Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Culture of our scientific institutions

This is something I should have posted a while ago; I have been sitting on this one for nearly two weeks now.

Prof. T. Jayaraman (whom we have met here and here) has put up on his website the slides of his presentation on "Transforming the Culture of Scientific Institutions" (ppt). I understand it is a talk he gave to an audience of science policy analysts and advisors recently.

In this perceptive talk, Jayaraman starts with the following:

General levels of achievement of the Indian diaspora (whose foundational training is in India) [is] not matched overall by the achievement of Indian S&T. While several factors are relevant here, it also points to institutional constraints and the general culture of Indian S&T institutions.

He then goes on to point out a whole bunch of these constraints felt at the micro-level by "individual research organisations/sub-groups in large organisations", and proposes "some radical measures needed to overcome them". He covers a lot of ground, so I won't bother to summarize all the points here. What I will do, instead, is to extract (from different slides in the presentation) a strand of argument that will resonate with a lot of people (scientists in Indian institutions, in particular):

Scientists are expected to be world-class in their work, [but] they are treated condescendingly, almost like children, by the bureaucracy and executive authority on managerial matters.

... Younger generation is forced to bear the entire burden of generating `excellence’ without any corresponding share of determining policy.

As a consequence of exclusion from decision-making, generations of younger scientists progress to higher levels without any serious knowledge of world-class scientific administration. [It makes] the existing senior leadership appear indispensable.

[Among the reasons for the persistence of these problems over several decades : ] the reluctance and tardiness of two generations in the scientific community itself to promote reform and change.

Do go through the whole presentation. You will get a good sense of some of the deep problems imposed by our way of running scientific institutions.


  1. Anonymous said...

    Lack of exposure to world class scientific administration. Good point. Excellent point which I must admit, I never thought about in such a context. If you will pardon a cricket analogy, it is after the Indian cricket team learnt of world class "team management" and had a say in hiring their coaches (Dravid pushed for Wright based on what he saw at Kent, and later Ganguly pushed for Chappell) that the team improved so much.

    Yes, a "managerial" direction or guidance is a must, more so in a field like science and technology where success probability is a lot less than business or even sports

  2. Anonymous said...

    I liked Jayaraman's presentation. I think what he says makes a lot of sense. However, I am afraid that it will, as usual, fall into deaf ears.

    Gaurav made an interesting analogy with cricket. When Wright and then Chappel tried to change things around (such as demanding hard work, high levels of fitness), see what happened. Wright was forced onto the sidelines and w.r.t. Chappell, we say he does not understand our culture.

    I suspect the same thing will happen, if we get world class scientific administrator. He/she will be immediately shunted out saying that "he does not understand the Indian Scientific culture." Incidentally, this "culture" is "you scratch my back and I will yours" and spread mediocraty instead of meritocracy, that too in the name of "eqaulity."


  3. Anonymous said...

    Thanks for the link, Abi. Prof.Jayaraman's presentation crystallizes a whole bunch of issues that the younger faculty spontaneously discuss during the tea time every where. At one place, it also echoes Prof. Balaram's Current Science editorial about missing generation argument. To quote a sentence from Prof. Balaram's last paragraph in that popular editorial: The men who rule India's science have coined a remarkable phrase, which reminded me of Stein, to arrogantly dismiss an entire generation of scientists in India; many of whom have laboured diligently, with extraordinary commitment to their chosen disciplines, silent and at times forlorn, witnesses to deteriorating standards of decision making. I will be curious what the rest of the scientists in the age group 40-50 like to think of this issue.

  4. Abi said...

    Gaurav, Ram, Phanikumar: Thanks for your comments.

    Gaurav, Ram: From even a cursory experience with our academic and scientific institutions, it is clear that their managements and 'world class' may very well occupy parallel universes. There are strong institutional reasons for this, and I think Jayaraman has captured them well in his diagnosis.

    Phanikumar: I have already stated that many things pointed out by Jayaraman resonate with me. As for the others -- not just in the 40-50 age group -- we will just have to wait. It's interesting that you linked to Prof. Balaram's editorial on the issue of 'missing generation'. I too wrote about it a while ago (and linked to this editorial).

  5. Anonymous said...

    Phew!!.. That balaram article was stinging!. I remember reading the Science article in question.. but didnt know that it had created such a furore.

  6. Abi said...

    Aswin: That is arguably the best editorial to have appeared in Current Science. Ever!

    As for the furore raised by the story in Science, don't you think it was all justified?

  7. Anonymous said...
    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
  8. Anonymous said...

    Sure!... As u said, it might have been fine to appoint someone from the US if some specific circumstances demanded such an action. But this "nobody in the age-group 40-50 is capable" is going a bit too far.The comments got the right treatment!

    And abi, in a related note,..It would be really convenient if u could install a plugin to show the recent comments(like sowmya). U post at quite a furious pace..and I often lose track of the posts on which I commented. I often see the replies after many days!