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We need a robust scientific workforce


Our scientific strength will improve only if researchers produce good publications, innovations, and patents

Biju Dharmapalan

Scientific research in is often the same research problem done by different people in different universities. If we look at the database of submitted PhD theses, we can see that many of them submitted in various universities have even similar titles. As of now, there is no rule that prohibits a scholar from carrying out similar work carried out in other universities.

Of course, in research even if the title rhymes similarly, people can argue that the content may be different. But what is the use of repeating the same work, if it's done using public money? If we go through the profile of PhD supervisors, we can see that most simply work on the topics that their supervisors taught them decades earlier.

Scientific research should be dynamic, and every supervisor and scholar should work on new challenging topics that are relevant to today's society.

There is also the question of publications that come out of the research. Is publication a must for awarding a PhD degree? Do publications define the quality of research?

The recent suggestion by the UGC regarding scrapping the rule regarding compulsory publication for the award of a PhD degree has met with skepticism from the academic community. This decision vertically splits the academic and research community in the country. Even though many prominent scientists and professors support this suggestion, many are apprehensive about it. The current regulation of UGC states that to award a doctoral degree, the student should have at least one publication in a UGC care-listed journal.

Various universities have their mandatory requirements. Some universities need to have two publications in SCOPUS, Web of Science Indexed, or UGC care-listed journals. In some institutions, there is no requirement for publication.

The reasons cited by UGC regarding a proposal for scrapping the publication rule are the undue pressure on students to publish and the proliferation of “predatory” journals in due course. It's true that most of the time students' focus is only on how to get publication rather than on research. Good authentic research cannot be designed to focus on the requirements of journals. In most of our labs, researchers try to incorporate tools, techniques, and analysis software that suit specific journals, even at the experiment designing stage. This leads to prejudice and bias in the research.

Ground-breaking discoveries and innovations will emerge only if one works with a prejudice-free mind and creativity. Even though there has been an exponential rise in scientific publications in the last 10 years, our researchers failed to produce a Nobel Prize after Sir CV Raman. So it is evident that the increase in the number of publications alone cannot be considered a parameter for quality research.

In certain domains of science, the review process of journals takes more than a year, causing undue delay in completing a PhD. In India, it's not uncommon to see students spending more than five years getting a PhD degree, whereas their counterparts in western Universities complete it within two or three years. In most cases, the students are forced to work in the lab to get a publication.

Is it worth it for a student to spend six or eight years for a doctoral degree? There should be a strong regulation for making research supervisors accountable for any delay in submitting a thesis within a stipulated period of three to four years. It's the duty of supervisors to see that students submit their thesis on time, if there is any lacuna from the student it should be reported to the concerned authority.

Most researchers in science suppress their grievances from a lab fearing the omission of their names from the paper and other repercussions from the supervisors. Few research supervisors take advantage of this situation and make scholars work in their labs without any remuneration even after the PhD degree is awarded to the student. The main aim of most researchers is to secure a post-doctoral position in some foreign universities. Unfortunately, this is a prerequisite to getting a good job in India. For most post-doctoral positions, publication in high-impact journals is the main criterion for selection.

Because of compulsion, our scholars publish at least a couple of papers in good journals. No one will ever try to write a scientific article if it's not a compulsion. Writing is an essential skill that scholars should impart during their PhD period. Only if our scholars are trained in scientific communication can we achieve the objectives mentioned in the recently published Scientific Social Responsibility (SSR) guidelines for promoting science communication.

It's true that many so-called “predatory” journals or low-quality journals have evolved in recent times. The UGC should highlight the list of such “predatory” journals on its website so that scholars won't fall into the publishers' trap. The term “predatory” journal itself is a misnomer. Many people have defined a predatory journal as one that takes processing charges. In that case, many high-impact journals should also be classified as predatory, as they charge authors lakhs of rupees. An average middle-class student may not be able to afford such an immense amount.

If we need to improve the quality of Indian science, we need stringent regulations for the award of PhD degrees. There should be a minimum guarantee from the government that PhD holders will get a job, at least for those passing out from national institutions, as they are admitted after a rigorous selection process. The PhD positions in specific areas can be notified based on the need. The various fellowships provided by CSIR, UGC, ICAR, ICMR, DBT in a year can be modified based on the availability of job positions. This will help authorities select the best people suited for a particular area of research.

While filling out the application, the student should be allowed to make research area preferences. This can be in line with a transdisciplinary outlook. Instead of conducting the CSIR-UGC JRF examination on broad topics like Life sciences, Physical sciences and Chemical sciences, students should be allowed to take tests based on specific research topics, irrespective of their basic degree. Even an engineering student interested in studying plant physiology should be allowed to take the exam and vice versa.

The students qualifying in these tests should be allotted to work in an institution where there is an ensuing position. This practice will make students understand the institution's mandate properly and work for its betterment. The students recruited in this way should not be allowed to leave the job for at least 10 years.

There is no sense in training scholars to better another country through our public money. The country's scientific strength will improve only if our researchers produce good publications, innovations, and patents. We need to build a robust scientific workforce, which can be created only through quality research scholars. Any dilution in the quality of scientific research will badly affect our vision to transform into a developed nation.

(The author is a science
communicator and columnist)


The Northlines is an independent source on the Web for news, facts and figures relating to Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh and its neighbourhood.


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