Sometime ago, Ajit Balakrishnan wrote poignantly about how one of his IIM professors was unable to afford good medical care in his old age. Prof. Ramu Iyer's suffering made the Rediff CEO bemoan "the way we have organised Indian society [in which] its teachers live a life of penury while their students prosper". Pankaj Jalote's recent article cites increasing the faculty salaries as a key strategy for IITs to improve their international rankings.
My own take (shorter version) on faculty salary is that while it's not awfully bad (a view echoed by Rahul), more is certainly better! I have suggested that research grants allow faculty members to earn an extra income, in the nature of a 'performance pay' suggested by Jalote. Yet another method is to offer 'chaired professorships' (Prof. Jalote is currently at IIT-D as a Microsoft Chair) or 'fellowships' (DST, for example, offers J.C. Bose Fellowships). As we are early in this game, these honours go to senior faculty, so it'll be a while before it percolates down to junior levels where they could play their intended role: attract bright young people to academia.
But I want to move beyond faculty salaries. Let's face it. While salary is an important factor when people weigh the relative merits of an academic career, it's not the only one. People choose academics largely because they are able to work on interesting scientific problems that excite them (irrespective of whether they excite others). They are willing to consider a lower economic status if other things measure up. What might be these other things?
Let's assume you are a hotshot young researcher with a stellar doctoral and post-doctoral record in a hot young field (say, Peta-band Connectivity!). You have been hired by a top institution in India. What would you need to 'succeed'? It doesn't require a degree in exa-chemistry to realize that you will need some critical initial support from your institution for the first two or three years. It is this support that American universities provide adequately, and Indian universities (with the exception of a very few elite institutions) provide at a sub-optimal level.
Well, I admit that 'adequately' is an imprecise description, but here's the key difference. American universities ask you, at the time of your interview, what you need to make a success of yourself. You bargain a bit, and eventually, come to an agreement on the level of initial support from the university.
Now, switch to the Indian subcontinent: you may mention your needs during your interview, and some informal negotiation may ensue, but typically, no promises are made: nothing is finalized until you join. In fact, the offer is made in a form letter that's about as bland and devoid of significant details as one can imagine. The real negotiation about the institution's support happens after you join the university. Needless to say, this puts you in a weak bargaining position, because you have already closed your other options (which, in principle, you could have used to play one institution against another).
So, what are the things that American universities allow you to negotiate before they make the offer? I don't have personal experience, but here's what I have gathered. You negotiate for lab space, start-up grant for specialized equipment, a grant to meet your lab's expenses (including salary for post-docs, students and/or lab assistants) for the first few years (If you know of other significant stuff that I have missed, please fill in the details in your comments). I want to focus on start-up grants.
What kind of funding can one expect from an American university? Thomas Cech talks about some of his students who received start-up grants as high as half a million dollars. Informally, I have heard figures in the 150,000 - 300,000 dollar range in materials science and engineering. This Rediff report talks about China's TransCentury project that proposes offering upto $250,000 as start-up research grants.
[Can we use the PPP argument to say that a sixth of the above figure -- which comes to just Rs. 20 lakhs to 40 lakhs -- is enough as a start-up grant for our junior faculty? No way! This is because, this money is largely for specialized equipment for which PPP factor is one (and considering some of the problems associated with working in India -- for example, chronic power cuts, requiring additional investment in uninterrupted power supply equipment -- the PPP factor may even be less than one!]
What do Indian institutions provide by way of start-up grant? Institutions funded by the Department of Atomic Energy (TIFR, IMSc, NCBS, ...) have a reputation for generous support for their faculty throughout their careers. For the other places, estimates vary. IIT-K's donations page, for example, suggests a timid figure of $25,000 as "initiation grants" for its young faculty. In their joint report to the government, the Indian National Science Academy and the Indian Academy of Sciences have made the following recommendation:
All new faculty members should be provided a ‘start up’ grant of at least Rs. 10 lakh for faculty in experimental sciences and Rs. 2 lakh in theoretical sciences.
These numbers are just guidelines; university administrators can choose to pamper their high-fliers with more. When a hotshot new recruit demands more, he/she is given a larger start-up grant, but it's still sub-optimal forcing him/her to top it up through grants. But, grants take time! It could be anywhere between six months to two years before the grant money arrives [for large sums of money, it could be even longer]. For a new faculty who's itching to hit the road running, this setback could be pretty serious, if not disastrous. It's particularly hard on those who bring in new expertise; since the institution has no presence in their research area, they cannot start being productive right away by plugging themselves into the existing research infrastructure.
Assistant professors are hired based on promise and potential. They come with limited experience that doesn't allow others to judge their actual contribution to their published work. Having hired them on this perceived promise, it's important to ensure that they realize their potential. Generous start-up grants are an important part of setting them up for success.
You can also see the importance of initial grant from the opposite angle. In government institutions, nobody gets kicked out for non-performance. Therefore, setting people up for failure is a doubly bad strategy. Not only does the institution get saddled with mediocrities, but it also has to deal with their continuous griping and whining which vitiate the atmosphere for the others (in particular, potential hires!). This whine is a major source of negative energy that flows through many of our universities.
Since they don't step on the ultra-sensitive toes of bureaucrats, higher start-up grants are politically more feasible than enhanced faculty salaries.
What kind of money are we talking about here? An institution (for example, an IIT) with about 400 faculty members probably recruits 15 new faculty members every year just to replace its retirees. Assuming, generously, that we have thirty such institutions, we're talking about 400 to 500 new recruits per year; assuming an average figure of 10 million (1 crore) rupees of start-up grant for each recruit, the additional expenditure is about 5 billion (500 crore) rupees per year -- a figure that's well within the realm of possibility.
What do you think?