Retaining talent major challenge for Indian scientific organisations

By Venkatachari Jagannathan, IANS,

Chennai : Retaining an experienced nuclear scientist has become a major challenge now for the Indian nuclear establishment, with the private sector casting its net wide for talent, says a top scientist.

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“Last year we lost around five percent of our scientists and engineers. Ten of them were groomed by me over two decades,” Baldev Raj, director of the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR), told IANS in an interview.

According to him, managing a scientific research organisation is tougher than running a company.

“The latter is systems-driven and everybody has to fit into that. In a research centre, the challenge is taking along a group of brilliant people who are very individualistic in nature,” Raj said.

One of the major reasons for people leaving IGCAR, as gleaned from their exit interviews, is that the organisation is not able to provide them a clear career path.

“We are grappling with that problem. Perhaps, one way out is to offer scientists autonomous leadership for projects of their choice. Cash is not a constraint as our annual research budget averages around Rs.100 crore (Rs.1 billion),” Raj said.

According to him, a major challenge for a person leading a research organisation “is to get recognition for the scientists working there. Like sportsmen, scientists need recognition, fame and also icons”.

For Raj and others of his ilk in his generation, scientists such as Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan and Brahm Prakash were icons.

“The current generation needs a living icon with whom they can interact. But getting an iconic status is difficult in the scientific field during one’s lifetime,” the scientist said.

Meanwhile, IGCAR, while grooming its young officials to take higher responsibilities, has now opened up channels of cooperation with academic institutions such as the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras (in Chennai) and the Indian Institute of Science-Bangalore.

Raj added IGCAR was planning to add around 300 scientists and engineers over the next two years.

According to him, the year 2008 was “satisfactory” as IGCAR completed research and delivered products for the upcoming 500-MW prototype fast breeder reactor (PFBR) in Kalpakkam.

“Compared to other centres of this magnitude within and outside India, we have delivered what we had promised. We could have done better in the breakthrough research. Last year we inducted about 100 research scholars towards that goal,” Raj said.

Four more fast breeder reactors are to be designed, of which two will be set up in Kalpakkam, he said.

“They will be much more advanced and cost-effective than the PFBR. We have to design the spent fuel reprocessing plant for the fast reactors. So the challenges are cut out,” said the scientist.

The research centre has started experimental work on metallic fuel and the commercial reactor powered by metallic fuel will be ready by 2020.

“Our pace of growth will now be steeper as the domestic industries are better placed to make all critical components. India will be exporting fast reactor technology,” Raj said.