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IISc, India’s lone science gem that keeps topping global rankings, leaving IITs, IIMs behind

For 113-year-old IISc, it’s a story of scientific rigour, academic excellence, a unique mix of the two, and competing with the advantage enjoyed by similar institutions & universities in the West.

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Bengaluru: The Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru was named the top Indian institution in the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings 2023 in June. QS, a higher education analyst, said that the institute is the “fastest-rising South Asian university among the QS World University Rankings top-200, having gained 31 places year on year”.

It was also rated as having the highest citations per faculty member in the world.

In the Ministry of Education’s 2022 National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) rankings, released on 15 July, IISc was ranked the No. 1 university as well as the top research institution in India.

In QS’s overall rankings, IISc climbed to No. 155 from the 185th spot it got last year. The institute has consistently ranked between 150 and 200 since 2017. It’s also ranked as the top institute in India, and was put in the 301-350 bracket globally by the UK’s Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

IISc is by no means the only Indian institute to make it to global rankings. But in a sea of IITs, IIMs, AIIMS and their multiple branches, the standalone research institute excels and holds its own consistently.

For the 113-year-old institution, which is today a leafy green island amid the hustle and bustle of Bengaluru, it’s a long-running story of scientific rigour, academic excellence, a unique mix of the two, and, significantly, competing with the advantage enjoyed by similar institutions and universities in the West.

Govindan Rangarajan, director of IISc, however, makes it all sound simple and easy.

“IISc is renowned for its emphasis on basic and fundamental research in science and engineering,” Rangarajan said. “We have been continuously striving to ramp up our education and research infrastructure, and incentivising our researchers to push the boundaries in their fields.”

During the pandemic, too, IISc researchers shifted their focus to a variety of applied science and engineering products to help keep pace with the virus. They developed RT-PCR tests, oxygen concentrators and generators, low-cost ventilators, mobile testing labs, contact tracing apps, and even a vaccine candidate.

“Many of our faculty members and students chose to pursue Covid-19-related research — both basic and applied,” said Rangarajan. “Till date, they have undertaken over 40 projects in diverse areas: diagnostics and surveillance, hospital assistive devices, modelling and simulation, sanitation and disinfection, and vaccine development.”

Many such institutes, reported Quartz in 2015, when IISc became eligible for the QS rankings after its first undergraduate batch graduated, operate within bubbles in the country and often do not even feature in rankings like QS because they do not submit data in the required format, or on time.

However, the IISc faculty has expressed in the past that a bias towards Ivy League and European universities has held the Bengaluru institute back from getting its due on a global stage.

Many pieces of research originating in India, in the Indian context, are often not considered worthy of publication in prestigious journals due to their low Western relevance, which, in turn, affects rankings, researchers and faculty at IISc have been reported as saying.

There are also only limited options for researchers in Indian public institutions owing to lower government funding as compared to their Western counterparts.

These are contentious issues but typical of an institution focused on science, it does not want to comment on ranking methodology and process. “It is our policy to not comment on any aspect of the rankings (for both IISc and other institutes),” is all Rangarajan’s office would say when asked about rankings.

Alumnus Shekhar Mande, a computational biologist and former director general of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, said “two things that define the excellence of an institution are the quality of workforce they have and how well it’s aligned to a common goal”. 

“The IITs developed a reputation from this and that reputation persists. Similarly, IISc did too with research, through a history of very good quality hires, faculty, and maintaining an atmosphere conducive for academia.”

Also read: IISc Bangalore’s entry in QS World Rankings isn’t a surprise. It was just a matter of time

The journey

The research-oriented institute that started over a century ago now leads the nation in quality of scientific study and education. On the way, it has nurtured minds that have gone on to contribute to some of the country’s most influential scientific achievements.

The idea of the institute was born 1898, when Jamsetji Tata, founder of the Tata Group, constituted a committee to set up a research institute in British-occupied India and William Ramsay, the discoverer of the noble gases, suggested Bengaluru as an apt location for it.

