Friday, November 13, 2009

N.R. Narayana "Boilerplate" Murthy


Over at Plus Ultra, Raj has been collecting "vacuous and verbose" stuff uttered by various people -- today's post, for example, catches Lata Mangeshkar holding forth on Sachin Tendulkar.

When I saw N.R. Narayana Murthy's op-ed in The Hindu on Securing Indias Science Future, I thought it would be fun to go plus-ultra on Raj, and list the instances of largely meaning-free verbiage in it. Here we go:

  1. The importance of scientific and technological advancement in today’s highly globalised environment cannot be overstated.

  2. In an increasingly competitive global economy, knowledge-driven growth powered by innovation is a critical imperative.

  3. While India is uniquely positioned to use technology for progress, it has in the recent past lagged behind considerably in the quality and spread of science research.

  4. This is a critical lacuna that could well determine the fate not just of our scientific and developmental future but, more importantly, of our progress as a nation.

  5. It is common knowledge that research in basic sciences is a critical pre-requisite for the success of applied sciences and the bedrock of all technological advancement.

  6. The key to continued success for India in a globalised knowledge-driven economy is building a higher education system that is superior in quality and committed encouragement of relevant research in science and technology.

  7. What is needed is an environment where the government, universities, companies, venture capitalists, and other stakeholders come together for the enablement of the entire science eco-system with an eye on future sustainability. [This is my favourite!]

  8. The government must play a key role by enhancing the number, quality, and management of science schools focussed on science research.

  9. The IIT model of success needs to be replicated on a far larger scale.

  10. Providing the requisite autonomy to research institutions is an important necessity.

Okay, I give up! There's a lot more in there, because I have barely finished one half of Murthy's op-ed.

* * *

The only potentially redeeming part of the entire article is the middle portion that has some data on the state of funding and on the number of PhD graduates. Even this part is marred by sloppiness -- in both data and argument.

For example, his article's focus is on scientific research. Why, then, is he citing data about engineering, without citing any on science?

Although India produces about 400,000 engineering graduates and about 300,000 computer science graduates every year, just about 20,000 master’s degree holders and fewer than 1,000 Ph.Ds in engineering graduate each year.

At another place, he mentions US $ 24 billion as India's "R&D spend" in 2007-08. I wonder where he got that number from. That's over Rs. 100,000 crores -- it's well over India's defence expenditure for that year!

* * *

Maybe I shouldn't, but I expect a solid, grounded, reality-based analysis from Murthy, because he has that street-cred that can come only from building a great company. I expect relevant and unimpeachable data to support his opinions and suggestions, especially since he likes to chant, "In God we trust, everyone else brings data to the table."

What I see in his op-ed, instead, is just tons and tons of boilerplate.

Sigh!

24 Comments:

  1. Anonymous said...

    Abi, I have a feeling that you had this title a long time ago!

    In any case, I am glad you took the courage of "boilerplating a holy cow." I hope one of your journalist friends at mint does not pick this up and land you in trouble for not showing solidarity with the holy cows. (ok. I changed "our" to "the" to avoid charges of plagiarism.)

    But I have to wonder what your motives are. Is it because "Bolierplate" does not believe in reservation?

  2. Sachin Shanbhag said...

    I heard him speak when I was an undergrad at IITB about 10 years ago - and remember being bored to death with his talk which contained similar "boilerplate" material. You should probably forgive him for that though. He was probably coaxed into writing the piece.

    Being sloppy with statistics (if true) would be unforgivable.

  3. Prithwiraj said...

    the ultimate guru of boilerplate is apj abdul kalam. at least murty built infosys!

  4. VA said...

    Shame on you Abi.
    Atleast Narayana Murty is inspiring the people, what are you doing???
    Just publishing some papers (which may/may not be good) and critizing others.
    Even though facts were wrong, but many of us did find the article to be inspiring.

  5. Anonymous said...

    Dear VA, when facts are wrong and it still inspires you, it is called Religion.

    A scientist should call a spade a spade and a boilerplate a boilerplate.

    -Anon1

  6. Abi said...

    Thank you all for your comments. It's good to see some agreement on the quality of NRN's op-ed.

    @VA: NRN is an inspiring figure. His success with Infosys deserve our admiration (and may be our adulation, too). But, when he chooses to make a public statement on an important topic -- India's science future! -- don't we have a right to expect something better than this op-ed?

    @Prithwiraj: Yes, Dr. Kalam's speeches and articles can also be exasperating; but I wouldn't dismiss achievements as easily as you did. His contributions as a technology manager at Defence and Space are highly respected.

    @Anon: You said, "But I have to wonder what your motives are. Is it because "Bolierplate" does not believe in reservation?"

    Nice try. As I recall, I belong to the side that won the reservation battle in the Supreme Court. Winners don't (at the least, shouldn't) bear a grudge ...

