As a student of science and a to-be practitioner of evidence-based medicine, I have always striven to find reason in everything. Why is it that research opportunities in India are not at par with its mammoth population? With such a strong early educational system and a large population base, why has it been so difficult for India to populate its research institutions with the very top investigators in the world? It took me a long time to figure out the answer to these queries which have had me troubled since my higher secondary.
The answer is that the pipeline from student to faculty investigator has many leaks. The first and perhaps greatest leak in the pipeline occurs during high school, the turning point taking place in the 11th and 12th grades. At this time, the academically strongest students are directed to careers in medicine and engineering by their families and teachers, and, in many cases, are actively discouraged from pursuing scientific research. The deciding factor is money. Young people are assaulted daily with symbols of India’s emerging middle and upper-class wealth. They want to be part of this new economic prosperity, and the surest path for a bright student to achieve a comfortable life style is to enter the medical profession or obtain a job in the engineering or IT sectors. As a result, entrance to the IITs and medical colleges is fiercely competitive.
Given the large population (and inherent inaccuracies of large-scale entrance exams), there are still many very bright students who pursue undergraduate degrees in basic sciences. Here, another opportunity is missed to entice and train students for careers in the sciences, since college teachers have little, if any, experience in scientific research. As a result, college undergraduates learn facts from textbooks and do not understand the excitement of research and are not taught the latest scientific developments. Much of the instruction focuses on performing well for examinations rather than emphasizing curiosity and scientific inquiry. Being physically separated from research Institutes and Universities, college students also are not exposed to the leading scientists in India. As a result, even the most highly motivated students are left disillusioned and disappointed thereby killing any residual interest in the subject.
Since high school, I had an active interest in cancer research and often contemplated taking the necessary basic science course after college till I finally settled with MBBS. When it came to conducting and monitoring high school experiments, nobody was more keen and enthusiastic than me. This burning desire to engage in meaningful research landed me a short-term studentship sponsored by the Indian Council of Medical Research, under which one can pursue research into the topic of his choice for a period of two months.
Taking a cue from Dolores Umbridge’s first address to Hogwarts, my first aphorism about research is that ‘research for the sake of research must be discouraged’. It is sad to see that students prefer to take up easy-going topics, one which does not test their patience and application-based knowledge, only to serve the purpose of ‘having done a research’. What’s more, even the ICMR has a higher acceptance rate for these kinds of research. Original, innovative and creative approaches are often met with sceptism and hence rejected. For my part, I ditched the run-of-the-mill, done-to-death kind of topics and opted for an approach which is unconventional in the current educational setup – a cross between patient-centric and laboratory-related principles. Undertaking such a risk has certainly paid off, for my question is highly pertinent in the current clinical setup and I hope to plug the loopholes created by the lack of data regarding the same.
According to the Fundamental Duties enshrined in the Constitution of India, one should promote the “scientific temper and the spirit of enquiry”. Sadly, this remains only on paper. We have a long way to go before research is actively promoted as an extracurricular and incentivized in all levels of education. Research is not singularly poor in our country. We have less than impressive performance in some spheres of research like innovation and technological development. The poor performance of medical research, however, has more serious repercussions since it directly affects health of people and therefore, of the nation. Therefore, what is required is to identify and promote the young aspirants into paths that better suit their temperament and capabilities than stereotypes. There is no point in trying to fit square pegs in round holes or vice-versa. Facilitation of suitable matches and optimally promoting their activities is essential for us to really make excellence in India.
Institute of Post-Graduate Medical Education and Research, Kolkata.
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