“In the top institutes, the interest in pursuing research has gone down, and one of the reasons is a lot more career options are available, unlike in the 1990s when I graduated. For the advancement of science and engineering, it is important that good students take up research. It cannot be just 1-3% of a class going there, it has to be about 20% of the students,” he says.
But how do you attract young people to research in an ecosystem which is ready to pay graduating students extremely attractive salaries? The question is one that is often raised by professors at the IITs too. So good are salaries for graduating students that the number of students passing out of IITs who then head to the US for higher education has dropped to 10-15%, from about 85% three decades ago.
Balakrishnan suggests a two-pronged approach. Bring in role models to demonstrate the impact they have had on society. “While research is not for everyone, a lot of people need to understand that it is possible to have an extremely comfortable life by focusing on research as a career. What people crave for is the financial aspect, but the satisfaction you derive through the impact you create and the fact that you are valued is also unparalleled,” he says.
Balakrishnan, who won the Infosys Prize in engineering and computer science last year, says the difficulty in pushing people to research is a global problem, but in some places it is acute. MIT, he says, has a programme called Urop (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme), which allows engineering undergraduates to participate in research projects and for which they are given credit points. “It is like being an apprentice. Research is best learnt in a way one becomes an electrician – not just theory, but you learn by doing it,” he says.
Colleges in India, he says, could come up with such a programme by tieing up with another university in India or the world. “Students need to write a report and do a small invention, and then once you show these 20-year-olds the taste of what it feels like to come up with a new idea, something nobody else has done, they will be hooked to that unique feeling. It will open the flood gates. Universities need to expose students to research opportunities early,” he says.
Balakrishnan is also the founder of Cambridge Mobile Telematics, a company that uses mobile sensing, statistical methods, AI and behavioral sciences to make roads safer by making drivers drive better. Of its 200 employees, 30 have PhDs, a reflection of the trend in the US where doctorates are deeply valued in industry, unlike in India.
Hari Balakrishnan, Fujitsu professor of computer science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)