Thursday, April 07, 2005

Director Balaram

Deccan Herald, Bangalore's very own newspaper, has reported that Prof. Balaram is the choice of the search committee appointed to select the next Director of the Indian Institute of Science, where I work. The reporter has of course hedged things by saying that his selection needs to be approved by several layers of bureaucracy, including the President of the country.

This is absolutely fantastic news for us in the Institute. I am sure many people have known the public face of Prof. Balaram as the editor of Current Science, India's leading journal for science and science news; in his editorials, Prof. Balaram has tackled some of the pressing issues that this country faces in the realms of science education and research. In the discussions on the practice of science in India, his has always been a voice of reason, sanity and understated passion.

I just want to recount an episode from 2002. In its issue dated 25th October, the magazine Science reported that Shobo Bhattacharya (then a scientist at NEC Research Institute in Princeton, New Jersey) was chosen to head the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research, where he still is the director. In the article, the reporter quoted several senior and "very senior" scientists from India complaining that there were very few bright scientists left in the country to take up such leadership positions, and that there is a " missing generation"; let me recount some of their quotes:

  • C.N.R. Rao: "There is a lack of leaders in the age group of 45 to 55 years..."
  • M.G.K. Menon: "Without question there is a certain crisis"
  • Goverdhan Mehta: "With our scientific output on the decline, this [leadership crisis] was inevitable ..., and the problem is going to become even more acute"

The rest of the report is peppered with "missing generation", "slim pickings", "matter of serious concern", and other such nonsense. Reading this report was so painful for me and many others -- don't get me wrong here: our pain was not because of the selection of Shobo Bhattacharya; after all, if he was the best among the contenders, he should be chosen. Period. Our anguish and pain were due to the derogatory remarks (that were plainly contrary to any objectively observable facts) about a whole generation of younger scientists; my first reaction on reading these remarks was, "Uh oh, these guys are so clueless they don't even know what to say when a reporter's mike is in front of them". After a bit more of thought, I concluded that these guys are truly -- and shamelessly -- self-serving; after all, the beneficiaries of the meme that there is a missing generation in science leadership are just the guys spreading this meme actively; using this meme as a pretext, they get to continue to lead science in the country -- possibly for life!

Well, you would not be surprised to know that many of us felt very strongly at that time that these senior scientists did a great disservice to the cause of science in this country through their irresponsible statements. Therefore, you can imagine our immense relief when Prof. Balaram echoed our views (and then some) in this Current Science editorial two months later. Read his editorial, and you will see why I am happy that he is going to be the leader of our Institute.