BANGALORE, India — Faced with a growing list of projects and difficulty recruiting and holding onto top-tier talent, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is increasingly outsourcing research work to universities and independent laboratories while at the same time establishing a program to cultivate a new generation of space scientists and engineers.
To address what it sees as a future manpower problem, ISRO is setting up an institute for space science and technology dedicated “to generate the high quality manpower customized to meet requirements of [the] space program,” ISRO said in its annual report for the 2007-2008 fiscal year.
V. Sundararamaiah, scientific secretary of ISRO, said the hope is that the institute eventually will supply at least half of the agency’s technical and scientific work force.
Plans call for the institute, to be set up at Thiruvanandapuram in the southern state of Kerala, to open this June and to admit 150 students annually , ISRO spokesman S. Krishnamurthy told Space News April 3. He said ISRO has allocated 750 million rupees ($17 million) for the institute in its budget for the 2007-2008 fiscal year.
Outsourcing research and creating an incubator for manpower are ISRO’s strategies for coping with an increasing workload and an aging work force.
ISRO’s approved employment level is 16,192, with 11,057 workers trained in scientific and technical disciplines . About 1,700 slots are vacant, Krishnamurthy said.
ISRO is not feeling the pinch yet, but the agency sees a potential manpower shortage in coming years and is taking steps to avert this, Sundararamaiah said.
“The shortage is more likely due to retirements than resignations,” Sundararamaiah said in an April 2 interview. “Some have left [for other jobs] but many, like me, who joined ISRO decades ago, have retired or [are] about to retire. Those vacancies need to be filled.”
ISRO recruits some 200 people a year but “we do not get the best people from our universities,” Krishnamurthy said. “The [Indian Institutes of Technology] graduates — who represent the cream of Indian talent — do not even apply for jobs at ISRO.”
According to Krishnamurthy, senior-level resignations are few and easily tracked. More worrisome, he said, is that about 50 newly hired scientists and engineers leave annually because of better salaries offered by multinational companies .
The brain drain comes at a time when ISRO is launching new programs in areas including planetary exploration and human spaceflight.
“Our aim is capacity building outside ISRO,” Sundararamaiah said. “Right now we have nearly 200 of our projects going on in [the Indian Institutes of Technology], universities and national laboratories where each project typically runs for two or three years,” he said.
According to ISRO’s annual report, 40 projects relevant to India’s space program were started at 35 academic institutions in 2006 alone.
The report said the “the prime objective is to strengthen the space-academia interaction for generation of a wider infrastructure and research base and developing quality scientific/technical human resources for the Indian space program.”
According to budget documents , ISRO has allocated 130 million rupees during the 2007-2008 fiscal year to support research and development projects, educational programs and other scientific activities at academic institutions and autonomous laboratories throughout the country.
This, according to the report, is in addition to 230 million rupees that will be available to universities and laboratories “for activities related to developing scientific payloads for space science and planetary exploration studies.”
ISRO-sponsored research is mainly carried out in space technology cells established at the Indian Institutes of Technology at Mumbai, Kanpur, Kharagpur and Chennai; the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore; and at the University of Pune. The research projects are overseen jointly by academicians and ISRO experts.
Some of the projects include development work on organic solar cells , radiation-resistant polymers, advanced electromagnetic-interference shielding materials and laser-assisted thermal barrier coatings for space capsules, according to ISRO’s annual report .
According to Krishnamurthy, much of the basic research needed for ISRO’s future projects is handed off to institutions with an “academic environment” conducive for such research.