The Rs 861.6-crore hike in budgetary allocation to the Department of Space is welcome, as is the focus on setting up an exclusive space-training centre in Thiruvananthapuram. The institute, modelled on the lines of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (Barc) in Mumbai, will offer graduate and post-graduate courses in space programmes and technologies and would be the equivalent of universities in developed countries that have aerospace departments. This could not happen sooner as the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) faces an acute shortage of space scientists as most of its senior engineers prepare to retire, taking their expertise with them.
Isro has only itself to blame for being caught in this bind, having been complacent for more than 30 years since its last large-scale recruitment drive. Not that that is the only reason for this techie crunch. Even newly recruited engineers are ‘poached’ by private companies that offer compensation packages of the kind that Isro would probably describe as asking for the moon. That said, however, the shortage of scientific human capital is a complex problem and it is doubtful if the proposed space university alone can fix it. This is a wake-up call not just for Isro, but for policy planners to take a closer look at the adequacy of India’s science and engineering workforce of the future. It is no secret that our science and technology system has been bureaucratised over the years, leading to an exodus of talented scientists to non-scientific careers within the country or to pursue science abroad. No wonder students are no longer attracted to careers in science and engineering, and graduation rates at universities do not keep pace with the demand for skills in science, engineering, and mathematics.
It is time Isro wondered what it really has to offer fresh college graduates: even with the usual perks like a health and pension plan, is its pay competitive with that of the private sector’s? Perhaps the best bet for Isro would be to also focus on the unique incentive of a fulfilling career, working on history-making projects. What more satisfying career could there be for a young engineer than to design and build spaceships that would carry humans back to the moon, then on to Mars and beyond? Such prospects would sustain students through gruelling hours of study and tests, and hopefully inspire an entire generation of young engineers and scientists.