Some lead labs, several are post-doctoral scholars and many, many more are grad students. According to the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE), over 2 lakh students are currently enrolled in a PhD programme.
The headlines may fool you into thinking science is glamorous...
But in reality, India is among the countries that spend the least on research, which is less than 0.7% of our GDP. No wonder we have only 253 researchers in R&D per million of our population. That’s far behind other Asian countries like the Republic of Korea (7,980), Singapore (6,803), UAE (2,379) and Qatar (577).
For researchers, the battle for funds is fierce, and the fight is anything but equal.
Your chances are better if you’re:
The odds are stacked against you if you are:
Those who win funding are the lucky ones. They celebrate, because now they can gather the resources they need to live well and do fantastic science, right?
Because in India, winning a grant on paper is one thing. Getting the money in hand is a whole other thing.
This is a peek into the world of funding delays in Indian science. The statements you see in the rest of this feature are all excerpted from actual responses we received to a questionnaire shared by TheLifeofScience.com. 32 people in science in India responded to this questionnaire.
The tip of the iceberg
"9 months!!! That's how long I have been working without being paid!!!" - Ph.D. candidate at state university∴
"Some of my students have not been paid their scholarships for 6+ months." - Scientist at IISc∴
"I had to take a 6 months extension without salary to get my 3rd year grant, which was refused to me during the raging COVID pandemic." - Researcher at an institute of national importance
"I worked without a salary for almost a year. I did not want to leave my work unfinished." - Postdoctoral student at an institute of national importance∴
"My fellowship came with a regular 9-month delay for a 12-month sanction period" - Principal Investigator (PI) at an NGO∴
"I have not received my funds for 2 years now." - PI at a state university
"Neither of my 2 DBT grants has had a fund release for the last 1.5 years." - PI at a not-for-profit research institute∴
"It's been 18 months since I've been working without a fellowship." - Project JRF at an Institute of national importance∴
"My better half, a Ramalingaswami fellow, hasn't got her salary since 2019." - PI at an institute of national importance
The science is suffering
"We have not yet started a project that we envisioned about 3 years ago."∴
"We get no money from state universities as we are Ramalingaswami Fellows. So we cannot order reagents as well."∴
"There is no freedom to order antibodies. My work keeps getting delayed. As a final year graduate student, this doesn't bode well for me."
"I could not retain certain qualified researchers who were hired from the grant. This jeopardised the outcome and progress of the project."∴
"When we do get funding (if we do), the idea and plan would be so outdated that we may not want to do it that way at all as proposed."∴
"Staff remains without salary and often we have lost trained hands."
"The pace of work is slowed. Publications are delayed, especially in international journals."∴
"We worry about every experiment not from a technical standpoint, but from a budgetary one."∴
"Bigger papers consisting of larger amounts of experiments also get compromised because we are never sure when and how much of the fund will actually arrive."
"We need to provide progress every 6 months, so we tend to do quick-fix types of experiments, and that too just for the report – this is not good for the bigger picture."∴
"We are unable to restart research even as lockdowns ease as we simply don't have funds to cover operational costs."∴
"Committing to ambitious research questions is risky… we may be punished for not accomplishing what we promised."
And so is the morale of the people doing the science
"Have pushed my plans for pursuing a PhD indefinitely."∴
"My mental health and focus on research is badly affected."
"No salary for me and no salary for my project student."∴
"I cannot support my staff."∴
"My stipend is the sole source of income for the survival of my family of four. I haven't been able to send a single penny home since February."
"When the money finally came, it was without the personnel funds. I cannot pay the person I recruited her salary."∴
"We have all had to take partial pay cuts. "∴
"It’s painful to survive in a metro city without salary & House Rent Allowance. "
"I’m not able to take care of my family."∴
"My energy is drained & my thought process is affected."∴
"We are facing extreme stress and mental health issues."
"The one job and responsibility of the administration to support the career of researchers who have already gone through one of the most cut throat standardized testing systems of the world. Deter them early in their scientific career, and you deter them for life. Just think about the number of people who have hemorrhaged from the system and ask yourself, is this acceptable?"
Hacks to survive the red tape
"I plan ahead of time – I assume that fellowship WILL be delayed."∴
"We shift to less expensive ways of cloning. Nanobodies over antibodies."∴
"Protocols are tweaked to use available chemicals, rather than the actual one present in the publication."
"Luckily, my lab was rich in terms of budget and reagents."∴
"A dean stepped in and paid part of the funds to host the collaborator."∴
"The institute provides minimal financial support to graduate students who's stipends are delayed."
"Our institute supported salaries of personnel both times, but this is not a sustainable solution."∴
"I have a teaching job, which is why I could survive."∴
"I was lucky to not have anyone depending on me financially."
"I was living at home (with parents) and hence didn't have to end up paying rent"∴
"I was able to continue working without pay solely because I had the financial backing of my family."∴
"One of my colleagues gave me a suggestion to load all the funds in the first year so that at least we get the majority of the funds! It is like buying all your non-perishable groceries and then living on nothing else (no fruits and veggies; the horror!)."
"One strategy to handle the delays has been to keep some of the funds unspent so that we can use them after March. But for the past few years, the agencies have been cutting the unspent amount from the next year's funds. So we have now started spending all the funds, so that we can tide over the 4-6 months delay. This is tough because there are ongoing expenditures based on services like sequencing, primers, etc."
