The science research at JNU often gets lost in the headlines about its culture of intense campus politics.
New Delhi: Smart rice that can help boost farmers’ income, and a prediction that climate change will cut rainfall in the northeast: These are among the results of a largely unsung section of the Indian research community.
Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi, is more often than not in news for its culture of intense campus politics, but this image has long overshadowed its achievements as a cradle of breakthrough scientific research.
Sample this: In 2016, JNU was primarily making headlines for alleged anti-national chants at a protest on the third anniversary of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru’s execution.
The same year, the university was ranked among India’s Top 10 in the human resource development ministry’s National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) – a feat JNU also pulled off in 2017 and 2018.
In 2016, the first edition of the NIRF list, JNU scored 84.45 out of 100 in research, with only two central universities ahead of it: University of Hyderabad with 89 points, and University of Delhi with 88 points.
Other than these, the institutes that performed well are essentially technical and research-oriented science institutes, such as the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, with 96.8 points and the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT) with 96.5 points.
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“In 2016, when we were working on the rankings, we were very cautious about JNU because it was embroiled in the sedition controversy,” said an official involved in the compilation of the rankings.
“But when we saw the records, the numbers speak for themselves,” the official added. “It is indeed very good with research. JNU was constructed with the purpose of research. You will not find the university taking up any undergraduate courses, it mostly focuses on research,” the official added.
Not just Indian lists, JNU has long been recognised as a top global performer. In the Times Higher World Education Ranking, JNU featured at number 96 in 2015; between 2013 and 2017, the university’s political studies department was ranked between 100 and 150 in the QS World University Rankings. The list ranks the research output at the university as “very high”.
‘Best of the best’
According to data gathered from the university, JNU scholars published thousands of research papers in peer-reviewed journals such as Web of Science and Scopus between 2014 and 2016.
In the Web of Science, JNU scholars published 2,248 papers, with 9,934 citations. Of the journal’s top 25 per cent highly cited papers, 668 were from the university.
On Scopus, there were 2,478 publications from JNU with 11,531 citations, and the top 25 per cent of the journal’s highly cited papers in the corresponding period included 575 from JNU.
In the same period, the number of patents granted to JNU was six.
“The thing about JNU is that it recruited, very early in the day, some very outstanding people,” said Y.K. Alagh, the vice-chancellor of JNU from 1992 to 1996.
“It had a faith in interdisciplinary [studies] from the very beginning. There will be people from different streams in one school and you cut across disciplines,” he added. “In a way, JNU anticipated the world of tomorrow. JNU, in a way, anticipated that interdisciplinarity is the future and it produced some great scientists.”
“Asis Dutta [Indian biochemist and former JNU vice-chancellor and professor]…got the third world prize in biotechnology. In physical sciences, Professor [Sushanta] DuttaGupta was one of the first to work with the government on atomic energy,” Alagh added.
“Around 1994, JNU was in the top 100 universities in the world, in the league of Cambridge and Massachusetts,” he said.
JNU researchers are credited with immense contribution in the fields of life sciences, biotechnology, physical sciences and environment studies, with many professors working with the government on projects of national importance.
Professor Ashwani Pareek was awarded the Visitor’s Award for Technology Development 2018 by the President for developing ‘stress-tolerant rice of the next generation (STRONG)’, a crop that can withstand several hurdles in cultivation like poor quality of water and thus enhance the income of farmers.
The rice has been developed especially for farmers with marginal lands. The technology has already been patented and transferred to an agri-company for further testing and commercialisation.
Meanwhile, a team of professors from the environmental science department studied the impact of global warming on the Himalayas and glaciers, and how it affects monsoon across India.
Led by Professor A.P. Dimri, the team released their study last year, saying the coming years will see lower rainfall in the eastern Himalayas, which comprise the north-east, and a surge in the western reaches of the mountain range.
Two years before that, in 2015, Professor S. Mukherjee was honoured for excellence in groundwater science by the Indian Chapter of the International Association of Hydrogeologists (INC-IAH), a recognition of his longstanding achievements in the field.
Professor Dinesh Mohan of the School of Environmental Sciences was listed in two categories in Elsevier’s list of most highly cited researchers.
Prof. Rakesh Bhatnagar, a notable biotechnology faculty member and now the Vice Chancellor of Banaras Hindu University, has been working in the field of anthrax for the past 20 years and developed a genetically engineered vaccine against anthrax. A vaccine against rabies has also been developed in his laboratory.
Dinesh Mohan from the School of environmental Sciences has developed Biochar, which is made by burning farm waste through a special process called pyrolysis which avoids the use of oxygen. Biochar is used to increase fertility of soil and has been cited as a solution to stubble burning.
Pratima R. Solanki from the School of Nano Sciences has developed a nanobiochip for oral cancer detection and sensors for imaging of cancer cells. It has been successfully used for detection of oral cancer.
Experts, however, urged cautious cheer at the university’s record, pointing out at what they said is a larger culture of administrative apathy to research stripping JNU and peers of their edge.
In 2017 and 2018, the research score of most universities on the HRD ministry’s NIRF dropped.
In 2017, IISc, a school of global prominence, scored 87.59, while the ICT scored 36.82. University of Hyderabad and the University of Delhi scored 28.02 and 55.37, respectively, with JNU bringing up the rear with 33.96.
This year, IISc scored 91 points, while ICT got 48.52. University of Hyderabad and the University of Delhi scored 45.34 and 58.16, respectively, while JNU got 42.60. This, even as JNU scored well on other parameters such as perception, student-teacher ratio and graduate outcomes.
Sudhir Kumar Sopory, who was the vice-chancellor of JNU from 2011 to 2016, said he felt bad to see the dip in the university’s research performance.
“JNU has been a basic research university,” he said, “More than 50 per cent of the students here are either MPhil or PhD students. Life sciences and biotechnology have always been the strong points of JNU.”
“Some of the work by our researchers was on the front page of international journals as well,” he added. “But, recently, I have noticed that the research output has gone down. Whatever is the reason behind it, I cannot say, but they definitely need to do something about it,” he said.
Members of the science faculty claimed that this fall was the result of inadequate funding and the government’s attitude towards research.
“The present leadership lacks the vision for research, which is the reason the research output has gone down,” one faculty member said. “They do not focus on bringing enough funds and projects for the faculty and students.”
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