  7. Rahul Basu said...

    I think building a successful company is very different from having sensible non trivial views about education - particularly science education. Meaningless (including bad English posing as jargon - "R&D spend") jargon is an important constituent of most management gurus' lifeblood and Murthy is no exception. Meaningless jargon in science is exactly that --- meaningless.

    I recall an interview long ago on NDTV by Prannoy Roy of the man we all love to hate (at least all linux types) Bill Gates and Narayan Murthy. Contrary to expectations, Gates came across as warm, really smart, intelligent and very reasonable about many things - including being obliquely critical about American intervention in parts of the world (in this case Iraq) -- (given his position in the US you would hardly expect him to be anything but obliquely critical). Narayan Murthy on the other hand was not only superficial in his comments, he dismissed all criticism of the US by this famous line -- "I am an unabashed admirer of the US" . With this level of nuance in his thinking process, what do you expect when he decides to pontificate on science policy?

    Some of the comments above seem to imply we should admire him just because he set up a successful company. I am not sure why -- the Ambanis starting from Ambani pere have created and run one of India's most successful companies -- but I don't think I would want them to be role models for this or future generations.

  8. Abi said...

    @Sachin: You said, "... He was probably coaxed into writing the piece."

    Maybe. But I doubt it. The last paragraph in NRN's op-ed reveals the real purpose (I think): it talks about the Infosys Prize -- something that is close to his heart.

  9. VA said...

    Abi, other than some wrong facts (about the R&D spending), I find nothing wrong in this oped.
    Agreed, what he said is something we get to hear a lot, but please remember that this is for high school kids, who still have not read different articles, and they consider Narayana Murty as their hero.
    I donot believe in religion, I believe in common sense and I would very much appreciate these articles for the younger generation of India.

  10. Anonymous said...

    Abi! What is this nice try? We are both on the winning side only.

    I am merely trying to figure out your motivation.

    VA: why is this for high school kids? He wrote it in his capacity as chairman of the infosys science foundation.

    If he is writing for kids, he needs to simplify his language in massive ways. The Gunning Fog index of the first two paragraphs of the article is an astounding 16.6!! I don't think any high school kid will even look at it.


    -Anon1

  11. Anonymous said...

    This sort of template aricles are liked by media. Those who read journals like Research Policy know that there are no easy answers because often we dont even know the right questions.Sinking money into science may result in more papers but that does not guarantee innovation or breakthroughs in our understanding. To make things worse measuring impact or quality of human resources is fraught with many issues.

    It is not like software business where you hire 30 persons extra when you get a big project or keep engineers in bench anticpating business.

    Pumping more money, replicate IIT model,S&T is very important in a globalized world-10th standard kids can write like this today just by googling for 15 minutes.Narayanamurthy's intentions may be good but his article is just verbiage.Science is not software business, nor science is something that where what matters is your company's bottomline and share price.
    Indian science has too many saviors and too many vested interests ranging from scientists who place their chamchas and chelas in institutions in a 'scientific' manner to tycoons
    who think they have solutions for all problems of India.

  12. புருனோ Bruno said...

    //Nice try. As I recall, I belong to the side that won the reservation battle in the Supreme Court. Winners don't (at the least, shouldn't) bear a grudge ...//

    Well said :) :)

    ஐ லைக் இட் பாஸ்

  13. புருனோ Bruno said...

    //Nice try. As I recall, I belong to the side that won the reservation battle in the Supreme Court. Winners don't (at the least, shouldn't) bear a grudge ...//

    Well said :) :)

    ஐ லைக் இட் பாஸ்

  14. Anonymous said...

    Nice insult Abi. No wonder the people who are writing in YOUR support (like the great pontificator Basu) are academics themselves. All full of themselves. The difference between Murthy and you academics is that you have not created ANY wealth. You have not created any jobs. You have not improved the life of any other individual. Yet you sit on judgement on whether the words used by Murthy are real or not, inspiring or not, and can be considered religion or not. You are merely pontificating in your own importance. You are so full of yourself that you cannot see the difference between inspiring words (which you and your cronies dismiss as religion - now that is a nice try) and your own verbiage. Why should you be given the right to "expect something that is solid, grounded..." from Murthy? Who are you? Why does Murthy owe you a scientific paper? Do something first, then talk. Then you have the right to talk.

  15. Anonymous said...

    What bull Abi ! So the only data point that is wrong is India's R&D spend. Well said. Maybe a typo. Since the R&D spend is $ 2.4 B - approx 0.8% of our GDP. The other thing that you mention is that he does not cite PhD students in science. So that is sloppiness by your standard. Huh! And that when by your own admission, you have not finished reading the other half of the article. Wow! I pity the authors whose work is submitted to you for review. YOU are the sloppy reviewer.

  16. Anonymous said...

    If I am a marathon runner, and I have a blog on marathon running, would it be nice of me to make fun of people 1) who run for fun 2) people who promote running 3) people who organize runs, 4)comment on running, etc.?

    Making fun of other people's text is cheap, especially when generating text is not the core competence of the other person.

