There is a crisis in Indian science. The attrition of talent is so alarming that top scientists have turned to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for help.
At a presentation before Singh earlier this month, the Prime Minister's Science Advisory Council (SAC-PM) noted that the attrition was at two levels. For one, scientists from the best centres of research in the country were moving to lucrative positions in the private sector, including the research facilities being set up by multinational corporations. For another, the retirement age of 60 remained unassailable, forcing out many senior scientists who still had a lot left to offer.
The problem has been aggravated by the ban on recruitments at Science and Technology centres, introduced in the late 1980s when the economy was in bad shape, which has led to a serious shortage of middle-level scientists.
"We are concerned,” said CNR Rao, who heads the SAC-PM. “We must find a solution."
He said GE alone had taken away eight of his students, all doctorate holders. "In government-run science institutes, however prestigious, young scientists earn Rs 25,000-30,000 per month,” he said. “In private companies they get anything between Rs 60,000 and Rs 2 lakh a month. A full professor gets only Rs 40,000. The highest salary in any government-funded laboratory is less than Rs 50,000 a month."
Rao also felt strongly about the retirement age prescribed. "Highly qualified people, if they are physically and mentally fit, should not retire at 60.” He noted that in Japan the retirement age was first raised to 65, and later to 75 years. In the United Kingdom too, it is 65. “We must get rid of these rigid structures, or no self-respecting scientist or engineer will work for the public sector,” said Rao.
G Madhavan Nair, chairman, ISRO, said his organisation was able to hire only 150 young engineers in the past two years, though it had wanted twice that number. "The rate of attrition has hovered around 7 to 8 per cent," he said.
K Kasturirangan, member of Rajya Sabha, and professor Roddam Narasimha too, worried about losing scientists to the private sector and MNCs. "I do consider it alarming," said Narasimha, a member of the SAC-PM and an aerospace expert. “A couple of my students have left for greener pastures. If the trend continues, our expertise will no longer remain.”
Rao said: “We must have a mechanism like special allowances or grants. We do not have to copy China which has differential salaries. Young Chinese scientists who come back from the United States get thrice the salary of their colleagues. That has left many unhappy. This is a burning issue and we must find our own solution.”