Thursday, September 30, 2010

Inter-Academy Report: An Update

Two blog posts. Both are a must-read.

  1. Rahul Siddharthan: The Academies' Report on GM Crops. He publishes a letter written for publication by his colleague Gautam Menon and him.

  2. Rahul Basu: Bt Egg(plant) in the Face.

Update: Just saw Vishu Guttal's post -- Indian Science chants 'Jairam' (and 'Jayaram') before the Ayodhya verdict -- on my Google Reader.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The National Academy of Medical Sciences dumps the Inter-Academy Report

Well, this is interesting! [See the previous post for context.] What is even more interesting is this bit of mea culpa:

NAMS has now decided that it will not endorse the new report till each section of the report has been cleared by all council members.

If the now-discredited report was not "cleared by all council members," the next questions are: (a) Who cleared it? (b) How did NAMS become a party to to the Inter-Academy report? (c) Did anyone from NAMS contribute to the report?

To my knowledge, the report was circulated among the Fellows of the Indian Academy of Sciences; it was not a draft (to be discussed and, if necessary, modified), but the final report itself -- the one that was submitted to the E&F Ministry.

I wonder what kind of revolt is brewing in the other academies ...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Quote of the Day

If a tiger had sex with a tornado and then their tiger-nado baby got married to an earthquake, their offspring would be Rajinikanth.
-- Grady Hendrix in Slate.

A slap in the face of India's science academies

Here's the gist of what appears to be a well-deserved slap from a minister:

Virtually trashing the report by six top academies which favoured “limited release” of genetically modified brinjal, the Environment Minister, Mr Jairam Ramesh today said it does not give a larger scientific view and focused only on findings o f a scientist.

Endorsing views of an advocacy group that alleged that the report was plagiarised, Mr Ramesh said, “I had asked the academics to give the broader scientific view. But it is nothing else but the views of one scientist (Anand Kumar) which I had already kno wn much before the moratorium was placed on the release of the Bt brinjal.”

Clearly unhappy over the report which he had sought from the country’s leading academic institutes, the Minister said, “I do not want the six top science academics to tell me Anand Kumar’s view. I already know that.”

The science academies released their report -- Inter Academy Report on GM Crops sometime last week. You can download it from Arunn's site; see his post.] already has a polemical piece from Devinder Sharma. You may not agree with the tone, but you at least know the man behind that that diatribe those harsh words. But you can't say the same thing about the report that went in the name of the six Indian academies of science, engineering and agriculture -- the report does not mention the authors anywhere. Indeed, as Sharma says, the disclosures should also include information on (potential) conflicts of interest of the authors (much like the disclosures that appear right at the beginning of any article in PLoS Medicine and other such journals -- see this one, for example):

... It will be interesting to know the names of the scientists who contributed to the report, and the research projects they have undertaken in the past along with the funding support.

Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh also gives the nation's top scientists a lesson in how to write a report:

“It doesn’t appear to be the product of rigorous scientific evaluation. There is not a single citation or reference in the report. So there is no way to know how the authors reached their conclusions. The report doesn’t even say who all were consulted in this exercise,” Ramesh said.

And, yes, we are witnessing that rare moment when a lot of people are going to agree with a minister-politician in his dispute with scientists over a serious policy issue in which science has a strong say.

This is a new low for India's science academies.

* * *

Links to news stories on this issue: The Telegraph, India Today [see also this from February 2010].

Monday, September 27, 2010

Medicine, Trials, Conflict of Interest, Disclosures

Just a bunch of links -- mostly from the US -- that paint give us a troubling picture of the state of ethics in biomedical fields:

  • Adriane J. Fugh-Berman in PLoS Medicine: The Haunting of Medical Journals: How Ghostwriting Sold “HRT”. Here are the summary points:

    • Some 1500 documents revealed in litigation provide unprecedented insights into how pharmaceutical companies promote drugs, including the use of vendors to produce ghostwritten manuscripts and place them into medical journals.

    • Dozens of ghostwritten reviews and commentaries published in medical journals and supplements were used to promote unproven benefits and downplay harms of menopausal hormone therapy (HT), and to cast raloxifene and other competing therapies in a negative light.

    • Specifically, the pharmaceutical company Wyeth used ghostwritten articles to mitigate the perceived risks of breast cancer associated with HT, to defend the unsupported cardiovascular “benefits” of HT, and to promote off-label, unproven uses of HT such as the prevention of dementia, Parkinson's disease, vision problems, and wrinkles.

    • Given the growing evidence that ghostwriting has been used to promote HT and other highly promoted drugs, the medical profession must take steps to ensure that prescribers renounce participation in ghostwriting, and to ensure that unscrupulous relationships between industry and academia are avoided rather than courted.

