There is a strong belief that if India wants to remain in the growth and development race to emerge among the top economies in the world, it needs to invest more in science and technology and should promote the scientific temper among its citizens. Thus it is imperative to attract our youth to the field of science and technology and to promote the scientific temper in them. Keeping this in mind, The Department of Science and Technology (DST) started the ambitious programme “INSPIRE” or “Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research” in 2008 to attract young minds to take up the study of natural science at an early stage and be a part of the skilled human resource pool that will strengthen the science and technology system, promoting research and development in the country. The objective of INSPIRE is very noble because Science and Technology are some of the biggest tools ensuring GDP growth. They also initiate social change at a greater pace, leading us swiftly to sustainable development.
Fittingly, the home page of INSPIRE reads1Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world”.
But INSPIRE is a torch to illuminate the scientific temper among the Indian youth and to create a resource pool of talent in India. It knows only one community, i.e. the community of toppers, merit holders and scholars. Is merit alone the best criteria for DST to select its target who will be involved in the arena of Science and Technology in India in the coming decades? This article attempts to investigate the above question.
The INSPIRE Programme:
The INSPIRE programme was launched in December 2008 after being approved by the Government of India (in November of the same year) for five years at a total cost of Rs 1979.25 crores during the 11th Plan Period 2. It is made up of three components or three different schemes being implemented with various student age groups.
The first one is the Scheme for Early Attraction of Talent (SEATS) which has two further components a) the INSPIRE award which aims at attracting talented youth to study science by providing the INSPIRE Award of Rs.5,000/- to one million young learners in the age group 10-15 years and b) the INSPIRE internship, an annual Summer/Winter Camp for about 50,000 young people, toppers in the Class X board examinations who go on to pursue Science in Standard XI.
As regards SEATS, students in the age group of 10-15 and studying in Classes VI to X in any school in India are eligible to receive the award. Two students from each school are selected from two different age groups, one from classes 6th to 8th and the other from classes 9th to 10th. There is no specific criterion for the selection of students but the Principal nominates candidates. It is assumed that the Principals of each school (through a transparent system of selection based on merit) will nominate five students, one from each class with an indication of the two best students, one in each group. The selected students get an award of Rs. 5000/- to prepare an exhibition/model and its display at various levels. Within this scheme there is some for schools to select students and not solely on the basis of merit.
It is the same with the summer/winter camps that are a part of the Inspire internship scheme, the second component of INSPIRE SEATS. In this scheme, about 50,000 students annually from the top 1% performers in the class X board examinations and pursuing science in their XI standard are selected. They then meet with leaders in the sphere of science during the Summer/Winter camps so they might experience the joy of innovation. The camps last for 5 days. Again this is purely based on merit.
The second scheme under INSPIRE is SHE – The Inspire Scholarship for Higher Education. It offers 10,000 scholarships every year of Rs.80,000/- each for undertaking Bachelor and Masters level education in the Natural & Basic sciences. Now, let’s have a look at the criteria for selection of students for SHE.
There are three main criteria for the selection under SHE and one criterion for keeping others out of the race. If you are not in the top 1% merit list of your Central or State Boards or the merit list of premier science entrance examinations or even if you are on the merit list but are not opting for natural sciences then you shall not be considered. The criteria for eligible candidates are the opposite i.e. those students who are among the top 1% in 12th standard in their respective board examinations and are pursuing courses in Natural and Basic sciences at the B.Sc. or Integrated M.Sc. levels.
The second criterion also targets the so called scholar sections including students who have secured in the Joint Entrance Examination at IIT (top 10,000 ranks), AIEEE (top 10,000 ranks) plus those clearing AIPMT (top 10,000 ranks), and who also opt to study Natural and Basic sciences in any academic institute or university. The third criterion tries to capture those students admitted to premier institutes such as Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), National Institute of Science Education and Research (NISER), etc. Each selected candidate receives an annual scholarship of Rs.60,000 in cash in addition to Rs.20,000 being paid to the mentoring institution for summer time projects the selected candidates undertake.