  17. Anonymous said...

    Anon @ November 14, 7:07PM says Abi has not created ANY wealth or jobs. Well, NRN hasn't created ANY knowledge or ideas. The question is how science in India ought to be run, something NRN knows far less about than Abi or many other commentators.

    So it's not surprising that NRN produces boilerplate material - he has no real insight into the matter and has to say roughly what everyone else says. Management speak is his "father tongue", so that's what he uses to say it.

    The point is quite simple: NRN has a lot of money and so the media is willing to listen to his pontificating about things well outside his domain of expertise. If tomorrow he started talking about the relative merits of Bollywood starlets they would probably listen.

    Finally, the difference between NRN and APJAbdulKalam is that the latter usually talks to schoolchildren, his talks are explicitly meant to inspire (and they do). He does not (usually) presume to dictate the country's science policy, although he would be in a (slightly) better position to do so than NRN.

  18. Anonymous said...

    >The point is quite simple: NRN has a lot of money and so the media is willing to listen to his pontificating about things well outside his domain of expertise. If tomorrow he started talking about the relative merits of Bollywood starlets they would probably listen.

    Well, then this is a problem with the media's attitude, not a problem with NRN's oped. The post just makes fun of NRN's text, which is a cheap shot.

    If someone asks a rapper to sing a Carnatic keertanam, you shouldn't be complaining about the poor guy's Sruthi, but more about the weirdo who came with the bizarre idea.

  19. Anonymous said...

    "If someone asks a rapper to sing a Carnatic keertanam, you shouldn't be complaining about the poor guy's Sruthi ..."

    Should not the rapper have the sense not to sing a Carnatic keertana? Is that too much to ask of a rapper to stick to what he knows?

  20. Anonymous said...

    "The post just makes fun of NRN's text, which is a cheap shot."

    Well, I think Abi's point was/is that the article contains the usual cliched stuff dressed up in management-speak, so he was criticizing both content and form.

    "..., but more about the weirdo who came with the bizarre idea."

    You are assuming that NRN did not offer his ideas to the Hindu. He has, in recent times, shown no hesitation in presenting his thoughts on this and other issues to the public (cf. his recent book and several articles like the above containing, in addition to his opinions, wrong "facts").

  21. Anonymous said...

    >Should not the rapper have the sense not to sing a Carnatic keertana?

    Sure, but that again is a different point from "boilerplate". Also, rappers may have all kinds of reasons for making use of an offered/available platform, including promotion of their company and its prize. I am sure most bloggers would spout forth on their favourite topic if The Hindu would consider them for their oped, even if they are not qualified to comment on the topic. And a lot of the text would be boilerplate for people who read their blogs.I am sure most of you teaching folks say the same thing over and over again in your classes, year after year. So "boilerplate" is not fair criticism.

    You can't expect Murthy to write like TCA Srinivasa Raghavan or Swaminathan Aiyar, who generate interesting ideas almost every week. He got a channel, he used it, in the only way he knows. The Hindu Oped editor should've made a judgment on whether he, and his text, deserved that channel.

    On a related note, someone above made the comment that NRN is less qualified to comment on science policy than Abi. I am not sure who is "qualified" to make comments on science policy. I think everyone can do it, because science affects everyone. I don't think having a Ph.D. in science or engineering makes you somehow specially qualified to comment on, or decide, science policy. Farmers don't decide farm policy by themselves, drivers don't decide road policy, so why should scientists decide science policy?

    Of course, one of the inputs for policy is from practitioners, but theirs is not the only input. Policy involves a wider set of issues than just practice, such as allocation of resources, ethics, social impact, environmental impact etc. People with expertise/ experience in any of these issues will, and should, comment on policy. I think of NRN as one such person. He is not uniquely positioned to influence science policy, neither is Abi, but both have stakes in it, so both their comments are welcome. He speaks boilerplate because either that is all he knows, or he has time for. That does not delegitimise his input, or him, for that matter.

    Finally, as a parting snark, the text on this blog is not that stimulating or great either, say, compared to many that it links to. It is a great place for links, as someone observed a while ago. So it may be good to tone down the textual snootiness.

  22. gaddeswarup said...

    "People with expertise/ experience in any of these issues will, and should, comment on policy. I think of NRN as one such person. He is not uniquely positioned to influence science policy, neither is Abi, but both have stakes in it, so both their comments are welcome."
    I think NRN has better chance of influencing policy than Abi and that is why clices and discrepancies in his sppeches, writings should be pointed out. Overall, this is only a blog and Abi is not an expert on all the areas he is curious about. Perhaps, one should look more carefully at the posts on Indian universities where Abi may have reputation as a specialist.

  23. Abi said...

    @Anon (3:19): You said, "[NRN] speaks boilerplate because either that is all he knows, or he has time for."

    Thank you.

  24. Raj said...

    Abi, look at the amount of flak you draw when you attempt to go ultra plus on me. Let this be a lesson to you.