The Anusandhan National Research Foundation (NRF) Bill was recently approved in parliament. It aims to revolutionise the research and development (R&D) ecosystem in India by bringing in significant additional investment from the government, private sector and international collaborations.
The NRF has a vision to promote long-term innovative research across basic sciences, humanities and social sciences in a bid to position India as a global superpower.
However, for that to happen, the existing issues in the research ecosystem need to be addressed.
One significant issue is acquiring, retaining and nurturing top-quality research talent. Of particular importance are doctoral students, who are arguably the most affected by problems in the existing setup.
It is no surprise that doctoral students are not paid well, their salaries are often not disbursed on time and they are not offered enough opportunities to promote their research at international conferences and publish in open-access journals.
However, one overlooked issue is that there is an age limit on the doctoral research fellowship offered by the Union government.
This age limit should be called into question in today’s society, especially at a time when India is looking to become an R&D giant and is looking for all the available talent. It limits a section of society from pursuing a career in academia and/or research, demotivates talented students and also has other consequences, discussed in more detail below.
India understands the value of doctorates, given that it produces the fourth-highest number of doctoral students every year. The junior research fellowship, or JRF, is how the Union government funds graduate research – approximately 10% of all PhD students are financed through the JRF (as per the UGC’s annual report 2020-21, 226,484 students are pursuing Ph.D./M.Phil., of which 24,257 are doing so through the JRF).
But to be eligible for this fellowship, general category students must be 28 years old or younger, with relaxations for female students and those from Scheduled Castes/Tribes, OBC communities and persons with disabilities.
To illustrate how strange this age limit is, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the median age of students entering a doctoral degree is 29 years, one year older than the JRF age limit.
The Ministry of Education has been actively involved in crafting different policies related to doctoral education. One such measure is mandating that universities fill at least 40% of their admission seats through entrance tests other than the JRF.
While this is helpful, the fellowships available at universities, especially private ones, are far fewer than JRF. And while public universities may have more fellowships, many of them impose the same age limit of 28 years.
More importantly, such a low age limit can discourage people from applying. It sends a message to that people older than a certain age do not have what it takes to do a PhD. This is not the case. People of any age can contribute to research and could use their experiences to bring in diverse perspectives.
The ineligibility for JRF may force them to choose careers they are less inclined to, pursue a PhD without funding and incur a significant financial burden, or study outside India and worsen the already severe brain drain problem.
There are many reasons why someone may choose to delay their pursuit of a doctoral degree, including family obligations, health issues and exploring alternative careers. If India is to produce pioneering research, it needs all the world-class talent it can get. Restricting skilled researchers from getting funding based on age feels like shooting oneself in the foot.
Removing the age-based restriction is unlikely to cause additional problems. The selection of fellows for the JRF is done based on the National Eligibility Test (NET). Of all the applicants who clear the exam, only the top 6% are awarded the fellowship. Performance in NET is thus a sufficient criterion for choosing fellows and there is no need for additional restrictions such as age limits.
While there would be increased competition if people of all ages are considered for fellowship positions, the selection process would also be fair for everyone.
It is understandable to have eligibility restrictions for the stage of research someone is in. However, age is not the only indicator for that, as many individuals transition careers at a later stage in their lives. They, too, need the same kind of support early on in their research career.
Therefore, the NRF should abolish all age-based eligibility restrictions from the JRF and other doctoral research funding opportunities. Because age is just a number.
Pankaj Bhambhani is a science communicator.