This piece is a testimonial, and our general disclaimer about testimonials applies. We have spoken to some students at an instute and are faithfully reporting what they have said; we have not fact-checked these claims and make no claim about the truth of what the students told us.
Many students on Twitter have been talking about the delayed disbursement of stipends. Over the last 12 months, students have reported that they have not received their scholarship nor the funds for their PI projects.1 We spoke to several research scholars at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) to understand this situation better… In our discussions, we note that the students speak with the best of intentions towards their institute. They do not wish to cause any ill harm to the name of the institute, However, they are shocked to see some of the changes they have witnessed. They spoke out freely because they wanted their institutes to be the best for them, for research and, ultimately, for the country.
Student Stipends and Tuition Fees
Delayed disbursement of stipend/funds causes mental trauma and disillusionment in research scholars.2 For many students from marginalised backgrounds, the stipend is the only source of income they have for themselves and their families! The stipend also makes research more accessible because, then, students can pursue research, a profession considered to be only for the elite, and send money home to their families.
Some of the students we spoke to hadn’t received a single rupee from the CSIR-UGC fellowship which they had qualified for more than 5 years ago!3 In their particular case, they wanted their institute to hire some mental health professionals for them to talk about the issues they are facing while doing their PhD. As if all of this wasn’t enough, students have to pay semester tuition fees until they graduate4 along with their hostel/ mess fees. These payments have to be made regardless of whether the student has received their stipend or not.
In our interviews with students we learnt that most CSIR institutes including CCMB moved their student registration to a newly established administrative body of CSIR called academic CSIR (AcSIR); which was established in 2011. Initially, CCMB PhD recruits, who qualified the very competitive nationwide CSIR UGC fellowship, had to register to JNU to get the degree. While JNU had its pros and cons as a degree granting body, their tuition fees were annual and minimal.5 But, after moving their registration from JNU to the newly established AcSIR body, the students found that the new semester tuition fees that dug deeply into students’ existing stipends and the semester fees kept increasing for the new recruits,6 while the stipend remained the same. It is truly ironic that an administrative body charges you fees throughout the five year period of your PhD while CSIR does not pay the stipend that they owe to you. On top of that, the institute also charges a penalty if the fees are not paid on time.7 AcSIR proudly proclaims that they have 6000 students under their umbrella but falters entirely on their administrative duty. Additionally, PhD students registered under AcSIR are obligated to publish a first author paper to graduate, while acknowledging AcSIR. If they are unable to do so, they have to re-register with AcSIR and pay the tuition fees for the next three years until they graduate! This is truly remarkable. One of the students who we spoke to, mentioned that they did not mind paying the semester or tuition fees if there was some accountability from AcSIR’s side. If AcSIR conducted some workshops on grant writing or provided some scientific writing training or even made sure that the students under their umbrella had been given projects to work on by their PIs, they would be fine with paying the tuition fees. But this lack of accountability truly made them feel that the administrative body was exploiting them. We hope their voices are heard and suitable changes are made.
CCMB, along with other CSIR institutes, has faced funding delays this year. Typically, the funding cycle is from March to March every year, wherein funding from CSIR is released in March of one year and is expected to last until the next March. While the students we spoke to were considerate and very understanding about the current delay in funding — some even offered that it could be due to COVID —, they were more bothered by the major changes in CCMB administration during COVID. For example, funding for the 2021-22 academic year was released in December 2021. While this may not seem like a problem, it is a multi-faceted issue for students who work in the experimental sciences.
If the funding arrives on time, students and PIs can plan their experiments and accordingly place orders in a timely manner. However, if funding is uncertain, they cannot plan their experiments. Furthermore, submitted papers get stuck because new experiments need to be done to respond to reviewer comments, and those need more supplies. Finally, large scale projects hit a stumbling block without continuous funding.
