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Drawing India's brightest to the cause of science

The Indian science establishment's path-breaking experiment to get young brains to join science early, at IISc Bangalore, could prove the game changer for Indian science, reports Charu Sudan Kasturi.

delhi Updated: Jan 05, 2013 23:18 IST
Charu Sudan Kasturi

K Kamalnath could have picked a course of his choice at any of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), with his scores in the IIT entrance test. But the stick thin 18-year-old had other dreams.

"I don't want a typical nine-to-five job that people want with an IIT education," Kamalnath said.

Instead, he joined an untested, brand-new undergraduate course at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore "I love physics, and there's no better place for the sciences than here," Kamalnath said. "I'm happy."

Kamalnath is one among a handful of India's brightest young minds who are participating in an experiment that the country's scientific establishment is watching closely.

Over the past two decades, Indian science has increasingly lost the battle to attract and retain some of the country's finest minds, to careers like engineering and finance.

Now, away from the flashbulbs, stale speeches and largely rehashed policy documents unveiled at the Indian Science Congress in Kolkata earlier this week, the undergraduate programme that IISc Bangalore started in 2011 is trying to actually reverse this trend.

And a year into the programme, the experiment that could shape the direction of India's science policy is showing its first results.

Other top colleges like St. Stephen's typically lose at least 10% of their pure science class after the first year of their BSc. (Hons) programme, as students drop out and join the IITs or other engineering schools.

But of the 84 students who were carefully handpicked by IISc for its first batch in August 2011, only one student has dropped out after her first year.

"That's a very positive sign," Professor Chandan Dasgupta, dean (undergraduate) at IISc, told HT.

Launched by IISc in alliance with the department of science and technology (DST) in August 2011, the programme handpicks some of the country's brightest minds interested in science when they leave school.

The idea is to give them the best research environment available to undergraduate students in the country, a chance to see India's finest cutting-edge research at close quarters and work early with top scientists.

It's a gamble based on the premise that many of these students - who may otherwise have switched careers away from science - will end up continuing with research.

If the plan works, the DST hopes to replicate the model, by setting up multiple such elite schools to create a cadre of science and technology professionals that will allow India to compete with the world again.

The nation of Satyendranath Bose, Jagdish Chandra Bose and Srinivasa Ramanujan is today 12th in the world in terms of the number of patents filed.

India - the world's second most populated country and boasting one of its fastest growing major economies - is only ninth in the world in terms of the number of full-time, trained science and technology professionals and in terms of investments in research and development.

With 154,827 research professionals, India is behind not just global giants like the US and China (both have 1.42 million R&D professionals), and other developed countries like the UK and France, but even countries like Russia and Korea.

The new Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) policy unveiled by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Kolkata on Thursday recognizes this crisis, and declares a hunt to add 66% more trained research professionals to the country's research workforce.

That hunt is on at IISc.

In the physics laboratory specially designed for the undergraduate students, a blue toy car track winds up and down like a roller coaster ride in an entertainment park.

But the equipment that could excite even children unfamiliar with concepts of gravity and torque, is actually a fun new way for students to learn just what speed the toy car needs to travel at, to complete a vertical loop of the track.

The undergraduate biology laboratory has state-of-the-art equipment that shames labs in several high-end government research institutions.

And unlike many traditional undergraduate science courses, the IISc programme offers lab experiments that are directly related to what students are studying ion theory classes at the time.

"You won't find students studying gravity in theory in one week and in lab much later," Maigur Raghavendra, the faculty in-charge of the physics lab said.

The programme offered by IISc is unique - it is the only four-year undergraduate science course in India.

All students study physics, chemistry, math and biology in their first three terms. This January, the first bath which has completed its first three terms, gets to specialize in a subject.

Students can pick between any of the four core subjects, materials sciences and environmental sciences.

The institute admits students to this programme through the IIT Joint Entrance Examination (IIT-JEE), the All India Engineering Entrance Examination (AIEEE) and the Kishore Vaigyanik Pratishthan Yojana (KVPY).

Only students ranked among the top 500 in the IIT-JEE and the AIEEE are eligible. The KVPY recognizes and awards bright young science minds while in school.

"So far, all the faculty members are very happy with what they've seen," Dasgupta, the dean, said. "Some of the students are among the best our faculty has seen."

The experiment hasn't been a smooth ride, and Dasgupta and his team have had to innovate and find solutions along the way.

Despite the IISc brand - the institute regularly ranks as India's top science research institution - the institute's undergraduate programme has to compete with the IITs for bright young students.

Vamsi Krishna, who has decided to major in biology, was clear he wanted to join the IISc programme, but needed to convince his parents.

And in battling concerns among parents about the future prospects of their wards, Dasgupta ironically uses bait he hopes students eventually don't fall for.

He tells parents - correctly - that the IISc undergraduate students will find multiple job opportunities outside research too.

"I want them to go into research," he said. "But to attract the best, I need them to know that they have multiple other options too."

The challenge - and the stakes involved in this experiment - means that Dasgupta also needs to plan ahead. Years ahead.

The IISc, he said, plans to make it mandatory for PhD scholars to work as teaching assistants for the undergraduate course. And once the first batch graduates in 2015, they will be tapped to serve as mentors to junior students.

"The students can connect more easily with these PhD scholars and seniors than with us. Also, it will help enhance the research environment in which the students pursue their academics," Dasgupta said.

The real test of the experiment will come when the time arrives for students like Krishna and Kamalnath to pick careers.

But if the experiment works, India may yet have a realistic chance to use its unparalleled demographic potential to catch up with China and the west.