Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Mukul Kesavan on l'affaire Mehta

Mukul Kesavan's column in The Telegraph concludes with this: "... From Devanampiya to this, every epoch gets the Ashoka it deserves."

Before reaching this sentence, he has much to say about pretty much every key person in this episode -- Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Arvind Subramanian, the Chancellor, the Vice Chancellor -- and the subtext in their public pronouncements. He also has comments on a couple of commentators: Raghuram Rajan (who is deeply involved in another university not very different from Ashoka) and Gurcharan Das (the less said about him, the better).

Worth reading in full, but I have to include at least an excerpt here; so, here goes:

Universities like Ashoka are best understood as liberal arts universities with Indian characteristics. The philanthropists who fund and found these universities loom over them like colossi. The virtue of giving generously seems to purge them of self-awareness. In every official communication I’ve read, Ashoka’s founders capitalize their consequence: they are Founders. Ashoka’s board of trustees sent a statement to the faculty declaring that they had never interfered with the academic functioning of the university nor the freedom of faculty members to write about anything they wanted, in any forum that they wanted. That they could write this soon after seeing Mehta off the premises gives chutzpah a new meaning. They signalled their commitment to the autonomy of the university by endorsing the appointment of an Ombudsperson. A Lokpal. Fancy that. [Bold emphasis added]

* * *

There are just way too many news stories and opinion pieces following Pratap Bhanu Mehta's resignation from a professorship at Ashoka. Here's a (non-exhaustive) list of stuff allueded to in Kesavan's piece:

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Diffusion of Knowledge within the Tata firms in 1970s and 1980s

Over at FiftyTwo, Chinmay Tumbe has a fantastic article titled Kamla, revisiting the history of IIM-Ahmedabad and correcting it to reflect Kamla Chowdhry's pivotal role in its founding. As the subhead puts it, "She was shunted out of the history of India’s most prestigious business school. On her birth centenary, a researcher redresses the record."

In the section on her post-IIMA life, we find this passage:

Her crusade for gender parity in academia and industry continued outside the walls of the campus. In the June 2013 edition of the alumni newsletter, Savita Mahajan, who graduated from IIMA in 1981, recounted how a recruitment poster appeared on campus that stated that “women need not apply.” This advertisement was for positions in the prestigious Tata Administrative Service management trainee programme. Chowdhry took up the matter directly with JRD Tata, and the rule was overturned the following year.

* * *

This reminded me of another similar episode at another Tata firm; it has Sudha Murthy (Chair of the Infosys Foundation) at its centre; and, it too involves a letter to J.R.D. Tata, the same man that Chowdhry "took up the matter directly with".

Here it is in Murthy's own words (and the link is to the Tata Archives):

It was probably the April of 1974. Bangalore was getting warm and red gulmohars were blooming at the IISc campus. I was the only girl in my postgraduate department and was staying at the ladies hostel. Other girls were pursuing research in different departments of science. I was looking forward to going abroad to complete a doctorate in computer science. I had been offered scholarships from universities in US. I had not thought of taking up a job in India.

One day, while on the way to my hostel from our lecture-hall complex, I saw an advertisement on the notice board. It was a standard job-requirement notice from the famous automobile company Telco [now Tata Motors]. It stated that the company required young, bright engineers, hardworking and with an excellent academic background, etc.

At the bottom was a small line: "Lady candidates need not apply." I read it and was very upset. For the first time in my life I was up against gender discrimination.

Though I was not keen on taking up a job, I saw this as a challenge. I had done extremely well in academics, better than most of my male peers. Little did I know then that in real life academic excellence is not enough to be successful.

After reading the notice I went fuming to my room. I decided to inform the topmost person in Telco's management about the injustice the company was perpetrating. I got a postcard and started to write, but there was a problem: I did not know who headed Telco. I thought it must be one of the Tatas. I knew JRD Tata was the head of the Tata Group; I had seen his pictures in newspapers (actually, Sumant Moolgaokar was the company's chairman then).

I took the card, addressed it to JRD and started writing. To this day I remember clearly what I wrote. "The great Tatas have always been pioneers. They are the people who started the basic infrastructure industries in India, such as iron and steel, chemicals, textiles and locomotives. They have cared for higher education in India since 1900 and they were responsible for the establishment of the Indian Institute of Science. Fortunately, I study there. But I am surprised how a company such as Telco is discriminating on the basis of gender."

