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  • National science foundation planned for India


[NEW DELHI] The Indian government has announced it will set up a world-class National Science and Engineering Research Foundation at a cost of ten billion rupees (US$230 million). It is expected to function similarly to the National Science Foundation in the United States.

India will also create national universities for scientific research and education in Kolkata and Pune, each costing about US$110 million.

The decisions — intended to boost scientific research in Indian universities and attract students to science — were made at a meeting of the Indian cabinet on 4 March.

The chair of the Indian prime minister's Scientific Advisory Council, C. N. R. Rao, said that the proposed science foundation would be autonomous, ''insulated'' from bureaucracy and run by scientists.

He cited the example of China whose national science foundation has dramatically increased the country's production of scientific research papers, which increased from 17,000 in 1999 to more than 35,000 in 2003.

In contrast, India's output rose from 12,500 papers in 1999 to only 15,600 in 2003.

Another concern repeatedly voiced by senior scientists and policy makers is that the best Indian students perceive information technology or management to be more lucrative than science and that, as a result, India could face a severe shortage of young researchers qualified in basic sciences.

In an effort to address this, the Indian Institutes of Technology will increase the number of students admitted to courses in pure science subjects, such as chemistry and physics, which currently attract few students.

''We want the Indian Institutes of Technology to become like the [US-based] Massachusetts Institute of Technology,'' said Rao.

Some scientists have questioned whether the declining quality of science education in India can be solved by creating new institutes or upgrading existing ones, such as the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore (see India increases science budget by 24 per cent).

''The source of the problem has not been understood,'' says Raja Raman, scientist emeritus at the school of physical sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

''The emphasis is on pouring more money into new institutes, but not on improving the standards of education. The quality of education cannot be improved by setting up more new institutes.''

Prathap Narain Srivastava, a fellow of the Indian National Science Academy and former vice-chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, told SciDev.Net that science education is ''either poor or dismal'' in 75 per cent of India's 300 universities and 1,300 colleges.

''India needs to concentrate on improving science standards at the school and college level'' said Srivastava.
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