The third component under INSPIRE is AORC – Assured Opportunity for Research Careers. It again consists of two schemes a) The INSPIRE Fellowship awarded to candidates to pursue full-time Ph.D programmes in any recognized University/Institution/R&D Laboratory in the country and b) The INSPIRE faculty scheme which provides contractual research positions to young achievers for independent research in order to enable them to emerge as science & technology leaders in the future. Eligibility for these two schemes is again more or less based on the merit culture.
Is Scientific Temper equivalent to Merit?
All the above three schemes under INSPIRE are purely merit based. Why is the DST so gripped by 1st place Rank holders? And why does the DST only targets meritorious students? Most of them will certainly find work in a field related to Science and Technology due to a general tendency clubbed with societal pressure which leads to a prejudice like, ‘Meritorious students have sharp minds and should only take science related subjects’. In addition, why is merit the only criterion in selecting students for awards and scholarships that are sponsored by a Government Department? This is against the principal of equal opportunity.
In traditional Indian Society, scientific temper and privilege to excel were regarded as pristine, the access to which was limited only to a few sections of society, a practice that continues even today in many bizarre forms. This is purely to maintain caste systems and to produce a working class from a select ghettoized population, where the system wants a fourth class employee to always remain a fourth class employee. In this case it is visible that the ruling class wants to prepare a pool of sub ruling class individuals, continuing to maintain the status quo.
INSPIRE’s policy to benefit only merit holders seems more serious when we know that in an unequal society like ours segmented on the lines of caste and class, merit is not just the product of hard labour but it is a privilege of upper caste and class groups. It will not be an exaggeration to say that merit is manufactured by the upper caste and class society for the pure benefit of the upper caste and class society. The process of getting meritorious marks is cyclical in nature. Admission in good schools with more than enough resources in terms of guidance, technology, mentoring, infrastructure etc. coupled with exposure and economic power to go for tutorial/coaching classes and the support, ambience, guidance and exposure at home makes a child from an advantaged background already cross the 80 meter mark while first generation learners from disadvantaged backgrounds start with their first steps in a 100 meter race.
Hence, the criteria for the selection of young minds to strengthen scientific community and scientific temper are itself unscientific as it is purely based on academic performance and scoring marks. There is no theory or research which proves that merit holders have more scientific temper and scientific approach in them in comparison to other students
In addition, such schemes promote competition and labeling among students. This kills the spirit of joyful learning which is against the principles of Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) being advocated by the CBSE as a reform measure to lower the burden on students and to focus on the overall growth and development of the child.
One more very interesting thing to be observed as regards INSPIRE would be the retention level of this beneficiary group and its optimal use for the development of science and technology in India. As we have witnessed, with IITs, AIIMS and other elite institutes, students benefit from scholarships and subsidized fees and then migrate to other countries to work for them. There are high chances of a repetition of the above phenomenon within the kind of group that INSPIRE is targeting.
INSPIRE takes two approaches to identify and select the beneficiary group to increase the so called pool of people who will dedicatedly work for the improvement of science and technology in the country. Both the approaches are lacking as they only take into account the marks and grades of students and neglect all the other essential qualities. We need to remember that it’s not only the top 1% who have the scientific caliber and approach in them. What about those students who are highly innovative but cannot express themselves and who generally are not favoured by their teachers and Principals? Do they lack in scientific temper or investigative ability to successfully research?
In addition to a basic understanding of the concepts of Science, it is only scientific mentoring and facilities in terms of infrastructure and exposure available to the students, which develops in them the zeal to be propagators of scientific and technological knowledge. Through INSPIRE, we reach millions of students in thousands of schools every year. However, every year we lose out on millions more opportunities where we could have taken a step towards bridging the gap in our education system, leading many to miss out on witnessing or carrying out basic science experiments.
This chunk of funds could have been used more reasonably by establishing permanent structures and systems such as ‘Joy of Science’ labs in neglected or educationally backward districts where the honorary and voluntary services of the scientific community (already providing its services to INSPIRE) could have potentially been used and where the entire student population of schools could have been mentored every year.
Note: Scheme related information has been referred from INSPIRE website: http://www.inspire-dst.gov.in/ (accessed between 5th- 11th February 2013)1. http://www.inspire-dst.gov.in/ accessed on 9th February 2013.
(Ashish Singh Ex student of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumabi and currently student at Oslo University College, Oslo, Norway)