New ‘maintenance’ charges for lab experiments have DU science researchers and professors worried

The University Science Instrumentation Centre (USIC) located on the North Campus of Delhi University announced on May 1 a list of charges for laboratory instruments to be used by science PhD students. The students are now expected to bear expenses incurred while performing experiments as part of their research. The charges range from Rs 150 per sample for electron microscope scanning to Rs 500 per hour for modulated differential scanning.

The students were taken aback when they were handed the rate cards. Since the announcement, the USIC has been closed, however. A physics PhD scholar said, “Since the establishment of USIC in 1984, no money has been charged for the instruments and the expenses have been covered by the funds released to the students’ supervisors and professors by the Universities Grant Commission (UGC)/Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).”

Fears that research will take a hit

A third-year chemistry PhD student explained how the move could affect research. “While doing research, we synthesise materials which require 15-20 hit trials to get the desired result, which further needs to be characterised with the help of instruments. If every single sample will cost us money, it will discourage us to do more trials, which will eventually produce low-quality results.”

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“If we go by these charges, our everyday expenses may go up to Rs 500 to perform the experiments,” said another physics PhD student. A fourth-year chemistry PhD student said, “Universities have become markets and students are their customers.”

All requested anonymity while talking to Bhavani Shankar, an assistant professor of chemistry, said the “already deplorable” condition of research had taken a mental toll on students. Shankar said, “Though students have been pursuing PhDs, the quality of research is not up to the mark.”

Owing to a scarcity of funds, many students just want to complete their research, he said. These students end up landing teaching jobs that do not encourage research.
Almost 250 students have submitted a letter to vice-chancellor Yogesh Singh requesting him to look into the matter. In the letter, the students said research groups had very limited funding, including the contingency fund provided by the UGC or CSIR. Students told the annual contingency fund of Rs 20,000 was inadequate. And the fund is available only for researchers who have qualified for the UGC’s junior research fellowship (JRF).

A third-year botany PhD student said, “As per this list of charges, average annual expenditure per head to carry out experiments and research will be Rs 60-70,000.”
Students from marginalised backgrounds find themselves considering whether to discontinue their research. Said an MSc zoology student, “Many students of my batch planning to do PhDs feel like giving up on their dreams, especially the ones from economically weaker backgrounds.”

In the letter, students also expressed their apprehensions about how the new charges would affect their career prospects as well as chances to do post-doctoral research.

Institutions of eminence

Students in other central universities such as Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia said the institutions did maintain a list of charges for lab experiments. These are different for internal and external students. A chemistry PhD student from JNU said that expenses incurred during research are not borne by students.

With DU being declared an “institution of eminence”, students are asking why the funds provided by the UGC are not efficiently used for research. The professors are also worried that the charges could go up in future. “The condition of research is already pathetic and this move will further deteriorate it” said Keshav Kumar, an assistant professor of chemistry at the university.

“It’s after the cut-throat competition that these students secure seats in central universities like DU. If they are asked to pay from their pockets, then what’s the use of coming to government-funded institutions?” asked Kumar. “This will also lower the overall ranking of our institute,” he said.

When contacted, USIC director S Murugavel told, “These are just the maintenance costs.” He did not respond to further questions. Placards saying “save research, save researchers” in their hands, students have been protesting outside the vice-chancellor’s office and trying to meet him.

Kumar, the assistant professor, said that it was also difficult to mobilise science PhD students for the cause as they would mostly be occupied with their research work. The DUSU, the university students union, has joined the protest and met officials demanding the revocation of the charges.

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