Friday, October 28, 2005

Parthasarathi on our universities and R&D labs

In his Hindu op-ed, A. Parthasarathi, a former Secretary to the Government of India in "various science ministries", refers to Narlikar's description of a 'two-box disease' which afflicts India's universities and R&D centres. In other words, they work pretty much in isolation. Parthasarathi calls for some form of fusion, and presents some ideas on how this fusion may come about.

The origin of the two-box problem is quite well-known, and dates back to the fifties. The then government, in its wisdom, decided that a faster development of scientific and industrial enterprise required an entirely new structure: National Labs! [This decision was probably based on the perceived success of the US National Labs; however, I haven't seen any documentary evidence.] This fateful decision created a new set of labs under CSIR (some forty of them, for industrial research), ICAR (for agricultural research) and so on. The creation of these labs, by itself, is not a bad thing. Their creation in times of tight money meant that universities were starved of funds. The culture of academic research just tanked -- to use a stock market term that is in vogue now -- in universities.

The decision to create these labs also rested on a critique of our universities: that they were too conservative to "enable creative work at "the cutting edge" of internationally competitive research". However, instead of doing something to set things right for the universities, Parthasarathi says:

You can still see a version of this mindset everytime a small, elite, postgraduate research institute is created; the main argument is that universities are incapable of doing academic research at such high levels.

The same warped thinking is also responsible for another recent event. The CSIR labs became 'deemed universities', and can now offer doctoral programs. This is an utterly dissastrous move. Our universities will be reduced to machines that print and issue undergraduate and an assorted set of postgraduate degrees.

It is one of the great tragedies of our science and technology system that universities were not given more autonomy in policy-making and operations, nor freed from a hierarchical work culture. Instead, the leaders of our scientific community reached the erroneous conclusion that the universities were irredeemable. And that, if we were to achieve world-class levels of research and knowledge generation, we would need to set up new greenfield research institutes outside the university system with better levels of funding and operational autonomy.

Nobody would dispute the fact that our universities have serious problems. They have serious administrative problems that hold them and their researchers back. They outsource undergraduate programs -- their very raison d'etre -- to their affiliated colleges. Their recruitment policies hamper them badly, leading, in many cases, to inbreeding. Their ability to identify and nurture talent is pathetic at best and non-existent at worst. They rely too much -- purely for financial reasons -- on shady diploma and certificate programs and distance education programs.

In these and other areas they need to reform, so that they can get back to their original missions of providing quality undergraduate education and solid academic research. They must be encouraged to do it with the right incentives -- financial, social, professional. These are problems for UGC to solve. And, ironically, UGC is a term that does not apear even once in Parthasarathi's op-ed.

What, then, are Parthasarathi's suggestions? Essentially three. First, the top scientists in the labs should be encouraged to moonlight every once in a while to teach in a nearby university or college. Second, university and college teachers should get some sort of a sabbatical to spend a year or so in the labs. And, third, the wise men and women of the great labs should modernize the curriculum in the universities, by designing courses, and perhaps even teaching some of them. Parthasarathi calls this a program of 'adoption' or of 'twinning'.

IMHO, this is a clear case of good intentions gone awry. Just look at where universities and labs stand in the three equations he proposes. Are they being treated as equals? Won't they -- his suggestions -- perpetuate the very crime that was perpetrated on our universities fifty years ago?

The 'fusion' between universities and labs recommended by Parthasarathi just means one thing. Our universities will continue to get screwed -- and they will be asked to smile.


  1. Anonymous said...

    Another excellent post here, Abi. I'm curious as to what you think specifically about the proposed science universities. Why creating new institutions when we aren't able to improve the exisiting ones? I think you are absolutely right and you have put it well in the last sentence!

  2. Anonymous said...

    So much has been talked about the "two-box" problem and still.. very little seems to have been done. The recent decision to start integrated MSc progs in all IITs seems to be a decision in this direction. But in terms of numbers, I guess this may not mean much. And ya.. an old question... why doesn't IISc take undergrads?? Is it waiting for the new Institutes of Science to come up??
    I came across an admittedly suprising comment in this article(on the same issue) by Naresh Dadich, Narlikar's colleague at iucaa. :
    "I hear that TIFR, Mumbai is seriously considering taking over the Institute of Science"
    Any clues as to how this helps.. ??

  3. Abi said...

    Anand, Aswin: Thanks for your comments.

    Anand: I will write my rant about the new science institutes later ;-)

    Aswin: Do you think the two-box problem can be solved before the universities are allowed to perform fully to their potential? Right now, the universities are worse than second class citizens in our country's research empire.

    As for TIFR's plans, I have no comments to offer. They are known to think big!