Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Jalote and Balakrishnan think Indian faculty members have it easy!

Pankaj Jalote (Director of IIIT-Delhi) and M. Balakrishnan (Deputy Director, IIT-Delhi) have an op-ed in yesterday's Economic Times: Government’s attitude towards research funding must change for our researchers to compete globally.

Specifically, they talk about (a) allowing faculty members to make a bit of money from their grants and (b) allowing foreign travel. They also talk about incentives for institutions with a liberal overheads regime.

Unexceptionable these ideas may be, but I found the premise of the op-ed, um, strange: our faculty members don't exhibit the kind of mad, aggressive drive -- like the professors in the US do! -- to go after the grants. They need to be incentivised!

... there are too many constraints on research grants here and not enough incentives. As a result, whereas in a country like the US, professors spend a lot of effort getting grants, in India, neither the universities nor faculty members are so driven. And this lack of a strong desire to go after research grants makes research funding a government's most powerful tool for directing research, a rather toothless tiger.

This seems to mis-state the case. In the US, the funding environment is so brutal only because the university research system has grown far too big compared to the available kitty. Whereas in India, we seem to enjoy a rather benign funding environment. If anything, this is a great advertisement that our institutions should use to attract all those harried Indian researchers all over the world!

I would think this is a part of the spiel our academic leaders use at meetings like YIM-Boston and YRM-Stanford.


  1. sacredfig said...

    "If anything, this is a great advertisement that our institutions should use to attract all those harried Indian researchers all over the world! "

    Indeed! And not having to fight for tenure! Which young researcher wouldn't give a limb for that.

    And of course, once your academic output stops (as its very likely to), then you can always look forward to joining the little cottage industry that keeps discussing everything that's wrong with Indian universities and how to make them better.

  2. karatalaamalaka said...

    Abi, I think Peter Theil's (founder of PayPal, and a surprisingly perceptive commentator on sci-tech policy) views are relevant here. In a recent interview with Francis Fukuyama, he criticizes the American grant-regime, something that aligns with your view.

    To quote him, "...all this (the grant process) has been toxic, because the skills that make a great scientist and the skills that make a great politician are radically different." Full quote:

    "My libertarian views are qualified because I do think things worked better in the 1950s and 60s, but it’s an interesting question as to what went wrong with DARPA. It’s not like it has been defunded, so why has DARPA been doing so much less for the economy than it did forty or fifty years ago? Parts of it have become politicized. You can’t just write checks to the thirty smartest scientists in the United States. Instead there are bureaucratic processes, and I think the politicization of science—where a lot of scientists have to write grant applications, be subject to peer review, and have to get all these people to buy in—[b]all this has been toxic, because the skills that make a great scientist and the skills that make a great politician are radically different.[/b] There are very few people who are both great scientists and great politicians. So a conservative account of what happened with science in the 20th century is that we had a decentralized, non-governmental approach all the way through the 1930s and early 1940s. At that point, the government could accelerate and push things tremendously, but only at the price of politicizing it over a series of decades. Today we have a hundred times more scientists than we did in 1920, but their productivity per capita is less that it used to be."
    (emphasis mine)

  3. Sachin Shanbhag said...

    As a faculty in the US, writing grants is one of the least productive tasks I do. I think the authors make a tacit (but flawed, in my opinion) causal connection: if more grant proposals are written, then better science will result. It actually is a little backwards, as I wrote in the past #shameless plug warning# (

    Funding has become the primary metric of scientific worth.

    I know this is an over-generalization, but sadly it is also extremely close to mantra that guides most research universities in the US.

    The university gets to keep 1/3 of the funds as overhead, which keeps the administration happy, especially in these times of declining governmental support. Funding lets the researcher hire more grad students and post-docs, which keeps the departments happy, since they can boast about the great number of degrees awarded.

    Since this is the "path to happiness", everybody wants to raise a lot of money.

    Thanks to the modern word processor, it is easy to flood the systems at NSF, NIH with proposals, with the hope that one of them hits the jackpot. This directly leads to a broken review system, with low acceptance rates, which unfairly, but understandably, favors well-connected big-shots and academic rock-stars with name recognition and a fan following.

    Because of low acceptance rates, the amount of time wasted on writing proposals is a huge time sink, which draws resources away from places where they could be deployed more fruitfully: for example, to advance science, instead of fundraising.

    The scientist suffers. Science suffers.

    We probably overproduce PhDs, again due to perverse incentives. The reputation of a university is often built on the shoulders of its graduate program. Many of these PhDs now spend a lot of time looking for their first real job.

  4. Skeptic said...

    Interesting comment by Sachin. The situation in UK is similar to what you describe.

  5. Srikanta said...

    I think, the column has a slightly different (albeit unclear) and valid point which is being missed here. (Disclaimer: I work in the same university that Prof. Jalote heads, but my opinions expressed here are my own).

    In the US, the brutality of the fight for funding apart, there is indeed a strong positive incentive to apply for grants. It not only enables you to set up man-machine infrastructure for your research, but also to publish,publicize and enjoy the fruits thereof.

    While in India, obtaining funding from government agencies - if you are not in a "ivy league" places like IISc/IIT - is quite hard and subject the usual bureaucratic vagaries of the system. On top of it, if and when you have your funding, it comes a number of attached constraints which are quite out-dated. One of such insane constraint one of my colleagues faced recently was that their project proposal was rejected in the final round of scrutiny with the reason that they already hold a FAST track grant - similar to NSF CAREER award (whose money has not arrived after approval even after 1 year)! Apart from these, we have the usual foreign travel restriction which is a huge issue, at least for conference oriented research areas such as my own.

    The point that the authors seem to be making is that, given this, there is very little incentive for any faculty to seek research funding from government.

  6. WebMiner said...

    The (once) celebrated humorist Sukumar Roy wrote (my crude translation) in a children's story:

    "Once upon a time there lived a great hrishi with many disciples. The hrishi did yajna for many rich and powerful patrons. On one such occasion, three cats were messing around the yajna grounds. The hrishi was annoyed, and asked a disciple to tie them to a pillar so that the yajna could be completed in peace. Years later, that disciple became a great hrishi and was called to a powerful patron's yajna. The patron nervously asked the disciple if all the arrangements were ok. The disciple looked around solemnly and said everything was fine but three cats should be tied to a pillar to complete the formalities."

    Yup. A dog-eat-dog grant regime will fix Indian academia.

  7. Dheeraj Sanghi said...

    I think US is on one extreme and India is on the other. I look at the article by authors as suggesting that we need to move towards the center. To argue that moving towards center is same as moving towards US model is strictly speaking correct, but irrelevant since such arguments can be given for ANY change.

  8. WebMiner said...

    Dheeraj, whether we shoot for USA or a Pacific island ("the center") matters not a rat's ass if, in a typical IIX, it takes four months to get permission to replace a defunct AC, then another three months to issue a purchase order and get the unit installed. I am talking about a large, "original" IIX here.