When agricultural growth was decelerating in the early noughties, the blame was put partly on the slowdown in the generation of new technology by the farm research network. This was also the phase in which the agricultural research manpower was shrinking owing to the bar on recruitments. The move impeded the flow of fresh scientific talent into farm research bodies, leading to an ageing cadre of scientists and a backlog of unfilled positions in research institutions.
The situation,however, is far better today. The bar on employment has been done away with. The Agricultural Scientists Recruitment Board (ASRB), which selects scientists for research institutes of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), has speeded the recruitment process and made it more objective and transparent. The average age of the technical cadre in most of ICAR institutes has, consequently, dropped from over 50 years some three years ago to around 40 years today. But since ICAR has over 6,000 sanctioned posts of scientists and research management positions to man its countrywide research infrastructure, there is no dearth of fresh vacancies owing to retirements and promotions. ASRB, therefore, has to regularly recruit scientists. “By the end of 2012, all outstanding vacancies will be filled,” according to ASRB Chairman Gurbachan Singh. The priority now is to scout for best talents and select those people who are most capable of handling the work. The selection procedure is being refined and revamped to assess an applicant’s calibre that is the main criterion for hiring a scientist these days. The process of granting promotions to scientists, too, is based on a qualitative assessment of candidates’ capabilities and achievements.
That ASRB’s selection and performance assessment is fair is clear from the fact that there has not been a single instance in which the board’s decision was challenged in the courts.
One problem is the standard of the scientific manpower being produced by agricultural universities that serves as the basic resource from which the ICAR hunts for talent. There is an oversupply of competent candidates in fields like crop sciences and even biotechnology, but some important disciplines, such as dairy technology and soil and water management, face a shortage. Besides, over 70 per cent of scientific positions are being filled by applicants from just around five per cent of 50-odd farm universities.
ASRB, which also conducts the National Eligibility Test (NET) to screen potential teachers for these universities and an all-India test for agricultural research service (ARS), is engaged in revamping these tests to improve the quality of teachers to upgrade the standard of education. Besides, there is a proposal to conduct these tests online to enable countrywide participation. Significantly, for filling senior-level technical and research management positions, the board is trying to cast its net wider to look for candidates from outside ICAR and the state agricultural university network. Meritorious scientists, working in universities, Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and non-agricultural research organisations in India and abroad are also sought to be roped in.
Advertisements for inviting applications for these posts will now be out in other countries as well to woo overseas Indians working in farm research centres. This will result in the much-needed reversal of the brain-drain.
In another reform-oriented move, the “score card” for determining a candidate’s competence is being modified to make it concise and relevant to specific positions. This will minimise the scope for arbitrary marking in the assessment process as well as in the interviews. Special expertise will be valued and also rewarded. “If a candidate with exceptional competence for the position concerned is available, we will consider providing incentives like special increments,” says Dr Singh.
After all, a good team leader can make a perceptible difference to the output of other scientists working with him. These measures, in the long run, can uplift the quality of technologies being churned out by farm research centres.