On a balmy morning in Bangalore’s thickly wooded 440-acre campus best known as India’s academic answer to a Stanford University or an MIT, its director P. Balaram is called away on urgent business — to inspect the state of the student hostels, which are almost a century old. Then he rushes to a presentation on hi-tech research equipment in which the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) hopes to invest Rs 20 crore to Rs 30 crore. But it is not so simple for this top science hub to go tech shopping. Money is still in short supply.
For nearly a century — the IISc turns 100 in 2009 — it was alone in the big league as India’s lone working formula for the globally competitive teaching-cum-research facility, whether it was supercomputing, physics or biology.
It remains our best bet for research and development (R&D) across 37 sciences, with 2,000 research students active in the laboratories. But the 1:5 student-faculty ratio is cause for concern on the campus. The queues to enroll in science careers are thinning, nationwide.
Where are the students?
“The number of good students who voluntarily adopt BSc is falling,” Balaram tells the Hindustan Times. “So, fewer students join MSc and PhD. Only West Bengal retains the numbers.”
The faculty here is informally discussing how to build linkages with undergraduate education, but it is just a debate. The IISc has identified mathematics, genomics, nanotechnology and nanoscience as the next big thing on its roadmap, but it is “very difficult” to find mathematics students.
“If you need to analyse the pattern of current spread of dengue, you need mathematical modelling,” says Balaram. “Maths has penetrated all sciences.”
But information technology and management are grabbing the lion’s share of students. “A management trainee in Bangalore can earn more than my top faculty.” Balaram thinks Indian graduates are too specialised and can benefit from a credit system in universities to choose subjects — like a biology student studying physics too.
Too little, too late
“We have a requirement that is 10 times the modernization amount,” says Balaram.
Last year, the Centre awarded the IISc a one-time grant of Rs 100 crore. It will be spent by next year on a new biology building, a new physics building, a new aerospace laboratory and a nanoscience and nanoelectronics centre among a few overdue essentials.
The director manages to tinker in the laboratories most evenings, but his toughest act is juggling a Rs 200-crore budget.
Consider this: The plan grant is Rs 30 crore for new research equipment and buildings, but often, one gadget alone costs Rs 10 crore. Our annual maintenance budget is Rs 82 crore, it should be at least Rs 120 crore...”
Target: Quantum jump in output
We need a “quantum jump” in the quality and quantity of research output papers, patents, licenses, work productivity, Balaram emphasises. “For that, we need new faculty, new programmes, new resources.”
Stanford University — a $2 billion enterprise — raised $603 million from donors in 2004-05. But for a century, IISc founder visionary J.N. Tata’s philanthropy is unmatched. A plan is being formed to establish new IISc laboratories with government departments in space, defence and core areas.