    See also a related NYTimes report -- Menopause, as Brought to You by Big Pharma by Natasha Singer and Duff Wilson -- from December 2009.

  • Duff Wilson reports in the NYTimes: Medical Industry Ties Often Undisclosed in Journals:

    Twenty-five out of 32 highly paid consultants to medical device companies in 2007, or their publishers, failed to reveal the financial connections in journal articles the following year, according to a [recent] study.

    The study compared major payments to consultants by orthopedic device companies with financial disclosures the consultants later made in medical journal articles, and found them lacking in public transparency.

    “We found a massive, dramatic system failure,” said David J. Rothman, a professor and president of the Institute on Medicine as a Profession at Columbia University, who wrote the study with two other Columbia researchers, Susan Chimonas and Zachary Frosch.

  • Carl Elliot in The Chronicle of Higher Educations: The Secret Lives of Big Pharma's 'Thought Leaders':

    ... Pharmaceutical companies hire KOL's [Key Opinion Leaders] to consult for them, to give lectures, to conduct clinical trials, and occasionally to make presentations on their behalf at regulatory meetings or hearings.

    The KOL is a combination of celebrity spokesperson, neighborhood gossip, and the popular kid in high school. KOL's do not exactly endorse drugs, at least not in ways that are too obvious, but their opinions can be used to market them—sometimes by word of mouth, but more often by quasi-academic activities, such as grand-rounds lectures, sponsored symposia, or articles in medical journals (which may be ghostwritten by hired medical writers). While pharmaceutical companies seek out high-status KOL's with impressive academic appointments, status is only one determinant of a KOL's influence. Just as important is the fact that a KOL is, at least in theory, independent. [...]

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Swarnajayanti and Bhatnagar

Via Giridhar (here and here), we have some great news about this year's Swarnajayanti Fellowships and Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prizes.

It's wonderful to find several friends in these lists. Hearty congratulations to:

  • N. Ravishankar (IISc), who has a Swarnajayanti in Engineering (he's also an alumnus of our Department).

  • G. Ananthasuresh (IISc), one of the Bhatnagar winners in Engineering.

  • Umesh Waghmare (JNCASR), one of the Bhatnagar winners in Physics.

In addition, the lists also feature a couple more researchers from Bangalore: Swapan Pati (JNCASR, Bhatnagar in Chemistry) and Kaushal Verma (IISc, Swarnajayanti in Mathematics).

Harvard Science Course Titles: Cool or Condescending?

  • Science of the Physical Universe 22: The Unity of Science: From the Big Bang to the Brontosaurus.

  • Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning 14: Fat Chance.

These are the examples used by Adrienne Lee, a history student at Harvard, to argue that [link via Christopher Shea at Brainiac]:

These ridiculously named classes are a manifestation of a general bias within the Core and General Education programs that all students who choose to concentrate in the humanities are both incapable of doing math and science and completely uninterested in those subjects.

Here's the contrast with titles of humanities courses:

Science and math concentrators often find humanities courses just as challenging or uninteresting, but at least they get treated like adults. “Western Ascendancy: The Mainsprings of Global Power from 1600 to the Present” sounds just as respectable and intellectually fulfilling as anything I could find in the history department. It isn’t called “The West: Why We’re Awesome” just to attract the attention non-history buffs.

* * *

I checked the General Ed course page at Harvard; here are a few more that fit this genre of course titles:

  • Science of the Physical Universe 27. Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science.

  • *Science of Living Systems 24. From Neurons to Nations: The Science of Early Childhood Development and the Foundations of a Successful Society.

  • Science of the Physical Universe 28 (formerly Science A-50). Invisible Worlds.

  • Science of the Physical Universe 20. What is Life? From Quarks to Consciousness.

I'm still trying to figure out which is worse: "Fat Chance" (filed under Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning) or "Evolutionary Biology: Sex, Survival, and the Orgy of Species" (under Science of Living Systems).

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Satish Dhawan

The Faculty Hall of our Institute was the venue of a nice little event this afternoon. The occasion was a celebration of the life and contributions of the late Prof. Satish Dhawan on what would have been his 90th birthday.

With his wife Mrs. Nalini Dhawan (and probably several other family members) in the audience, his colleagues Prof. Roddam Narasimha, Dr. Kasturi Rangan and Prof. M.G.K. Menon shared with us some of the most memorable moments from Dhawan's illustrious career. The event's highlight was reserved for the end, when we had some of the most heartwarming reminiscences from his daughter, Dr. Jyotsna Dhawan, on Dhawan's life as a son, husband, father, and uncle.

The overall portrait of Dhawan -- not just from the speeches we heard today, but also from conversations with some of the senior colleagues here -- is one of a people-oriented leader: warm, informal, democratic, socially conscious, and transformative.