Now consider the case of CCMB where funding for the 2021-2022 arrived in December instead of March. Students or PIs were not “anticipating” the release of funds in December to plan their experiments. Since national institutes are under CCMB, the admin are forced to process bills and orders and close it in February for the year end report. Therefore, students and PIs had to make purchases within a period of 2 months. They had to use all the grant money that was released to them within these two months. If this was not possible, the normal procedure was to transfer the money to the “core” CCMB funding. This is a pool of money funded by PIs coming together and giving some proportion of their grant money for the general usage of everyone in CCMB. However, this year, the PIs were told to transfer their remaining funds not to the “core” CCMB fund but back to CSIR!8 Some students allege that this new change came with the change in the CCMB administration.
According to students, this is something they had not witnessed before. If one takes together the two decisions — one of releasing funds late and the second of returning unused funds to CSIR instead of to the core funding of the institute — it becomes obvious that the state is making all provisions to reduce funding to research institutions, perhaps by deciding key appointments at administrative positions. Research has already suffered a setback in India due to COVID-19, between the lockdowns and resources being allocated towards COVID research, but such antics do not help the recovery of research in India either.
Appointment of the New CCMB Director
So we come to the appointment of the director and the changes in CCMB administration.
There were 3 people running for the position of director last year. Two extremely well qualified women candidates and the currently appointed director. Usually, director appointments were internal since their familiarity with the ethos and the functioning of the institute was considered necessary for the position. However, in the case of CCMB, a director was appointed all the way from Delhi. This move came as a shock to most students’ at CCMB. Everyone we spoke to at CCMB mentioned this as an anomaly.
This shock has lasted a while as the new director has made major changes in the running of the institute. The students we spoke to also suggested that key changes had also been made to the culture of CCMB. Liquor consumption during certain days (which was previously only allowed on some days such as Founders day and Foundation day) has been banned entirely since the appointment. We are not here to argue the morality of liquor consumption, but it has certainly been a change that was abruptly made. Another major change brought about by the new director is as follows. Previously, a student could avail hostel accommodation for an additional year after five years in PhD, even after a gap. However, the new director changed the rule so that the additional year could only be immediately after the initial five-year period. Students expect many more unfriendly changes in the near future.
It is sad to see how research is being choked by indirectly reducing funding and by denying regular payments to research scholars and grants to PIs. While PIs may get regular salaries, it is truly the workforce of PhD students that is struggling to get by in our country. They are being denied the compensation they truly deserve.
The original published article made the implication that the decision to send the leftover research funding back to CSIR was made by the new director of CCMB. This was our error, and we have corrected the mistake.
Nikhil Hajirnis. (2022, March 30). [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/NikhilHajirnis/status/1509033879436349442, Jayaraj, N. (2022, June 8). The broken promise of Indian science. Scroll.In. https://scroll.in/article/1025619/the-broken-promise-of-indian-science. ↩︎
The NotA Collective. (2022, May 29). Is Depression just Depression? Notes on the Academy. https://notacademy.in/2022/05/29/depression-is-not-just-clinical-depression/ ↩︎
CCMB pays students from their core funding if they do not get stipend from CSIR or UGC, under the agreement that the student will pay back to CCMB once they receive their funding. This student hadn’t received their stipend for a long time and were not in a good mental state. They told us that they wanted to visit the CCMB in-house psychologist but… after the last doctor’s term ended, CCMB hadn’t hired anyone new. They truly wished that CCMB would hire someone so that students like them can talk to a doctor. ↩︎
In some cases students have to re-register and, despite not getting their stipend, continue paying tuition fees. ↩︎
Something like 300 rupees per semester according to a student. ↩︎
Semester fees have increased from 7000 per semester in 2015 to 9000 in 2021 while the stipend has remained unchanged. ↩︎
In one case, the student noted that their lab had leftover funds of 25 lakhs (which they were unable to spend within the allotted time of 2 months!) and they had to return it back to CSIR instead of to the CCMB core fund. ↩︎