Tata was “convinced that the future progress of this country depended crucially on research in science and engineering”.

The land for the facility was allocated by Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV, the Maharaja of Mysore (now Mysuru), and IISc was established as a Government of India-associated research institute.

It began operations in 1909, and just two years later, admitted its first batch of postgraduate students to the department of chemistry. New branches of research soon opened up, and the institute became fully autonomous in 1956. The institute began offering undergraduate courses in 2011.

Over the years, notable scientists, such as physicist C.V. Raman, nuclear physicist Homi Bhabha, and aerospace scientist and engineer Satish Dhawan have taught there.

The institute’s alumni are no less notable. These include the likes of K. Sivan and A.S. Kiran Kumar (both former chairs of Indian Space Research Organisation), Ritu Karidhal (deputy operations director of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission), R. Chidambaram (former principal scientific adviser to the government and a pioneering nuclear weapons physicist), V.K. Saraswat and V.K. Aatre (former directors of the Defence Research and Development Organisation), Sudha Murthy (former Infosys chairperson), and more.

It has also had its share of innovators, with the institute having filed applications for over 1,100 patents.

Two past directors, Raman and C.N.R. Rao, have received the Bharat Ratna, while four have been knighted. Scholars and faculty from the institute are regular recipients of major research awards such as the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize.

“We have built many world-class facilities that are unique in the country,” Rangarajan said. “We have a state-of-the-art nanofabrication facility, a 3.3 petaflop supercomputer called Param Pravega — among the fastest in India — a 3-Tesla MRI facility for brain imaging, and a BSL-3 lab for infectious disease research.”

With the institute’s close ties to the government, researchers from IISc have also played key roles in the Indian nuclear programme, space programme, and other areas of development.

“Several years ago, we started a new division of interdisciplinary sciences, which has allowed us to bring together expertise from different disciplines and successfully tackle important questions in cutting-edge areas like quantum technologies, brain and data sciences, cancer research, biomedical devices, sensors and IoT (internet of things), vaccines and drug discovery, visual analytics and digital health,” said Rangarajan.

Also read: Resilient new microbe named after Modi govt secretary who’s easing research for Indians

Leading in research

IISc prides itself on being “neither a national laboratory which concentrates [solely] on research and applied work, nor a conventional university which concerns itself mainly with teaching”.

Instead, it works at the confluence of both, providing more integrated areas of research and being the first to offer PhD degrees in such subjects.

“I was in the second batch (2012) to join the campus when the undergraduate programme was still relatively new,” recalled Siddharth Kankaria, science communicator and alumnus of IISc’s biology department, who worked at Gubbi Labs, a research collective on campus.

“During my time as a student, I saw a lot of positive changes as the campus was slowly trying to adapt to an influx of younger students and their needs. The campus became more vibrant with the undergrads starting a number of initiatives, like a science, technology and cultural fest, a magazine, and contributing immensely to lots of clubs and groups — both existing and new — on campus.”

Mande, who graduated from IISc with a PhD in molecular biophysics in 1991, said “work at IISc has always been very multidisciplinary, and informal with less restrictions, enabling a lot of science to happen casually”. 

“When I was a student, I would bump into students studying other subjects, and cafeteria discussions would lead to experimental labs,” he added.

Today, the institute teaches and conducts research in a large number of fields, including aerospace, robotics, solid state chemistry, molecular biophysics, urban planning, climate change, cryogenic technology, and more.

Also read: Six ‘young’ Indian institutes ranked among world’s top 50 for research

Always looking ahead

Ramray Bhat, researcher in cancer biology and associate professor at IISc, feels that the institute is “moving into the next phase of being an institution of international standing”.

“There have been quite a few changes [in recent years] with the campus becoming more inclusive, not just in an optical way but in a tangible way,” he said.

Bhat joined the IISc faculty in 2015 and, since then, he added, there has been a drive to bring in researchers with the potential to start ambitious research programmes. 