I posted the letter and forgot about it. Less than 10 days later, I received a telegram stating that I had to appear for an interview at Telco's Pune facility at the company's expense.

* * *

Recap: The Sudha Murthy episode is from 1974, and the job in question is that of a shop floor engineer at Telco. The Kamla Chowdhry episode is from 1981/82, and it was about a management trainee program at the Tata Administrative Service. Both are entities within the Tata empire led by J.R.D. Tata.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

How do you say, "I don't know" in Discipline X

Performance poet and writer Hannah Chutzpah asked on Twitter:

What are the technical terms, in your field, for 'dunno'? In medicine there's 'ideopathic' [corrected the original, incorrect spelling] In archeology/anthropology there's 'ritual purposes' How do you professionally term 'we haven't got a clue'?

And the answers are a veritable riot!

As they say on Twitter, Thread.

And Fun.

Monday, December 03, 2018

Quotes of the Day

Everywhere around the world, the future is uncertain. But in India, even the past is uncertain.

This quote, from former RBI Governor Y.V. Reddy, has been used by multiple authors (Ajit Ranade, Vivek Kaul) in the context of the revised GDP growth data for 2004-11 using the new methodology. [I managed to track this one to the book, Who Moved My Interest Rate: Leading the Reserve Bank Through Five Turbulent Years by Reddy's successor, D. Subbarao.]

Another favorite, this one from Ronald Coase, has been used (also in the same context) in today's column by A.S. Panneerselvan, the Readers' Editor at The Hindu:

If you torture the data long enough, it will confess [to anything].

Finally, Ashok Desai has some seriously sarcastic things to say in his Economic Times column (which is also a great explainer for what has just happened). A couple of examples:

[The lower GDP growth rates for 2004-11 in the new methodology are] obviously because some new activities have grown very rapidly in recent years. Kumar gave a long list of the modifications. Some of them are so serious that even a PhD thesis might be insufficient to justify them.

... and

Maybe the government has created not only new GDP statistics, it has even invented anew economics, turning old economists into chaiwallas. Anything is possible in a country that manufactured airplanes three millennia ago.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Annals of Ranking: Which decades produced "better" Nobel Prizes in Science?

Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen have the click-bait article of the month in The Atlantic, Science Is Getting Less Bang for Its Buck, with the following summary (abstract?):

Despite vast increases in the time and money spent on research, progress is barely keeping pace with the past. What went wrong?

Here's their methodology:

we ran a survey asking scientists to compare Nobel Prize–winning discoveries in their fields. We then used those rankings to determine how scientists think the quality of Nobel Prize–winning discoveries has changed over the decades.

As a sample survey question, we might ask a physicist which was a more important contribution to scientific understanding: the discovery of the neutron (the particle that makes up roughly half the ordinary matter in the universe) or the discovery of the cosmic-microwave-background radiation (the afterglow of the Big Bang). Think of the survey as a round-robin tournament, competitively matching discoveries against each other, with expert scientists judging which is better.

For the physics prize, we surveyed 93 physicists from the world’s top academic physics departments (according to the Shanghai Rankings of World Universities), and they judged 1,370 pairs of discoveries. [...]

Collison and Nielsen did this decade-wise comparison of Nobel winning discoveries across nine decades spanning the years 1901-1990 [The authors note that "[the prize-winning] work is attributed to the year in which the discovery was made, not when the subsequent prize was awarded"].

Not surprisingly, the two following decades (1911-1930) get the best ratings.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Graduate students as slave labour

Let's begin with the post titled Cruelty in Academia from December 2006. That was about grad students in several Indian universities.

Fast forward to a US university in 2018, and we get this: Professor used students as servants. UMKC knew and didn’t stop him. The report by MarĂ¡ Rose Williams and Mike Hendricks is about Ashim Mitra, an Indian-origin professor in the University of Missouri at Kansas City:

The [Kansas City] Star found that over Mitra’s 24 years as a leader in the UMKC School of Pharmacy, the professor compelled his students to act as his personal servants. They hauled equipment and bused tables at his social events. They were expected to tend his lawn, look after his dog and water the house plants, sometimes for weeks at a time when he and his wife were away. [...]

Through Mitra’s hints and direct threats, students said they feared he would have their visas revoked if they did not comply with his demands. [...]

