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[NEW DELHI] The Indian government has announced it will create 1,000 new positions for researchers at its universities and set up centres in them to promote collaborative research.

The moves are among recommendations made by a committee set up in March to suggest ways of improving research in basic sciences in India.

The government said on 15 June that it would implement all the committee's recommendations, whose projected cost is six billion rupees (US$138 million) per year.

Two 'networking centres' each, housed in Indian universities, will be set up for physics, chemistry, biology, material sciences and mathematics. The centres will promote collaborative research, and provide both training and access to advanced research facilities.

The government has agreed to support the centres on a long-term basis to help them become internationally competitive.

The committee also stressed the need for India to fill the large number of faculty positions that have been vacant in its universities for many years, and to create 1,000 additional research posts including lecturers and professors.

Although there are no official figures for the number of vacancies in science faculties, Arun Nigavekar, chair of the University Grants Commission told SciDev.Net that across all disciplines, an average of 25 per cent of faculty positions in India are lying vacant.

The government plans to phase in the new positions over the next five years, but, according to Nigavekar, has yet to decide whether the posts — new as well as existing vacant ones — would be filled on a permanent or on a tenure basis.

The committee also set a target of increasing five-fold the number of science doctorates awarded in India by 2015. In the 2001-2002 academic year, just over 4,000 PhDs in science subjects were awarded, according to the latest figures from the University Grants Commission.

The committee suggested the minimum qualification for a lecturer in the university science departments should be a PhD, except for departments in engineering and medicine where a lecturer could initially be appointed with an M.Tech/MD or MSc, but must acquire a PhD within seven years of appointment.

Another key recommendation included promoting formal links between universities and national science institutes through joint research projects and training programmes, as well as encouraging collaboration with industries and user organisations for technologies.

Women scientists should be encouraged to take up careers in basic science by removing age barriers — currently 28 years for a junior research fellowship — and introducing flexible time management at work to help them balance their personal and professional responsibilities.

The government's latest move comes in the wake of concern voiced repeatedly by senior scientists, science policymakers and even Indian prime ministers, on the decline of science education and research in basic sciences in Indian universities.

"Pure sciences are definitely some of the disciplines we need to pay attention to urgently," says Nigavekar.  To address some of these issues, the University Grants Commission has initiated steps to increase funds to upgrade science laboratories, improve Internet connectivity to universities and colleges and improve the quality of teaching and distance education.
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