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How Many Climate Scientists Does India Really Need?

27/11/2016 5:00 PM IST | Updated 29/11/2016 8:48 AM IST
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These are heady days for the Indian education system, with new governmental and private investments pouring into building new institutions for education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), management and even liberal arts. These investments are complemented by enhancements in national research centres although the missions of the dozens of laboratories of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research are being reviewed for fine-tuning them for their role in industrial research. The trend of these investments is expected to continue for the coming years.

India is at a critical stage of deciding whether it must follow the practices of other nations blindly in terms of producing a large number of Ph.D.s in climate sciences.

The autonomous government institutions and universities are all clamouring to establish climate science departments. It is not clear if any study has been performed at the national level to assess the need and the market demand for climate scientists as far as employment opportunities are concerned. As far as I know, all these new departments are aimed at offering some undergraduate courses, but no plan exists as of now at any institution to issue undergraduate degrees in climate science. There have been several programs which offer undergraduate degrees in environmental science and environmental engineering. Thus the climate science programs hand out Master of Science and technology degrees. It is already evident that there are no job offerings in climate science at the master's level except for a few at some reinsurance companies or the newly established private weather forecast ventures and some fledgling efforts in corporate consulting on sustainability of water and energy for some specific industries. The result is that the master's level graduates seek opportunities abroad and across India for continuing onto a Ph.D. in climate or related sciences.

A careful consideration of the status of the large number of PhDs in climate science across the world, including India and China, would indicate that these learned graduates are nearly fully absorbed back into the business of training more masters and PhDs, with a small fraction getting into weather and climate prediction, typically at government enterprises, including hydrological, agricultural and a few other applications. A very tiny fraction makes it into the private sector and hardly any successful start-ups come to mind other than the private ventures on weather and climate forecasting. It should be emphasised that these "private" industries themselves are dependent on the government machinery for the global predictions which are then downscaled for specific regions by these profit-making companies. The use of the taxpayer-funded weather and climate predictions and projections for various socioeconomic applications is a worthy private-public cooperation.

But India is at a critical stage of deciding whether it must follow the practices of other nations blindly in terms of producing a large number of Ph.D.s in climate sciences. India is better off setting up a committee of academic experts and industries to map out the landscape for the coming years and decades in terms of employment opportunities for climate scientists. Climate variability and climate change are indeed a part of daily life now via their impacts on food production and distribution, water quality, quantity and access, energy production with minimal greenhouse gas emissions, and on health through air and water quality. Economic growth is a must for a nation's progress and for furthering the wellbeing of its denizens. But ensuring that growth is sustainable while also not harming the environment is paramount for enhancing not only the standard of living but also the quality of life via clean air and water.

The challenge of continuing development without it being mindless economic growth at the cost of the very environment we live in, in fact offers infinite opportunities...

While climate change appears to developing into an existential crisis of sorts, it also offers a unique challenge and a window of opportunity to define climate science as a foundation for all STEM and Social Science education and training at all levels. In other words, climate education must equip all youngsters and the workforce, including politicians and the general public, to be aware of climate impacts on all facets of life—not only human life but all species of flora and fauna. The field of choice from STEM to Social Science can still be driven by the basic desires of employability but each field has a role to play in developing solutions to climate impacts on food, water, energy and health and for the continuation of the very existence of life as we know it. The challenge of continuing development without it being mindless economic growth at the cost of the very environment we live in, in fact offers infinite opportunities for green economy, carbon capture and sequestration, smart agriculture, smart growth, smart cities, and so on.

Without getting specific about courses, it is easy to make a list of typical climate curricula at all levels from kindergarten to PhD—and beyond. To make all humans versatile in their understanding of climate variability and change, and to either see employment in any field as a way to make a living without harming the environment, or to make it healthier by working on solutions within their fields of choice. We have grown from conquering fire as an energy source to exploiting carbon-based fuels to achieve a mastery of science and technology. Climate science can now offer a new paradigm for integrating education into a holistic training for living in harmony with Mother Earth who hosts us. Children of the future can then continue to dream about travelling to Mars and beyond without worrying about our own hunger for an energy-intensive life as a bane to the environment. This means climate science is an integral part of all education and not just a separate entity which is mostly about an endless cycle of producing clones.

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