In a small room at Mumbai University’s Kalina campus, lie huge cartons that have come from Japan, Singapore and other countries. The boxes, which contain some of the world’s best nanoscience equipment, have been lying unopened for a year. The reason: The varsity’s electricity line does not have enough wattage to run the equipment.
The Nanotechnology and Nanoscience Centre was set up four years ago when the university received Rs100 crore from the central government for a core research project.
In 2009, the centre began functioning in a temporary single-storey building with half its equipment and only four full-time research assistants. The University Grants Commission, the country’s apex education regulator, has recommended autonomy for the centre. While granting autonomy is a far cry, the university took two months to grant the centre an approval for purchasing window blinds to protect the machines from direct sunlight.
“We have big dreams. To realise our dreams scientists need to be empowered. Empowerment brings agility and efficiency,” said DC Kothari, coordinator of the centre. “By doing away with red tape and giving the centre autonomy, the university would remove all roadblocks in the path of the centre becoming a world-class research hub within a university-system,” said another faculty member.
Research has been a priority for universities such as Harvard and MIT, who have nurtured Nobel laureates. These universities have research funding running into millions of dollars. Apart from that, most universities conduct research for industries and government agencies. Closer home, the Indian Institute of Technology – Bombay, this year, earned more than Rs100 crore for research projects from external agencies.
The Mumbai University budget shows that the university earns less than Rs30,000 annually from research consultancy. Faculty members who undertake research projects are supposed to give a third of their consultancy fee to the university. The Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies, the university’s most prestigious management institute, contributed only Rs1,000 as research consultancy in 2009-2010.
THE GREAT FALL This university was once a research trendsetter. In 1952, GS Ghurye, the head of the sociology department, established the Indian Sociological Society. The society published the Sociological Bulletin journal, which remains a reputed sociology journal.
Most academics blame the shortage of faculty for the falling standard of research at the university. The university’s approved faculty strength is 369 teachers. However, only 200 posts are currently filled. Also, with senior faculty retiring, an increasing number of posts remain vacant. The university’s 55 departments have a capacity to accommodate 16,000 students, but only 9,000 are enrolled.
“The faculty strength of the university should be increased to accommodate 30,000 post-graduate and doctoral students and then the university campus will be a vibrant hub of research,” said Neeraj Hatekar, a professor at the university’s economics department.
College authorities feel a research culture should not be confined to one campus. “The university should encourage and fund colleges to open research centres. They should ensure that qualified teachers in colleges become research guides and that every teacher completes his/her PhD,” said Dinesh Panjwani, principal, National College, Bandra.
QUALITY OF RESEARCH
Despite the drawbacks, the number of PhDs and research publications in the university has doubled in the past five years to around 430 and 1,500 respectively. But the quality of research is not uniform. “Only 10% of PhD theses will be published in reputed journals,” said a faculty member. “Just as water finds its level, research papers find their journals. There are several journals in the market, the reputed ones are what you have to make it to.”
However, even though the situation seems grim, things seem to be moving in the right direction. Construction on the Nanotechnology Centre began two months ago. The university has adverstised in international journals for a director for the centre. The search committee for the director is headed by Anil Kakotkar, former chairperson of the Atomic Energy Commission. In March, after almost two decades, the state government sanctioned 104 new faculty posts (27 professors, 32 associate professors and 45 assistant professors).
“Despite our faculty shortage and infrastructure needs, the university has made it to every national scheme of excellence. With more faculty posts sanctioned and these schemes, we will make it to the top of every list,” said AK Srivastava, in-charge of campus development and professor at the chemistry department.
Basic sciences get a lift
In 2007-08 the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Mumbai University set up the Centre for Excellence in Basic Sciences (CBS) to impart high-quality science education. It is aimed at nurturing world-class scientists, who will take up challenging research and other academic assignments in the country’s research and development laboratories.
While CBS started a year after the nanotechnology centre, it is already on its way to producing its first batch of the integrated five-year MSc programme in 2012. The centre is located on the university’s Kalina campus but is autonomous and funded by DAE. Its board of directors has scientists from some of the most reputed institutes in the country. The centre enrolls students based on a national entrance test. The degree is awarded from the University of Mumbai.
The cnetre is doing research in fields of nuclear magnetic resonance, nuclear physics and astrophysics.