When Kuchimanchi once told Mitra he wouldn’t be a servant, “he threatened to kick me out of the university and force me to lose my visa and lose everything. That was his ammo. Either fall in line or you would be thrown out. You didn’t want to be in that situation where you have to go back home empty-handed.” So he continued to do what Mitra asked.

This part of the report nails it:

At best, critics say, Mitra’s demands violated ethical standards and university policy. At worst, a U.S. immigration official told The Star, coerced off-campus labors would be tantamount to human trafficking.

Thursday, November 15, 2018


Vijaysree Venkatraman has a nice article on Prof. G.N.Ramachandran's work at the University of Madras in the fifties and the sixties: How a Madras scientist won the global race in the ’50s to crack the structure of collagen. An excerpt:

First, he needed to find a source of collagen. The shark fin collagen from the biochemistry department on campus didn’t yield great images. Good quality pictures were essential to cracking the collagen puzzle, he knew. Leather, it occurred to GNR, was largely collagen.

Not far from the university campus was a new institute – the Central Leather Research Institute. GNR decided to pay his neighbours a visit. As he made his way there, the leather choices in GNR’s mind were Kangaroo Tail Tendon or Beef Achilles Tendon. The deputy director of CLRI turned out to be a kindred soul, happy to help a fellow scientist. The beef sample was easy to obtain locally. But if kangaroo collagen was going to yield the best diffraction images – as the scientific literature said – the deputy director promised to get GNR samples from Australia.

Thus, GNR found himself some purified marsupial collagen to work with.

The only information available on the fibrous protein collagen was this: one-third of its total amino acid content was glycine. Using this fact, looking at the pictures he had taken, GNR made an intuitive leap. [...]

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Infosys Prize ...

Congratulations to our colleagues and friends Prof. Navakanta Bhat and Prof. S.K. Satheesh on winning the Infosys Prize in Engineering and Computer Science, and Physical Sciences, respectively. They join Prof. Sriram Ramaswamy (PS, 2011), Prof. Jayant Haritsa (EaCS, 2014), and Prof. V. Kumaran (EaCS, 2016) in the list of prize winners from IISc.

This year's other winners are Prof. Kavita Singh (JNU) in Humanities, Roop Malik (TIFR) in Life Sciences, Prof. Nalini Anantharaman (University of Strassbourg) in Mathematics, Prof. Sendhil Mullainathan (University of Chicago) in Social Sciences.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Predatory journals face intense scrutiny

In a great example of collaborative journalism, The Indian Express partners with several other big names in the news business to shine a bright and harsh spotlight on predatory journals. Its global partners include broadcasters NDR and WDR (Germany), and newspapers Suddeutsche Zeitung (Germany) and Le Monde (France), and the magazine The New Yorker (USA); IE says International Consortium of Investigative Journalists provided the platform for the over 60 journalists to share their findings.

There is just way too much that has been brought to light, so I will just provide a link to the stories [Update: Links to the entire series of news stories in The Indian Express are collected at this page]:

Friday, July 20, 2018


  1. FY Fluid Dynamics on Dead salmon swimming.
  2. Editorial in Nature: China sets a strong example on how to address scientific fraud. "New measures introduce what could be the world’s strongest disincentive for misconduct so far."
  3. David D. Perlmutter in The Chronicle of Higher Education: Academic Job Hunts From Hell: Keep on Script. "The job interview is not a spontaneous exchange, it’s a minefield."
  4. Debraj Ray and Arthur Robson in Vox EU: Certified random co-authors. "This column -- whose authors both have surnames starting with R, one of whom was once recommended a “wonderful paper” on which he was a co-author -- proposes a new mechanism for co-authorship. It involves a coin toss to order co-authors, and an institutionally ratified symbol to signal random order. Such a mechanism would be fairer and more efficient, and it would displace alphabetical order through voluntary participation alone."
  5. Leonie Mueck in Nature Nanotechnology: Report the awful truth!. "Negative and null results are routinely produced across all scientific disciplines, but rarely get reported. The key to combat the biases arising from this mismatch lies in disseminating all details about a work." rather than just positive results."

Saturday, June 16, 2018

ToI's Analysis of Medical College Admissions in 2017

I am not thrilled to see the word "merit" being used so casually, but Rema Nagarajan's ToI news story captures the essence in its title: Money, not quota, dilutes merit in medical admissions:

It is not caste-based reservation but money that compromises merit in medical admissions.

This is obvious from the difference of about 140 marks, or close to 20 percentage points, between the average NEET scores of admissions to over 39,000 government-controlled seats and those to the over 17,000 management and NRI quota seats in private colleges where fees determine admission.