[In the comments section, Prof. Ranganathan adds: "I was invited by him to join IISc in 1981- the year he retired. In the last week of July he went around to the office of every faculty mmber to thank them . I can even now remember his walking into my office."]

Here are some assorted links (and other pieces of info) on Dhawan:

  • Dhawan did a BA in mathematics and Physics, and an MA in English before getting a BE in Mechanical Engineering -- all from the Punjab University at Lahore. Before getting a PhD from Caltech in 1951, he would accumulate a couple more degrees -- MS (U Minnesota) and Aeronautical Engineer's degree (Caltech).

  • He joined IISc as a Senior Scientific Officer in 1951, rose to become the Head of the Department of Aeronautical Engineering in 1955. At 42, he became the Director of IISc, and led our Institute (with a sabbatical break during 1971-72) right until he retired in 1981. He was the only engineer among the Institute's directors! [Correction: There's one other engineer. Prof. M.S. Thacker, an electrical engineer, held this position during 1949-55. I thank Prof. Ranganathan for correcting me; see his comment]

  • In this Current Science obituary, Prof. Roddam Narasimha says:

    In a very real sense I think Dhawan established, at IISc and – by example – elsewhere in the country, a tradition of scientific research on engineering problems.

  • His tenure as the Director of IISc is credited [and I'm paraphrasing stuff I found in B.V. Subbarayappa's In Pursuit of Excellence -- A History of the Indian Institute of Science] with solidifying the modern way of promoting faculty members based on their records (and not on the availability of professorial positions), introduction of a divisional structure with a chairman each (similar to colleges and deans in the US).

    Also, it was Dhawan who brought to IISc such established scientists as Prof. G.N. Ramachandran, Prof. C.N.R. Rao and Prof. E.C. George Sudarshan -- each established a new centre / unit: molecular biophysics, solid state and structural chemistry and theoretical sciences, respectively.

  • In his autobiography Climbing the Limitless Ladder: A Life in Chemistry (IISc Press - World Scientific, 2010), Prof. C.N.R. Rao talks about Dhawan's role in getting him back to IISc. (He was at IISc during 1959-63, when Dhawan and he became friends; he moved to IIT-Kanpur in 1963). By 1976, he was keen to leave IIT-K, and was weighing several options including an offer from a US university. This is what he says:

    When I returned from the US, I ran into Satish Dhawan. He first asked me if I would come to IISc and head the IPC [Inorganic and Physical Chemistry] department or the chemistry division. I told him that I was not interested in either position and was actually not looking for a job. Satish then asked me, "Why must you leave India? What will it take to get you back to IISc?". Such enquiries are rarely made by senior administrators. [Emphasis added]

  • Here's another initiative, as described by Subbarayappa:

    Towards the end of 1968 there was a new move. On the initiative of Satish Dhawan, the Council decided to inject new blood into the Institute by recruiting bright Indian scientists and technologists working abroad. It authorized R. Choksi, Chairman of the Council and the Director to visit specially the USA, UK and Europe and interview suitable candidates for selection for various positions in the Institute. Early 1969, prospective candidates were interviewed by them with the help of experts abroad. The result was that a large number of Indian scientists and technologists joined the Institute at different levels in the seventies.

  • Here's an excerpt from the Frontline obituary by R. Ramachandran:

    After serving as IISc Director for nearly nine years, Dhawan went on a year's sabbatical to his alma mater, Caltech, during 1971-72. But one day his lecture was interrupted by a telephone call from the Indian embassy, which said that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wanted him to return to India and take charge of the Indian space programme following the death of Vikram Sarabhai, the founder of the Indian space programme, on December 30, 1971. [...]

    The following incident speaks of Dhawan's commitment to work and his integrity. Dhawan told the caller to tell the Prime Minister that he was on a sabbatical and, moreover, teaching a course and that he would be able to return only after finishing that. As regards assuming charge of the space programme, he said that he was answerable to the IISc Council and, therefore, cannot give any reply without its assent. Dhawan was seen as the right replacement for the space programme and so the Prime Minister, in her known wisdom with regard to matters concerning science administration, decided to wait for his return.

    On his return, Choksi and J.R.D. Tata, president of the institute's court, made it known to Dhawan that he was free to do what he felt like. But Dhawan himself did not wish to take leave of absence from the institute, let alone resign. Dhawan met the Prime Minister and agreed to head the space programme but on two conditions - that he be allowed to continue as the Director of the IISc and that the headquarters of the space programme be in Bangalore. Indira Gandhi agreed to both.

