Science at sixty
What’s the right age for scientists to hang their coats, ask Satish Kumar* and Shashank Shekhar**
doi:10.1038/nindia.2015.68 Published online 20 May 2015
“Behind every successful man there is a woman”, goes the saying. However, when it comes to making a career in Indian science this can be suitably tweaked to: “Behind every successful Indian scientist there is an old man”.
Disclaimers first: there’s nothing wrong in regarding old wisdom. World over, several great scientists continue to do great science even after superannuation. One such name that immediately comes to mind in the Indian context is that of late Obaid Siddiqi. Without throwing his weight around in the science establishment, he continued to contribute quality science and inspired young turks till many years after retirement.
India’s age of science
Siddiqi, however, has been a rare exception.
In most of India’s public science bodies, the age of retirement for scientists is around 60. Many scientists with an ability to contribute significantly around this age disappear silently into the oblivion. Many others find a productive second innings in the private sector or in academia at the new Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs) and Central Universities.
There is yet another section of scientists who discover their scientific acumen only around this age of retirement. They do not say no to government perks that come along with the ‘extensions’ well beyond sixty. Many who take this path may not have great scientific accomplishments. Other enterprising ones manage to slip themselves into gubernatorial positions of science management or administration and become part of the power club very early in their careers.
This has become all the more important in India’s present economic climate when available resources are shrinking1, especially in terms of available grant money. Given their long entrenchment in the system, senior scientists are able to corner large shares of the infrastructure and grants.
All this works to the detriment of the younger lot at the prime of their scientific lives. For a scientist, his/her most productive years are the 30s and 40s -- most Nobel prizes have been awarded to scientists for work done in these golden years. No wonder the only option they have is to politically align themselves with the older lot early on in their career, science be damned!
German, French models
Germany’s scientific establishment has led the way in addressing this malaise. Almost all scientists, independent of their scientific contributions, are kindly asked to pack their bags at a certain age. This applies to the likes of the highly regarded Max Planck Institute as also to the public Universities.
The French system in CNRS has also successfully tackled this issue. Retired scientists who have made exceptional scientific contributions are allowed to stay on via an emeritus position. However, they are not allowed to hold any official/administrative position, not even that of a group leader. In effect, they need to be hosted by a younger group leader. More importantly, they cannot draw a salary but only receive their pension, just like any other retired public servant. The lack of access to any financial/administrative personal benefits ensures that retired scientists continue only due to their merit and passion for science and not for any other reason.
Quite fairly, India has a provision for extension of services of scientists and health-professionals beyond the normal age of superannuation as an exception. This provision was made based on the perceived need of the country. However, there have been reports of senior scientists exploiting this provision for themselves and for those in their good books2.
Interestingly, when all options of in situ extensions get exhausted, some senior scientists become omnipresent in the government’s science committees. Scientific extensions in India have traditionally been seen by peers as retirement homes for well-connected science administrators.
Merit and mentoring
With so much young blood being infused into the scientific pool of India every year3, the issue of retaining senior scientists past their retirement age in administrative and political positions is worth taking a note.The main goal of having senior scientists around in science should ideally be limited to mentoring the younger lot and, in exceptionally meritorious cases, continuing to do science in emeritus positions.
Following the example of other successful science-faring nations, it wouldn’t be out of place for India to consider exceptional senior scientists to continue in their labs but not in science administration. Some of India’s recent policy changes to rectify this situation are laudable4, 5. Importantly, such moves will help a fair and just distribution of resources and opportunities – from select individuals to the entire scientific community of the country.
The views expressed by the authors are personal and do not reflect the opinions of their employers.
[Author affiliations: *Satish Kumar is the Chief Scientist, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, India; and **Shashank Shekhar is a postdoctoral fellow, National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), Gif-sur-Yvette, France.]