hard work, judged and scrutinised for scientific quality and rigour by independent peers. This way, we would be able to bring equity to the hard and diligent work. Any scientific misconduct or falsification of data should be made punishable.

Currently, Indian authors publish around 100,000 articles every year but their average citation impact is around 0.8, which is nearly half of the citation impact of articles published from USA or UK (~1.6)1. Rewards for and equity to good quality work would boost the overall scientific rigour. It wouldn’t cost much to the government exchequer but would certainly impact the morale and enthusiasm of researchers favourably. It could be a robust way to kick start ideas, innovations and excellence. Likewise, universities, departments and institutions should be rewarded for their scientific excellence.

However, when impact factors of publications become the criteria for a reward, they potentially exclude scholars and scientists looking at grass root problems (that may not be very popular research areas but are high on social benefits) or high impact work in a scientific journal. Scholars of such fields should be recognised through other laurels and awards.

Another policy change that may ensure a respectable life for senior researchers wanting to continue research in India is to enhance the fold increase of the fellowships between JRF to SRF and SRF to the postdoctoral level (say, around 1.4 to 1.5-fold of their previous level). SRF and postdoctoral researchers are generally in their late 20s or early 30s, a time they typically start or support a family.

Scholars who earn their PhDs in Indian institutions should be rewarded since many JRFs leave Indian PhD programmes to pursue PhDs in foreign labs or institutes. JRF fellowship shouldn’t be a stop-gap arrangement for aspiring graduates of foreign universities. A JRF scholar who continues research in India and gets promoted to SRF should be rewarded with a healthy raise in stipend to pursue research in India. The same logic applies to postdoctoral fellows.

The long-debated issue of brain drain could have a solution in a good postdoctoral fellowship with independent grants. The Chinese initiatives “Thousand Talents Plan” and “Thousand Youth Talents Plan”2are great examples of how to attract scholars to postdoctoral positions through government grants and fellowships and to pursue them to return and serve home institutions. This way, trained and qualified PhD scientists could fuel the nation’s economic and scientific growth and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cry of “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisaan, Jai Vigyaan and Jai Anusandhaan” would sound real.

  1. India by the numbers
  2. China’s plan to recruit talented researchers

(Yogesh Chawla is a PhD from the National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi and currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Weill Cornell Medical College, New York. He can be contacted at yogi1chawla@gmail.com.)

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