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‘A Disaster for the Basic Sciences’: KVPY Fellows React to the Scheme’s End

‘A Disaster for the Basic Sciences’: KVPY Fellows React to the Scheme’s End

For science communication to be undertaken in earnest, public institutions must employ a realistic definition of ‘the public’, in particular one that accounts for and caters to people across caste lines and socioeconomic status. Representative image. Credit: IISc

Representative image of IISc, Bengaluru. Photo: IISc

  • On July 19, the Department of Science and Technology announced that it would subsume the Kishor Vaigyanik Protsahan Yojana’ (KVPY) scheme under its INSPIRE fellowship.
  • KVPY was launched under the Vajpayee government in 1999 to “identify and encourage talented and motivated students to pursue career in research.”
  • While the government has promised that existing fellows will continue to receive stipends, the scheme had many features that supported work on basic science in India.
  • KVPY was also distinguished by its selection process, which eschewed intense exams in favour of tests of basic knowledge, and by the science camps it organised.

Aligarh: On July 19, the website of the ‘Kishor Vaigyanik Protsahan Yojana’ (KVPY) posted a memo saying the Department of Science and Technology would subsume the scheme under its INSPIRE fellowship. The announcement seemed innocuous at first glance but in truth marked the end of the scheme’s various unique features and their role in fostering basic-science research.

KVPY was launched under the Vajpayee government in 1999 to “identify and encourage talented and motivated students to pursue career in research.” It did so by selecting students from classes XI and XII through a two-tier process and provided them with monthly and annual stipends if they chose to enrol in a basic sciences programme.

The memo said the “KVPY aptitude test will not be held from 2022 onwards” – although past fellows would continue to receive their stipends.

KVPY’s suspension was met with widespread dismay from the community of scientists and science students.

On July 21, the Department of Science and Technology tweeted that “KVPY hadn’t been abolished, but subsumed”. There has been no official statement on the reasons to subsume KVPY, but reports have indicated the cost of conducting the KVPY exam might have been blamed.

KVPY fellows are selected after a two-step evaluation. The first is the exam, organised by committees consisting of professors from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs) and IITs, among others. The core committee was made up of members from IISc only and oversaw the programme’s day-to-day requirements.

Students selected as KVPY fellows were directly eligible for admission to IISc and the IISERs, based on their ranks in the final merit list. Students in the first year of an undergraduate program in basic sciences could also take the test and were eligible for the grants if they pursued further studies in the same institute.

INSPIRE, the programme the DST has subsumed KVPY under, arranges camps every year for high-school students and provides scholarships to those who pursue higher-studies in pure sciences after high school.

However, it doesn’t have any provisions for students in classes XI and XII as of now. The programme also doesn’t conduct any tests of its own and uses pre-existing evaluation mechanisms – board examinations, JEE, NEET — to select INSPIRE scholars. Its mandate also does not include a summer project like KVPY did.

A defining moment

Debmalya Bandyopadhyay, a postgraduate student in mathematics at IISER Kolkata, told The Wire Science the exposure he gained while becoming a KVPY fellow in 2015 was the reason he forayed into pure sciences.

“I cleared the first stage and was called for an interview to IISER Kolkata in the subsequent rounds. The questions in the interview weren’t hard-and-fast,” he recalled. “They made you think on the spot. It was a very nice experience. I thought that if this is how interviews were, I’d definitely want to do this thing.”

The interviews are unique to KVPY. Entrance exams to, say, the IITs are also held after class XII, and require students to clear the cut-off ranks for various streams. KVPY combined a multiple-choice exam with an interview instead. The exam had a weight of 75% and the interview, 25%.

The fellows selected in 2015 were enrolled at a National Science Camp the next year at IISER Kolkata. That’s where Bandyopadhyay had the idea that led him to enrol in a five-year integrated program in mathematics at the institute. “The camp was a defining moment,” he said.

These camps, called ‘Vijyoshi’, were held for KVPY fellows every year and featured guest lectures from leading scientists in various fields. They would give the fellows a chance to engage in discussions on various topics, exposing them to more ideas than they might have been otherwise.

Anshuman Acharya, an alumnus of IISER Mohali and a KVPY fellow from 2014, attested to the stimulating nature of the camps. “The idea was to expose students to different topics of research, after which they can have a clearer idea of which fields to pursue further. Many of my friends eventually chose their research fields based on the talks they liked best at this camp,” he said.

Acharya is currently a doctoral student at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Germany.

A different test

According to Priyanshu Gautam, a former student at IIT Delhi and a KVPY fellow from 2015, the KVPY exam differed from all the other, more famous entrance tests to engineering and medical institutions.

“The questions in KVPY were like if you just had studied the basics you had a good shot at solving them,” Gautam said. “They didn’t seem as outlandish as some of the questions you get in JEE, where it is a given that you must have done some practice way out of what normal course books have.”

Bandopadhyaya agreed, noting that “the questions required a little more physical understanding of topics. We had to juggle multiple concepts, and one could only do it if you were clear in your head about them.”

The KVPY exam was typically held in November and could be taken for two years in a row, in classes XI and XII or during the first year of any undergraduate program in basic science.

Now that it has been scrapped, an avenue into IISc and IISER, which many students of science have deemed vital, has been closed off. Without KVPY, students can enter these institutes via JEE or NEET, the pan-India engineering and medical examinations respectively, or the aptitude test for IISERs.

Sense of loss

KVPY also required the fellows to undertake a summer project every year from their second year onwards in college, to remain eligible to receive the stipend under the programme.

Ankita Jha, a postdoctoral fellow at the US National Institutes of Health and a KVPY fellow from 2008, recalled a spree of 10 summer projects in the course of her five years at IISER Pune.

“I quickly realised that if you write to any scientist in India with KVPY in your CV, the likelihood of them offering an internship or summer project is really high,” Jha said. This meant KVPY often played a crucial role in shaping its fellows’ academic careers.

“Scholarships of that scale hold high importance in one’s CV if you are in this field, since it shows you have the calibre, excitement to do science, and you are fundable.”

INSPIRE doesn’t offer these summer camps. This is an example of why, although KVPY is still alive, it looks and behaves different.

For another example: “The stipend for summer projects was given as a lump sum under KVPY, although it was given after the project was completed,” Acharya said. “This was still better than INSPIRE, which gives only the amounts that are justified with bills and tickets (which had their own restrictions), and thus often people could not utilise their summer stipend fully.”

“I joined the Institute in 2004 and I saw the KVPY program up and running,” Dipshikha Chakravortty, a professor at the Department of Microbiology at IISc, said. “The students who clear the test and the interviews and are admitted to IISc and other institutes make their mark and I have not seen such kind of students from any other exams.”

According to her, abolishing KVPY will open the door to mediocracy. “This will be a disaster for basic sciences,” Chakravortty said.

Some past fellows and their mentors have written on Twitter and Facebook asking the government to restore KVPY in its original form. Bandopadhyaya said however that while there is a collective sense of loss, no organised response has been initiated so far.

“KVPY empowered me in ways I can’t even explain,” Jha said. “It gave me confidence at the right time to pursue my curiosity and science which clearly is still continuing. It also gave me long-term peers and friends in this field via camp, IISER and various projects I have done over the years.”

Note: This article originally said that the KVPY exam had a weight of 25% and the interview, 75%. It’s really the other way; the mistake was corrected at 6:59 pm on July 22, 2022.

Raunaq Saraswat is a freelance journalist and writer. He will be at the Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University from August 2022. He tweets at @raunaqsa and is on Instagram at @raunaq_saraswat.

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