TOI analysed details of nearly 57,000 students admitted to 409 colleges last year. The average NEET score of students in government-controlled seats was 448 out of 720, while the quotas under private control averaged just 306.

Incidentally, the average score of students admitted under the SC quota in government colleges was 398 and the overall average for SC students in all colleges was 367, both much higher than the overall average for privately controlled seats.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Inder Verma Resigns

Meredith Wadman in Science [following up on her explosive report from six weeks ago]:

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Zimbardo's Lie

From this week's must-read article: Ben Blum's The Lifespan of a Lie -- The most famous psychology study of all time was a sham. Why can’t we escape the Stanford Prison Experiment?:

Despite the Stanford prison experiment’s canonical status in intro psych classes around the country today, methodological criticism of it was swift and widespread in the years after it was conducted. Deviating from scientific protocol, Zimbardo and his students had published their first article about the experiment not in an academic journal of psychology but in The New York Times Magazine, sidestepping the usual peer review. Famed psychologist Erich Fromm, unaware that guards had been explicitly instructed to be “tough,” nonetheless opined that in light of the obvious pressures to abuse, what was most surprising about the experiment was how few guards did. “The authors believe it proves that the situation alone can within a few days transform normal people into abject, submissive individuals or into ruthless sadists,” Fromm wrote. “It seems to me that the experiment proves, if anything, rather the contrary.” Some scholars have argued that it wasn’t an experiment at all. Leon Festinger, the psychologist who pioneered the concept of cognitive dissonance, dismissed it as a “happening.”

A steady trickle of critiques have continued to emerge over the years, expanding the attack on the experiment to more technical issues around its methodology, such as demand characteristics, ecological validity, and selection bias. In 2005, Carlo Prescott, the San Quentin parolee who consulted on the experiment’s design, published an Op-Ed in The Stanford Daily entitled “The Lie of the Stanford Prison Experiment,” revealing that many of the guards’ techniques for tormenting prisoners had been taken from his own experience at San Quentin rather than having been invented by the participants. In another blow to the experiment’s scientific credibility, Haslam and Reicher’s attempted replication, in which guards received no coaching and prisoners were free to quit at any time, failed to reproduce Zimbardo’s findings. Far from breaking down under escalating abuse, prisoners banded together and won extra privileges from guards, who became increasingly passive and cowed. According to Reicher, Zimbardo did not take it well when they attempted to publish their findings in the British Journal of Social Psychology.

“We discovered that he was privately writing to editors to try to stop us getting published by claiming that we were fraudulent,” Reicher told me.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018


Two links [hat tip to M. Madhan]:

  • Ben Guarino, Emily Rauhala and William Wan in The Washington Post: Health & Science China increasingly challenges American dominance of science

    The United States spends half a trillion dollars a year on scientific research — more than any other nation on Earth — but China has pulled into second place, with the European Union third and Japan a distant fourth.

    China is on track to surpass the United States by the end of this year, according to the National Science Board. In 2016, annual scientific publications from China outnumbered those from the United States for the first time.

    “There seems to be a sea change in how people are talking about Chinese science,” said Alanna Krolikowski, a Chinese science expert at Missouri University of Science and Technology. Foreign observers, many of whom were once condescending, now “are rather in awe at what the Chinese policies have accomplished.”

  • Dalmeet Singh Chawla in Nature Index: Italian scientists increase self-citations in response to promotion policy:

    Italian scientists have been citing themselves more often since a controversial law came into effect in 2010 demanding academics meet productivity thresholds to gain promotion. Economic and managerial engineering showed the greatest leap in self-citations from 2010 to 2014 of the four fields examined.

Friday, May 04, 2018

UGC strikes back: INSA's Indian Journal of History of Science is not an "approved" journal!

After many people pointed out that the University Grants Commission's "White List" of "approved" journals had many, many predatory journals (see, for example, this recent report in The Hindu), UGC tried to make amends by issuing another list [pdf], which now consists of all the journals which are "removed" from the list of "approved" journals.

What is really galling is that in this pruning process, which killed some 4000+ journals, UGC has gone way too far on the other side, and removed a whole bunch of legitimate journals. [see this report from today's The Hindu].

I just learnt that The Indian Journal of History of Science, published by the Indian National Science Academy, has also been kicked out of the "approved" list!