In the last decade and half, India has increased the number of research institutions in a spectrum of emerging areas such as biotechnology and nano technology. It’s also tried to cleave two fundamental duties—teaching and research.
A newly independent India, buoyant in the spirit of Nehruvian socialism, made a significant decision to let universities concentrate on teaching, and task specialized research outfits— such as the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research—with grimy, “industrial” research.
Policymakers reasoned that teaching was a “noble” profession and its objectives were different from the demands of research, geared towards commercial sensibilities. However, specialized research institutions, where teaching obligations were minimal, performed much better at producing patents and publishing papers of quality.
While the quality of teachers decreased, the really good science graduates fled the country for Western universities (which had great researchers and great teachers) and almost never came back.
Panicky bureaucrats—concerned that almost every country of scientific mettle has raced ahead of India—went into corrective mode, and now maybe tilting far too to the other extreme.
Advertisements for middle-level positions and fellowships at top Indian research institutions overwhelmingly emphasize research prowess with little weight given to teaching abilities and experience with guiding students.
While the relationship between teaching and research is much debated, there’s little empirical data to gauge their mutual influence. To correct this, David Feldon, a professor of science policy at the University of Virginia conducted a three-year study involving graduate students in various science programmes. Two groups had to submit detailed research proposals, with one having no undergraduate teaching responsibilities. The other had on average taught one course to undergraduate students. The latter group submitted much better research proposals, Feldon said in a paper published in Science this week.
Greater interaction with undergraduates opened up new lines of thinking even among teachers, the study suggested. Almost all well-known researchers—Richard Feynman, Freeman Dyson, E.O. Wilson—were communicators extraordinaire. While Indian students today may have more economic incentives to be scientists, they wouldn’t really benefit without teachers who are also top researchers.
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