Nine years after its launch, a research institute in Kerala fails to take off

The plight of a research institute in Kottayam, named after Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, holds a mirror to the field of scientific research in Kerala.
Faded signboard of the Srinivasa Ramanujan Institute of Basic Sciences in Kottayam, Kerala
Faded signboard of the Srinivasa Ramanujan Institute of Basic Sciences in Kottayam, Kerala
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More than half a dozen luminaries of science representing premier institutes, including Ada E Yonath, an Israeli biochemist and Nobel prize laureate, sits on the advisory board of Srinivasa Ramanujan Institute of Basic Sciences (SRIBS) in Kottayam, Kerala. Launched nine years ago in the presence of Ada herself, in February 2013, with a promise to boost basic sciences research in the state, the institute still works from a rented building, devoid of infrastructure and resources.

The vision of the institute as outlined by the website is “to become an internationally known centre for fundamental research in basic sciences," but in the past nine years, SRIBS, has limited itself to organising workshops, colloquiums and seminars. The plot marked for the institute, at Pampady in Kottayam, is now covered with bushes and only a bit of fencing is visible. The area doesn’t look like it has been cleared recently.

Scientists and researchers feel that Kerala has a long way to go to make a mark in basic sciences research. The plight of scientific research institutes launched with fanfare but are orphaned when the limelight fades after a while is indicative of the lack of priority the state government accords to the sector, according to critics. “Kerala has very few institutes that work in basic science research. Though off late, there has been some improvement. The work done by Cochin University of Science and Technology (Cusat) in astrophysics and other basic science areas is commendable. But it is clearly not enough,” says Dr T R Govindarajan, a theoretical physicist, and Emeritus Professor, Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai.

The Kerala School of Mathematics (KSoM), an advanced research institute under the KSCSTE, too was founded with a vision of strengthening research. “These institutes have reasonable vision, but they should start working in it. Similar to SRIBS, KSoM has limited itself in teaching undergraduates and graduates,” Govindarajan said. This is why the presence of institutes like SRIBS are relevant.

Funds were allocated for infrastructure development of the institute as early as in 2015. The executive committee of The Kerala State Council for Science, Technology and Environment (KSCSTE) had approved Rs. 10.28 crore for the plan expenditure and Rs 50 lakh for non-plan expenditure of the institute in 2015. An amount of Rs 10.2 crore has also been allotted to the institute as per the Annual Plan Proposal 2020-2021, Government of Kerala. The funds have been allocated for “infrastructure strengthening, conducting training programmes/seminars/ workshops and for the R&D programmes of the institute.”

Dr C Arunan, who currently holds the charge of the Director of the institute, says he is hopeful about construction work starting this year. “In a government set up, we have to follow a lot of procedures. We have to get administrative and technical sanctions besides various clearances for construction work. Now that we have got sanctions, we will start constructing the building in a few months,” says Arunan.

In 2015, M/s Vastu Shilpalaya Consultancy Pvt Ltd, Thiruvananthapuram, was selected as the architectural consultancy by the executive committee of KSCSTE, which provided them with a Detailed Project Report (DPR). According to Dr Arunan, the construction contract has been given to Kerala State Nirmithi Kendra (KESNIK). “The total budget estimation for the building is around Rs 70 crore. But for now, we are moving ahead with construction of an administrative block, seminar halls and research rooms. It would cost us around Rs one crore,” he added.

In 2016, the institute had put an advertisement for five vacancies for scientist positions but these positions have not been filled.  “There are no scientists as of now, as there is no infrastructure. We have been organising five to six programmes per year, that includes seminars, workshops and colloquium,” says Arunan, Principal Scientist & Head, Basic Sciences Division, KSCSTE. SRIBS as of now has only three employees.

While the advisory board as it appears in the SRIBS website, which seems not to have been updated for long, lists several persons of eminence, mostly drawn from the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, two eminent scientists named there - ECG Sudarshan and Prof M Vijayan - are no more.  

“Most of the members of the advisory board are above the age of 80. I am doubtful if they can contribute effectively. The KSCSTE should ideally get a new advisory committee for SRIBS and focus on the growth of the institution.” says Dr Govindarajan.

Nayana Sony, a junior research executive at Proklean Technologies Pvt Ltd, who hails Kottayam said, “After my studies, I was adamant that I should find a research job in Kerala. Unfortunately, I didn’t come across vacancies from research institutes.

Arunan says they had been trying to hire a development team and kickstart research activities but it got delayed due to unforeseen circumstances. “Once the building is constructed, then we will start hiring the scientists for the development team,” says Arunan, expressing hope.

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