  • This episode from Dhawan's leadership at ISRO is now a legend [Manoranjan Das also cites this episode in his essay published last year]:

    The first experimental launch of SLV-3 took place on August 10, 1979, but it was a failure. Kalam was called by Dhawan to attend a press conference. "Before the press conference, Professor Dhawan told me that he was going to handle the situation and I should be present with many of the senior scientists and technologists," Kalam has said.

    At the press conference Dhawan announced "Friends, today we had our first satellite launch vehicle to put a satellite in the orbit, we could not succeed. It is our first mission of proving multiple technologies in satellite and satellite launch vehicles. In many technologies we have succeeded and a few more we have to succeed. Above all, I realise my team members have to be given all the technological support. I am going to do that and the next mission will succeed." [...]

    The next developmental flight, of SLV-3,on July 18, 1980, was a remarkable success. "An important thing happened then," recounts Kalam. "Professor Dhawan asked me to handle the press conference with our team members. Dhawan's management philosophy was that when success comes in after hard work, the leader should give the credit of the success to the team members. When failure comes, the leader should absorb the failures and protect the team members."

  • The final quote is from this Caltech obituary by Dhawan's PhD thesis advisor:

    [After Satish joined my research group] it soon became evident that we had acquired an outstanding new member. From his previous scholastic records, we expected excellence in scholarship and class work, but there was so much more. Satish was immediately accepted and respected by this highly competent and proud group of young scientists. He showed an unusual maturity in judging both scientific and human problems, a characteristic that today is called “leadership quality.” I usually hate using terms like this to pigeonhole a person, but here it fits. Satish could be tough without having to get mad first —- a trait that I envy. He was a natural mentor for younger people. Finally, he had a very good sense of humor, a quality that I think is necessary, but not sufficient, to keep one from becoming pompous in old age. I still remember our Ping-Pong games in the lab. When Satish won, he would crack: “See, I am a crafty Asiatic!”

Thursday, September 23, 2010

'Safar' this weekend at KH Kalasoudha, Bangalore

Safar, a "Smash Hit English Comedy Play," is written and directed by Vyasa Shastry, a grad student in our Department. He and his troupe -- Header and Footer Club, an IISc student organization [Disclosure: I am their faculty advisor] -- will be performing the play this weekend (see the poster, embiggable on clicking; see below for info on buying tickets).

I saw the play when Vyasa and his team 'premiered' it here at IISc several months ago. The story takes us into the life of a grad student at -- where else? -- IISc, and gives us more than a glimpse of the grad student life. While the subtext is a bit too grim to my liking, the story itself is told with a great deal of humour -- there are some truly raucous scenes that make me laugh out loud even now just thinking about them. The play is even more fun if you are up on Indian pop culture -- TV ads, movies, songs, "religious" mutts, sports. And Vyasa has found imaginative and funny ways to weave these bits into the story without overdoing it.

The production is impressive, with flawless execution of funky set pieces, slick use of multimedia, and consistently polished acting led by Vyasa himself in the hero's role. Watch out especially for DeepaK Paramasivan's over-the-top take in many, many roles!

If you are in Bangalore this weekend, do check out Safar.

* * *

Tickets priced at Rs. 100. Contact 9611948969, 9342835852 for tickets. For home delivery: 080-42064969,

Monday, September 20, 2010

Nicholas Lemann: "The Overblown Crisis in American Education"

He has an excellent review essay in the New Yorker. The main point, of course, is that (a) a fairly big part of the American education system -- at school and university levels -- works, and works well, and (b) it is important to identify specific problems to be solved through specific remedial actions -- big bang "reforms" could be lethal!

Let me just say that I find Lemann's thesis so appealing for its sheer reasonableness.

Here's an excerpt from the concluding section of he article [with bold emphasis added by me]:

There have been attempts in the past to make the [vast] system [with all its overlaps and competitive excess] more rational and less redundant, and to shrink the portion of it that undertakes scholarly research, but they have not met with much success, and not just because of bureaucratic resistance by the interested parties. Large-scale, decentralized democratic societies are not very adept at generating neat, rational solutions to messy situations. The story line on education, at this ill-tempered moment in American life, expresses what might be called the Noah’s Ark view of life: a vast territory looks so impossibly corrupted that it must be washed away, so that we can begin its activities anew, on finer, higher, firmer principles. One should treat any perception that something so large is so completely awry with suspicion, and consider that it might not be true—especially before acting on it.

We have a lot of recent experience with breaking apart large, old, unlovely systems in the confidence of gaining great benefits at low cost. We deregulated the banking system. We tried to remake Iraq. In education, we would do well to appreciate what our country has built, and to try to fix what is undeniably wrong without declaring the entire system to be broken. We have a moral obligation to be precise about what the problems in American education are—like subpar schools for poor and minority children—and to resist heroic ideas about what would solve them, if those ideas don’t demonstrably do that.