There is also an increased emphasis on teaching and education at the undergraduate and graduate levels, as opposed to primarily research-driven activities.

According to Bhat, a lot of administrative hurdles have been addressed, and operations have become smoother and more automated as compared to as recently as 2015, when administrative processes were more ad hoc and informal.

Since IISc leads in research in the country, it also tends to attract a lot of educational grants and fellowships for scholars and faculty.

The institute takes effort to identify talented researchers and recruit them as faculty members, as well as provide them with “generous” start-up research grants, said Ranganathan. 

Bhat concurred, saying that there’s much better financial support provided to young researchers and faculty compared to a couple of decades ago, enabling their programmes to make tangible progress.

“I was fortunate to be hosted by IISc for the duration of my fellowship,” said Farah Ishtiaq, a former Wellcome Trust-DBT Fellow at the Centre for Ecological Sciences at IISc. “There was no shortage of space, and being in Bangalore meant I could procure molecular bio reagents in time, and other facilities within the city. There was flexibility and freedom to pursue science.”

Researchers at IISc are encouraged to publish in renowned journals, and students perform the bulk of the research, said Rangarajan, saying that the alumni and corporate partners are also encouraged to provide endowments for work on campus.

In the future, the undergraduate and postgraduate programmes will expand to include areas such as data science, quantum computing, and mathematical finance, among others, he added.

Medical research is also set to become a priority for IISc in the coming decades, with heavy focus on clinical research for social good to benefit low- and middle-income nations. This will include areas such as nanorobotics, microbial resistance research, targeted cancer therapies, and AI to identify rare genetic disorders.

“With this goal in mind, we have started work on establishing a one-of-a-kind PG medical school and an 832-bed, not-for-profit hospital, named the Bagchi-Parthasarathy Hospital, on our Bengaluru campus,” said Rangarajan. “The medical school will train a new cadre of physician-scientists for the benefit of India through its MD-PhD programme.”

The hospital, Bhat said, would increase collaboration with the medical community, biomedical research, and increase MOUs signed with international universities.

“I believe Indian collaborative research is being slightly hampered by sheer geographical distances from the high density nuclei of research in Europe and US,” Bhat added. “But with these kinds of steps, which foster more formal contacts, connects, and international exchanges at all levels, with long-term vision thrown in, I think we will be right up there very, very soon.”

The hurdles

While the institute has taken steps to ensure diversity in its student and faculty body, furthering some forms of support could go a long way, say students and alumni.

Lack of support for mental health is a rising issue, especially with an increase in student suicides.

Students have alleged that there is increasing pressure and not enough support from the institution, especially since the onset of the pandemic. In the past two years, five IISc students have died by suicide. The institute does offer mental health support, but it is limited and does not address the demand, students have said.

“IISc is undoubtedly one of the best research institutions in India in terms of research output, facilities and number of networking and work opportunities,” said Kankaria. “But while the institution is doing great in terms of tangible metrics, such as research output, publications and citations, there is a lot of work to be done in terms of excelling at more intangible metrics such as student welfare and quality of life, diversity initiatives, and mental health services.”

Kankaria and Ishtiaq also feel the institute could be offering more support to encourage students and fellows into non-academic science careers as well.

Another issue is that most fellows without faculty positions, like those with the India Alliance or Ramalingaswami fellowships, are unable to get into academic positions in the institute or find support from it independently, despite IISc housing them for the duration of their work.

“There is huge resistance to absorbing such fellows or to helping their academic progress,” said Ishitaq. 

“This is in contrast with universities and institutes abroad, where acquiring a grant on top of academic experience is regarded as an important achievement towards independent scientists. It would be great if IISc had a system in place to promote science done in their premises and support the careers of fellows hosted for several years,” he added. 

“IISc can shape the academic and research ecosystem in India by opening it up and offering mentorship as well.”

(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)

Also read: NEP has lofty goals to promote research culture. UGC undermining its basic tool— publishing


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