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India’s innovators of tomorrow

Students at IISER, Pune, India

Post-dinner discussions.

By James Dacey, reporting from India

One of the most interesting visits I made during my time in Maharashtra was to the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) in Pune. This is one of five such institutes set up in the past few years by the Indian government in an attempt to generate more interest among students in pursuing careers in fundamental research.

I met the dean of research, L S Shashidhara, who told me that students can enrol on a five-year integrated Master’s programme designed to provide a broad scientific education including a wide exposure to research. In the first two years, students take modules and lab work in physics, biology and chemistry, before having the choice to specialize in their third and fourth years. Then students have the entire final year to carry out a research project of their choice. This could be at the university facilities or it could be in industry, and it could even be in science policy.

Shashidhara, a bioscientist who studied for his doctorate at Cambridge University in the UK, told me that the government is pouring a lot of resources into the institution because it recognizes the need for more innovation. “The current problem of the pharma-industry, automotive industry and IT industry is they do not have sufficient numbers of people trained to do R&D work,” he says. “So, for example, they are happy to manufacture any number of cars in this country but to design a new car they don’t have the people available with sufficient knowledge.”

India’s focus on engineering education at the expense of the fundamental sciences is a topic that will be explored in the podcast I am producing on physics education in India, to appear on in the next couple of months. In recording interviews for this podcast, I also met a number of the students at IISER, including the ones in the photograph above with whom I went for dinner. They seem to be thriving on the flexibility they have been allowed during their studies and have even found time to produce a college magazine. Though one of them did joke that when he tells his friends that he is studying science, a common reaction he gets is “Why didn’t you get engineering?” Unperturbed, he already knows he wants a career in physics research.

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