Funding university education

A bunch of British universities have mooted the idea of a graduate tax, where college graduates pay a slightly higher tax (on incomes over a certain threshold) for the rest of their working lives. [The idea is that their college education would either be free or cost very little].

This is a variant of the Australian model in which graduates pay a slightly higher tax (on their income exceeding a certain threshold) only to the extent of what they owe the government for the cost of their college education.

In his recent speech at IISc, HRD Minister Kapil Sibal talked about the creation of an Education Finance Corporation (or some such entity) that will guarantee bank loans for higher education; the idea, then, is that banks would feel far more comfortable lending to college students -- even without a collateral. The educational loan would come at a low interest rate -- Sibal mentioned the possibility of 4%.

I have been a fan of the Australian model, myself. (a) It has the virtue of making college education affordable for everyone -- especially the poor. Decisions about going to college would no longer involve the financial implications of the move (other than, perhaps, the opportunity cost of spending four years pursuing a degree). (b) The burden of repayment is light. (c) Repayments kick in only when incomes exceed a certain amount (which is pegged to the median salary). (d) Unlike an educational loan, this model doesn't penalize those who are forced to drop out of college. And (e) it has lots of flexibility in terms of inflation adjustment, quicker repayment schedule, etc.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Links ...

  1. Rahul Siddharthan at E's Flat, Ah's Flat Too: The Indus Argument Continues: An update on the exciting statistical evidence presented last year that "the Indus symbols constituted a writing system."

  2. Vivek Wadhwa in TechCrunch: Can Russia Build a Silicon Valley?

  3. James Fallows in The Atlantic Blogs: A Primer on Bigotry. We can thank Marty "Muslim Life is Cheap" Peretz for this primer.

  4. Sean Safford at Orgtheory: A Primer on 'Networking'.

T.T. Ram Mohan: "Let IIT Directors Retire at 65"

TTR has a good op-ed in Economic Times.

Retirement age is just one of the points in the op-ed; and it's not even the most important point -- restricting the tenure at the helm to just one term is. The reasons cited by TTR are quite compelling:

there is a weighty reason for not having a higher retirement age and a second or third term for directors: in the IIT system (and also in the IIM system), there is very little accountability of directors. Lack of accountability of the director is the principal governance issue in our elite institutions today, not any supposed lack of autonomy.

Over the years, the boards of these institutions have failed to put in place adequate norms for accountability of the director. In the past couple of years, the ministry of HRD has tried very hard to bring this issue to the fore, but we are yet to see any results.

The contrast with top institutions in the US ... [where] ... the deans are ... subject to a high degree of accountability. A failure to improve the faculty profile, the departure of faculty of stature, a fall in programme rankings, a decline in the quality of research —these and other failures could easily cost the dean his job. In India, it is possible for the director of an elite institution to sleep through his tenure without evoking any response from the system.

Thanks to Pradeepkumar for the alert. TTR himself has a couple of posts on this subject. In fact, his series of posts on IIM Directors is worth your time.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A clearer understanding of India's research performance needs both progress reports and snapshots

It's easy to get depressed after reading articles (such as the scientometric study I linked to yesterday) that provide a snapshot of the state of science (or, academia in general) in India. But snapshots do not tell us anything at all about the tremendous changes that we have been seeing and experiencing in India in the past decade or so.

To get a good sense of the direction and pace of these changes, what we need are studies that track India's progress over the last several decades.

Such progress reports that I know of -- even with their limited scope and depth [see here, here, here, here, and the links therein] -- give us no cause for pessimism.

In fact, the broad trend is quite encouraging: science in India is growing both broader and deeper. Compared to, say, a mere couple of decades ago, there are now many more centres of scientific research; most of these centres have a greater research intensity (for example, each of the original five IITs more than doubled its research publications during this past decade); and there are many more Indian scientists who are at or near the top in their respective fields.

And then there's research funding. We have a lot more of it now than even a decade ago.

Each one of these trends is a cause for cheer; put them all together, we should actually be celebrating -- without getting complacent!

[If you want to wallow in pessimism, all you need to do is to listen to some of our pundits who refuse to think beyond cliches: Nobel still eludes us! China is progressing faster! Our share in publications is just 3 percent! Nobel winners don't cite our scientists' papers!]

* * *

Not entirely unrelated, here's an excerpt from this NYTimes story whose alternate title might well be "Asia Ascending":

The Asia-Pacific region increased its global share of published science articles from 13 percent in the early 1980s to just over 30 percent in 2009, according to the Thomson Reuters National Science Indicators, an annual database that records the number of articles published in about 12,000 internationally recognized journals. Meanwhile, the proportion of articles from the United States dropped to 28 percent in 2009, down from 40 percent in the early 1980s.