Why is this happening?
(Who is to blame)
"They told me the delay was because my papers were not in order."∴
"They take months to flag the problem and don’t respond to queries for months."∴
"Being in a state university and not being in Delhi, I cannot get to know what was wrong with my papers."∴
"Stupid f#$%*^$ bureaucracy."
"If you manage to get your papers passed the first time around, they pinpoint a problem with the Utilisation Certificate of Statement of Expenditure & the cycle goes on."∴
"To say it’s the fault of scientists and their shoddy paperwork is a cop out; the process is opaque."∴
"How can the paperwork be shoddy? I've seen my PI slog for weeks to get all grant documents correct."
"Accounts people don’t understand the importance of funding and impact of science."∴
"In 2021, we are still expecting physical copies with signatures to be mailed by post each time we need money!"∴
"The web portal that has emerged is extremely difficult to use. Sometimes whatever we upload goes into an abyss and cannot be looked at again."
"Now CSIR has an online fellowship management system online for students to track, but if the info is not updated regularly, then what’s the point?"∴
"Many times it's the HoD who is not even in the project dictating spending as he signs all the bills. The PI has to obey."∴
"There is no easy way to call and reach a human being. If we do manage to reach a human on the agency side, they will only communicate in Hindi."
"There is so much monitoring of grantees, though they have been chosen after so much screening. Why don’t agencies trust that there is usually a good reason for a period of lower productivity?"∴
"Sometimes budget changes are made once the grant is approved."∴
"Grant officers are rotated periodically so this makes follow-up very difficult."
"Supposedly-trained caseworkers blame funding agencies & vice versa. We scientists are the shuttlecock."∴
"It is PI's responsibility to check and verify the documents. THEY CAN'T KEEP THROWING EVERYTHING ON STUDENTS' SHOULDERS. We are here to do science."∴
"The system is set up to deter the exceptions – scientists who misuse the system – rather than supporting the vast majority that do the right thing."
A Better World
(What could you do with timely funds)
"We are constantly doing jugaad to run the lab given the vagaries of system. If this were not to happen, I can imagine... I would no longer have to cut back on experiments."∴
"I would no longer have to cut back on experiments. "∴
"I could be more organised, work optimally and generate higher quality data and better publications."
"We could do some small but interesting "side experiments" that come up anytime one does hypothesis-driven research. These are often very exciting and lead to new avenues which could be the basis of the next grant."∴
"A smooth system would eliminate the stress among students and allow us to focus peacefully on our work. I know from personal experience that the best science happens when one is relaxed!"
"I could plan better and be able to travel for my international collaborations."∴
"Our group would be able to inspire more people in materials science and engineering to take up computational tools and methodologies. This will help us solve important problems of both practical and academic interest."
"We would be able to do more research talks and disseminate teaching material on YouTube etc."∴
"I would be able to pay JRF/SRFs and hence allow them to stay through the tenure of the grant and see their work end in a publication. This would help PIs too, as new members would not have to be trained and retrained..."
"I would be able to purchase consumables and services (like sequencing) throughout the tenure of the grant, and be able to finish my projects in time."∴
"I would do risky science, without worrying about consumables, equipment and salaries. Fundamental scientific breakthroughs are a direct outcome of risky, blue-sky research. "
"The Indian science administration/researchers entrenched in the system often lament the lack of Nobel prize winners from India. Fixing the broken grant disbursal system would go a long way."∴
"The question is sort of Sci-fi…"
Note: All the quotes used here are based on responses from an in-depth questionnaire and follow-up interviews by TheLifeofScience.com. A total of 32 researchers participated in the questionnaire. The respondents comprised predominantly Principal Investigators and graduate students, but there was also representation from a research assistant as well as researchers doing postdoctoral studies, non-academic research projects and junior research fellowships.
- Grant managers should be in constant touch with us, keeping us informed about how to manage records and what formats are expected.
- Look at systems in other countries like the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark; pick what suits or adapt it for the Indian scenario.
- Funding agencies need state level offices to coordinate with students and PIs.
- Recruit sensible people in the funding agencies and hold them accountable for any sort of delays.
- Different departments where the files are moving need to talk to each other.
- Make CSR funding processes clearer and standardised, so that it is based on merit rather than access.
- Keep the PIs informed about delays in funding; this helps us plan better
- At least for life sciences, progress is not linear. At times things don't move much for 2 years but suddenly it all comes together in year 3. Do not ask for progress reports and presentations in the interim.
- Financial power should be given to PI instead of university authorities.
- Once you promise funding to someone, don't make them run through a hundred other administrative hoops to continue receiving the funding.
- Currently the deadlines are only for grantees and not the funding agencies. Let’s have them for both sides
- Don’t listen only to the stories of PIs from eminent places. Others are suffering, too.
Acknowledgements: We thank Guneet Narula and Sputznik for helping us develop this multimedia feature. TheLifeofScience.com Season 6 is supported by contributors to our crowdfunding campaign, STEMpeers, and also by a grant from the Thakur Family Foundation. Thakur Family Foundation has not exercised any editorial control over the contents of this reportage.