Young scholars, the makers of tomorrow’s scientific ecosystem, are major stakeholders of the nation’s current science, technology and innovation policy. In the first-of its kind interactive live session lead by Prof. VijayRaghavan, the Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA) to the Government of India and Dr Akhilesh Gupta, Head-STIP 2020 Secretariat, and facilitated by the Science Policy Forum, scholars from the PhD, postdoctoral, and early career researcher community got an opportunity to voice their concerns, ideas and suggestions. This exciting STIP2020 consultation session, held on July 16, 2020, received a large audience of nearly 7000 research scholars. Detailed discussions over five key themes paved the way for possible recommendations as under.
Career opportunities, academic as well as non-academic, are requisite to establish a comprehensive STI framework in the country. Highlighting the prevailing bias towards academic careers, which could entail stiff competition and potential imbalance in the workforce; the discussions called for diversity in career choices. “The National Research Foundation will stimulate rejuvenation of state-universities, as hubs of high-quality research and will increase academic opportunities nationwide” stated Prof.VijayaRaghavan. Additionally, it was hoped that inter-institutional exchange-programs would bridge institutional differences and promote co-development of scholars. As a parallel, non-academic opportunities, such as science diplomacy, intellectual property, communication, journalism, management, administration,etc that spread beyond conventional research need to be promoted through collaborative funding from industries, state level institutions and other STI sectors. There was a unanimous recommendation for inclusion of career-counselling departments in institutions, to help scholars at all stages of their path. Prof.VijayaRaghavan adviced scholars to stay reminded of “why we are in science” and to retain “a scientist’s passion for addressing pertinent scientific research problems” through all opportunities, be it in academia, industry or other non-academic sectors.
Academic tenures with multi sectoral experience are crucial for ready induction of scholars into the nation’s skilled workforce. Notwithstanding the importance of such diversity, the uni-dimensional focus on research output has limited/hampered the spirit of exploration. Teaching assistantships, leadership/mentorship training, internships in diverse STI sectors, orientations on entrepreneurship and international exposure are a few initiatives suggested for inclusion into research tenures to generate market-ready national talent. There was concurrence on the need for flexibility on age in recruitment processes given the uncertainties in PhD and postdoctoral tenures. However, emphasis on institutional mechanisms to prioritize timely completion of PhD and post-doctoral research tenures was also laid.
Timely disbursement and revision of fellowship remains to be a recurrent appeal of the scholars. A robust framework that respects the economic stability of young scholars was reiterated. Drawing attention to the elaborate pipeline in contingency-renewal process. decoupling fellowship and contingency disbursement was suggested. Creation of digital transparent portals for fellowship, contingency and grants management was also recommended. Noting the contribution of taxes to societal development, supplementation of taxable fellowships with benefits such as dearness allowance and health insurance, at the institutional level, was emphasised.
Diversity and inclusivity on campuses of science education and research is considerably less despite reservations and existing policies. Daring institutional leadership and extraordinary outreach programs is crucial for transformation of this scenario. Formal assessment of institutions that gauges compliance with statutory policies on affirmative action such as those relating to diversity in campus population, gender equality and accessibility to differently-abled were reiterated as potential means for catalysing transformation. Spearheading this transformation within recruitment committees and increasing fellowship schemes exclusive to differently-abled and women with career breaks were seen as feasible and enabling approaches towards this end.
Mental, social and intellectual wellness, and safety are the prime determinants of sustainable productivity and inclusivity. Lack of emphasis on health in general, and mental health in particular, though, seem to plague the research scholars. Exacerbating this further is chronic and acute exposure to lab hazards, skewed work-life balance, monetary instability, sexual and mental harassment, and inequality at the workplace. That counseling and support cells should be a major and functional part of institutional structure was not lost on the participants, for these serve as a fall back system. And, here, it was agreed that the top institutions should lead by example, with principal investigators functioning more as empathetic mentors who value mental health at par with physical health. Simultaneously, the need for intensive assessments of lab safety, campus safety and emergency preparedness protocols that function to preserve the long term wellbeing of personnel, by independent and empowered bodies, was unanimously asserted.
The consultation session was lively and comprehensive. It gave a broad overview about the roles and responsibilities of each stakeholder in the system to make an impactful change. Balanced distribution of funding between organizations across the geography of India was seen as a catalyst to accelerate integrated national advancement. PSA’s affirmative response towards requests for remote and flexible job opportunities that leverages and deploys academic strengths of the STI sectors was motivating for all the attendees. This shall not only encourage talent from remote corners to participate and contribute to the STI landscape, but will also offer a path towards achieving gender equality and diversity. Positions for young scholars with scope of independence are the need of the hour to fast track ideas to implementation, facilitate timely advancement, and achieve exponential development in STI sectors of India.
Overall, the interaction brought to light the need for synergistic participation of public sectors, private sectors and non-governmental organizations in planning and implementation of policies that enable a multi-pronged approach for capacity building and creation of a wide range of opportunities for young scholars. Of note, to achieve many of these, pro-active institutional leadership with a pro-student attitude is vital. A united effort from young scholars is also as necessary, but may be insufficient, to motivate institutes – this demands the intervention by policy makers.
The discussions infused hope that the new Science Technology and Innovation Policy (STIP) 2020 would reflect the concurrence that emerged. The scholars look forward to many such engagements and opportunities for consultation and feedback in future.