Bangalore: For a nation that invented zero, India is now finding fewer students taking up research in mathematics. And, the land of Bhaskara, Aryabhatta and Srinivasa Ramanujan is facing a shortage of mathematicians in its research labs, banking and financial institutions, knowledge process outsourcing firms as well as in the academia.
“Not many are taking up mathematics as a career,” says T.V. Mohandas Pai, board member and head of training and research at Infosys Technologies Ltd, India’s second largest software exporter.
That has made Infosys to institute an annual award in association with the National Institute of Advanced Studies (Nias) to encourage studies in mathematics. The award of Rs10 lakh, with a corpus of Rs1 crore, will be given to mathematicians under the age of 40.
The Infosys prize, the largest such award for mathematics, aims to encourage research in the subject.
“The quality of research is questionable and you can’t have quality if you don’t have good teachers,” says M.S. Raghunathan, Homi Bhabha chair professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. “The brilliant guys opt for more rewarding careers in banking or software sectors and the situation will be worse in five years, if we don’t attract them to teaching,” he says.
India produces about 450,000 engineers, and nearly half of them are absorbed by the technology sector every year. Students opting for math beyond graduation level could be in a few hundreds.
The Association of Mathematics Teachers of India, a Chennai body that works with school and college students in math studies, says lack of support from parents acts as a deterrent for students to take up math in higher studies.
“There is little encouragement from parents (to take up further studies) and students also easily find jobs as they graduate,” says M. Mahadevan, a retired schoolteacher and general secretary of the association.
There is a major shortage of good teaching faculty in the subject. “There may be around 100 people who are doing PhD in maths,” says a professor of the subject at the Indian Institute of Science, who did not want to be named. Incidentally, there are fewer people from Chennai and Bangalore, where there was a culture of mathematics teachers taking up research, now enrolling for further studies in the subject, with the exception of Kolkata.
India now has nearly 100 people who are acclaimed internationally, including Chennai-born S.R. Srinivasa Varadhan, the New York University professor who won the Abel Prize, described as mathematician’s Nobel, last year.
“Most students come from a middle-class background and there is a push from parents to get into IIT, IIM, MBBS or similar professional degrees,” says Varadhan, a member of the National Academy of Sciences in the US, referring to the Indian Institute of Technology, Indian Institute of Management and medical studies.
Agrees Ravi Kannan, principal researcher of algorithms research group at Microsoft Corp.’s Microsoft Research India. “Because of IT and other engineering and business jobs being aplenty and very lucrative, people migrate to these fields after their first degree.”
“Opportunities for professional advancement at educational institutions in India appear to be limited as well. Most of the institutions expect their faculty to teach a heavy load of courses and do not expect them to do research,” says Varadhan.
Further, the lack of postgraduate, research and training, and career opportunities, rather than the talent itself is impacting research in India, translating into shortages at all levels starting with the top people, who would guide others, says Kannan.