Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Brain gain at the IITs, again ...

This meme seems to have the kind of traction that makes it keep popping up every few months. The latest to play it up is Amba Batra Bakshi's story in Outlook with a strange title The Boomerangers. It profiles a bunch of IIT-D faculty members.

As I said in this post, I welcome such stories for their PR value that could encourage more and more people to consider returning to India to take up faculty positions. So, let's hear the positives that some of the new hires have mentioned (I'll get to my complaint below):

Niloy J. Mitra, Department of Computer Science and Engineering at IIT-Delhi:

The salaries are not at all competitive but the facilities and funding are as I expected. IIT Delhi was my choice because of the great research opportunities that it offers.

Vinay Joseph Ribeiro, Department of Computer Science and Engineering at IIT-Delhi:

Culturally we are more comfortable at home, there are more research opportunities here. Also, opportunity and funding from industry for research work has increased.

Supratik Chakraborty, Department of Computer Science at IIT-Bombay:

It was a great feeling to know that there are opportunities back home in academia and research. I feel the number of people coming back is due to this support system. Other than the formal applications, there is a lot being done through informal networking and word-of-mouth which is influencing people to return.

Then there is this:

There are many industry tie-ups that professors like [Amitabh Bagchi, Department of Computer Science at IIT-Delhi] are working on whereby students will be paid high salaries by the industry to do research work at the Institute.

[BTW, Amitabh Bagchi is also the author of Above Average, a pretty good 'IIT campus novel'.]

So, there you have it: research opportunities, cultural fit, funding from industry for both research and for attracting graduate students, and support systems. And in the case of IIT-D, there's one more factor: an additional salary of Rs.10,000 per month -- through a fellowship -- for the first five years. At IIT-B, this takes the form of a signing bonus of Rs. 300,000.

* * *

Now that the positives are out of the way, let me turn to my main complaint about the tone of the story.

You see, for all their wailing about the faculty crunch (a very sad tactic if one is really interested in attracting faculty ;-), the IITs do hire 25 to 40 faculty members each annually. Presumably most of these new hires are at the Assistant Professor level, for which an essential requirement is PhD followed by several years of post-doc experience.

Given the almost non-existent culture of post-doccing within India -- at least in engineering, the field that I can claim to know something about -- I would bet that most of the new hires at the IITs are returnees from abroad. Indeed, the Outlook story says 25 of the 40 recruits at IIT-D last year were from abroad [the really interesting story is about the other 15!].

Thus, this tone of 'awwshucks, isn't it great that we live in an era when NRIs actually choose to return to teach here' seems sort of misplaced. If a large fraction of current IIT recruits (and a sizable fraction of recruits at other places too) are desis who have had extended stints abroad, all I can say is that there's nothing new here. It has always been so, and it will continue to be so.

I don't know why journalists keep falling for this meme.

* * *

Here's my take. I think computer science departments in IITs saw a flood of new hires in the last couple of years after experiencing a severe drought over many years. If there was indeed such a sudden spurt -- and I think there was -- the meme about returnees and brain gain takes us away from any fruitful examination of the causes that drive this trend. Journalists are looking at the wrong story!


  1. Anonymous said...

    Finally, finally, an intelligent blog-post.