China is leading the way, having increased its share of articles to 11 percent in 2009 from just 0.4 percent in the early 1980s. Japan is next, accounting for 6.7 percent, followed by India with 3.4 percent. While its overall percentage remains small, Singapore — with a population of just under five million — has increased its number of indexed articles from 200 in 1981 to 8,500 in 2009. [Bold emphasis added]

Just when this blog was about to go all highbrow ...

... with a link to this Woody Allen interview, the guy has to tell me highbrow is not how he runs:

Q. I half-expected to see you at that 12-hour performance of Dostoyevsky’s “Demons” that Lincoln Center Festival produced over the summer.

A. No, no, I’m a lowbrow. I read that material, more out of obligation than enjoyment. For enjoyment, for me, it’s a beer and the football game.

That apart, the interview has some very good sections. Here's Allen on aging:

Q. How do you feel about the aging process?

A. Well, I’m against it. [laughs] I think it has nothing to recommend it. You don’t gain any wisdom as the years go by. You fall apart, is what happens. People try and put a nice varnish on it, and say, well, you mellow. You come to understand life and accept things. But you’d trade all of that for being 35 again. I’ve experienced that thing where you wake up in the middle of the night and you start to think about your own mortality and envision it, and it gives you a little shiver. That’s what happens to Anthony Hopkins at the beginning of the movie, and from then on in, he did not want to hear from his more realistic wife, “Oh, you can’t keep doing that — you’re not young anymore.” Yes, she’s right, but nobody wants to hear that.

Top universities and their programs abroad

Yale is the latest American university to announce its plans to start a college abroad. This one is going to be in Singapore in partnership with the National University of Singapore. And it's going to be a liberal arts college.

All those are nice. But here's the kicker:

... [It] would be financed entirely by the [Singapore] government.

[Though Yale will lend its model to the program, it will not lend its name to the degree offered by the Yale-NUS College!]

The NYTimes story also makes a passing reference to the New York University's campus in Abu Dhabi. This campus, too, was "underwritten by the government there."

In contrast, a foreign university should deposit about $11 million if it wishes to establish a branch campus in India. So, any top university that might come here will do so through the partnership route -- a la Yale-NUS College -- rather than a stand-alone campus (a la NYU-Abu Dhabi).

On a related note, do read this generally negative report about overseas programs ("hollow shells") of universities. Here's an excerpt from the section about why universities might want to expand abroad:

But the main motivation for setting up branch campuses has been economic. "Branch campuses are largely tuition [rather than research] driven, and almost never operate without the expectation of revenue surpluses," [Jason] Lane [of the State University of New York in Albany] said ...

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Attracting Foreign Universities to India

In discussions about foreign universities' interest in India, politicians and pundits keep referring to Harvard, Yale, Princeton and MIT, even though those institutions have not said much about starting an Indian campus. We now have a NYTimes story -- Midlevel Universities Look Into India Branches -- by Vir Singh, which talks about real plans of some universities.

* * *

I'm sure you want to know the universities that are described as "midlevel," "Tier 2" and "still far superior to the average Indian education provider." They are: Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Schulich School of Business (Toronto), University of Wolverhampton (UK), and -- gulp! -- Carnegie Mellon!

* * *

Bottomline: Joint operations with existing Indian institutions are far more probable than stand-alone Indian campus.

In a recent talk at IISc, HRD Minister Kapil Sibal spoke about how the proposed legislation (which is yet to be passed by the Parliament) will protect Indian students from being exploited by unscrupulous foreign entities. [Sibal spoke about quite a few other things, see Giridhar's post]. Vir Singh's article touches on some of these 'safeguards':

... [T]he bill now before lawmakers prohibits repatriation of profits. Furthermore, those wanting to set up campuses must deposit more than $10.5 million with the government. The proposed law also requires that institutions have at least 20 years of teaching experience in their home countries. Officials will have the power to exempt applicants from some conditions, but not the one banning providers from taking profits out of India.

From the latest issue of Current Science: Scientometric Analysis of Indian Science

Scientometric analysis of some disciplines: Comparison of Indian institutions with other international institutions is the title of this fairly extensive study (pdf) by K.. P. Raghuraman, Romesh Chander and Giridhar Madras, who are all with the National Centre for Science Information at IISc. [Many of you may also know Giridhar Madras as the man behind the the blog Life in IISc.]

The paper appears in the latest issue of Current Science. Here's the abstract (with paragraph breaks introduced to enhance readability):

We have carried out a three-part study comparing the research performance of Indian institutions with that of other international institutions.

In the first part, the publication profiles of various Indian institutions were examined and ranked based on the h-index and p-index. We found that the institutions of national importance contributed the highest in terms of publications and citations per institution.

In the second part of the study, we looked at the publication profiles of various Indian institutions in the high-impact journals and compared these profiles against that of the top Asian and US universities. We found that the number of papers in these journals from India was miniscule compared to the US universities.

Recognizing that the publication profiles of various institutions depend on the field/departments, we studied [in Part III] the publication profiles of many science and engineering departments at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, the Indian Institutes of Technology, as well as top Indian universities. Because the number of faculty in each department varies widely, we have computed the publications and citations per faculty per year for each department. We have also compared this with other departments in various Asian and US universities. We found that the top Indian institution based on various parameters in various disciplines was IISc, but overall even the top Indian institutions do not compare favourably with the top US or Asian universities.

The comparison groups of institutions include MIT, UMinn, Purdue, PSU, MSU, OSU, Caltech, UCB, UTexas (all from the US), National University of Singapore, Tsing Hua Univerrsity (China), Seoul National University (South Korea), National Taiwan University (Taiwan), Kyushu University (Japan) and Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The authors have also compared the performance of top Indian Institutions with that of the universities in the comparison group in a bunch of fields: physics, chemistry, chemical, electrical, civil and mechanical engineering.

These two sentences in the abstract are worth repeating:

... [T]he number of papers in these [high impact] journals from India was miniscule compared to [that from] the US universities.

... [O]verall even the top Indian institutions do not compare favourably with the top US or Asian universities.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

IITs and the JEE

HRD Minister Kapil Sibal chaired yesterday's IIT Council meeting.

One of the issues for this September meeting of the august body was how to reconcile IITs' exceptionalist stand on entrance exams with MHRD's keenness on running just one nation-wide test, and on giving a fairly big weight to the students' performance in Board exams.

IITs are too fond of JEE to let go of it, and they insist on the use of Board exams and NAT as filters to get a hundred thousand students who will then be subjected to a JEE.

So, what happened in the meeting? The issue will be examined again by a committee headed by DST Secretary, Dr. T. Ramasami.

In a post-meeting interview, IIT-Roorkee director said this:

JEE is a good format and this is helping in filtering students well. Till a suitable system evolves, it cannot be done away with.

There's nothing objectionable about the second statement. But what about the first statement? Wasn't there a Committee of IIT Directors -- including the Director of IIT-Roorkee! -- whose mandate was to establish whether the JEE is indeed "a good format" and if "this is helping in filtering students well"?

Here, then, is the ringing endorsement from the Committee (this excerpt is from Section 6 of the Committee's draft report):

Analysis of JEEs and Suggestions for Change

An analysis of the performance of the relatively few students admitted to the IITs over the last decade in the IIT-JEE and subsequently in the IITs ( 2 tier JEE was conducted between 2000 and 2005 and a single objective-type examination has been conducted since 2006) leads the following broad and somewhat expected conclusions:

  • There is a strong correlation between the Standard X and Standard XII marks and CGPA including the final performance in IIT.

  • Both AIR and percentage marks at Standard XII are better correlated to the CGPA only upto the end of the first year.

  • There is poor correlation between AIR and the CGPA of GE and OBC candidates from 2nd year onwards.

  • Percentage of marks at XII level better explains group performance in later years.

  • Students with high AIR (less than 1000) have higher score at XII level while aberrations are more prominent at lower AIRs.

  • An analysis of the performance of students in the screening and main tests of IIT JEE between 2000 and 2005 showed a considerable overlap between the sets of top 5000 students although their ranks within the sets showed little correlation. Hence it would be expedient to settle for a completely objective single examination.


  1. In The Guardian: Titans of Science: David Attenborough meets Richard Dawkins: "We paired up Britain's most celebrated scientists to chat about the big issues: the unity of life, ethics, energy, Handel – and the joy of riding a snowmobile."

  2. In Financial Times: Martin Wolf hosts an online forum on What is the Role of the State?

  3. At Stumbling and Mumbling: The Pretense of Knowledge [Hat tip: Henry Farrell via Google Buzz]:

    The problem here is that it is impossible to predict what research will be commercially useful. History is full of examples of businessmen and scientists - let alone politicians - utterly failing to anticipate commercial uses, for example:

    “There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable”

    "The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value.”

    "Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax."

    "While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility."

    “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."

    “This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us."

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

HowTo: Attract high quality comments

The first step ... to higher quality comments is “be more niche.” Discourage your marginal readers with technical language, obscure references, and lengthy posts. Your marginal readers are not of high value anyway, and driving them away is an excellent way to improve the average comment of your inframarginal readers.

From this great blog post / essay by Eli Dourado. The essay itself is a nice example for the kind of things it recommends -- technical language ("inframarginal"), obscure references ("straightforward application of Ostrom 1990") and at a length that takes longer than a couple of minutes to read.

* * *

And here's something else that I learned from the post: Sturgeon's Law:

Ninety percent of everything is crud [or, crap].

* * *

Also, it was funny to read Dourado refer to the NYTimes comments threads as "sewer". I wonder what this wise blogger would say about the Rediff threads!

* * *

Sidebar: Previous post on dealing with trolls.

Finally, here's a cartoon about the psychology of trolls.

* * *

Hat tip to Henry Farrell for the Buzz.

* * *

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Ajit Rangnekar and Savita Mahajan on why the Punjab government is right to give 70 acres of land to the Indian School of Business

They are not quite disinterested parties here: Ajit Rangnekar and Savita Mahajan are Dean and Associate Dean, respectively, of the Indian School of Business (the latter is also the chief executive of ISB-Mohali). While they do highlight the benefits to the state of Punjab, let me excerpt the section where they justify ISB's need for 70 acres of urban land in Mohali:

Why do educational institutions need low-cost land? First, to clarify, ISB is not a commercial institution. It is a not-for-profit organisation for which all contributions made by donors, whether individuals or corporations, are philanthropic in nature. Any surplus is ploughed back into the institution and not a single rupee is distributed to any of the donors as a return on their “investment”. In that sense, ISB, like any other not-for-profit educational institution, is a “public purpose entity”. ISB has been provided 70 acres (not 100) of land on long lease (and not outright sale) by the Punjab government. The terms of the lease agreement prohibit ISB from financially benefiting in any way from the use of the land other than for educational and research purposes. In fact, in the best sense of a public-private collaboration, the government has also achieved its investment objective with the donors and ISB investing '250 crore for the development of the Mohali campus in Punjab in the next year or so.


That brings us to the last point about why today’s educational campuses cannot be too far from the city hub. Attracting high-quality faculty (and students) requires an existing ecosystem in reasonably close proximity to provide access to industry. Strong industry-academia interaction is critical for building a thriving academic institution. Similarly, high-quality essential services such as schooling for children and medical care have to be provided to attract the best talent. If a campus is too far away, the institution will have to provide these facilities, diverting scarce funds to services that are not core to the provision of high-quality education.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Stephen Colbert on For-Profit Colleges

He's so impressed that he announces the launch of Stephen Colbert "University"!


The Marc Hauser Saga: Some Commentary

Three links:

  1. Janet Stemwedel at Adventures in Science and Ethics: Punishment, redemption, and celebrity status: still more on the Hauser case: Should there be different standards -- when it comes to our perceptions about misconducting researchers -- for elites and the newbies?

    What should we make of the case where the superstar is caught cheating? How should we weigh the violation of trust against the positive contribution this researcher has made to the body of scientific knowledge? Can we continue to trust that his or her positive contribution to that body of knowledge was an actual contribution, or ought we to subject it to extra scrutiny on account of the cheating for which we have evidence? Are we forced to reexamine the extra credence we may have been granting the superstar’s research on account of that superstar status?

    And, in a field of endeavor that strives for objectivity, are we really OK with the suggestion that members of the tribe of science who achieve a certain status should be held to different rules than those by which everyone else in the tribe is expected to play?

  2. David Dobbs in Slate: A Rush to Moral Judgment - What went wrong with Marc Hauser's search for moral foundations. Dobbs blames it on Hauser's impatience -- aka the "Man In A Hurry" syndrome:

    The ironies lie thick. One rap on Chomsky, for instance, holds that he didn't much bother with experimental evidence; he simply said an innate grammar had to be there for kids to learn language so fast. It fell to others to poke around for those modules in the lab and produce some real data. People who study language, cognition, and evolution can and do argue over what those data mean. But at least they have something concrete to fight about. That's what makes it science.

    So give Hauser this: When it came to his theory of the moral grammar, at least the man wanted evidence. Problem was he wanted it bad. [Bold emphasis added]

  3. Chris Kelty at Savage Minds: Marc Hauser's Trolley Problem:

    ... One might think of this as Hauser’s trolley problem, a tool he’s fond of using himself in order to supposedly get at the basic biological modules or organs of morality. In this case, the person on the track, about to be flattened by a runaway trolley, is Hauser himself. One can imagine a number of scenarios: should one pull a lever to save Hauser? Should one push an unnamed (fat) graduate student or post-doc onto the track to save Hauser? Should one divert the trolley onto a track containing five other researchers who work on moral cognition, or leave it on the track towards Hauser to save those five? Should one derail the trolley and risk destroying a building (cognitive science at Harvard) that might contain sleeping researchers, etc. etc. etc.