Saturday, July 23, 2011

N.R. Narayana Murthy on the Ancient Glory of the IITs

First, you should all go read what Arunn said.

* * *

NRN's diatribe speech included this bit:

In 1967, at the electrical engineering department of IIT-Kanpur there were about 60 to 70 students registered for PhD. But today, at the same department if there are five PhD students joining in a year, that would be fantastic.

Arunn has posted some data on the number of PhD graduates from IIT-M in recent years -- which should dispel some quaint notions NRN seems to have about the IITs of the sixties. [Update: Giridhar has also posted some data on the state of CS research in China and the US, and, more importantly, the number of research students in the EE department at IIT-K].

Let me add some more data about IIT-K -- which is presumably the IIT of 1967 NRN was talking about. The following data, available for select years, are from Table 9.1 in E.C. Subbarao's An Eye for Excellence: Fifty Innovative Years of IIT Kanpur:

YearNo. PhD Degrees
1965 6
1972 39
1979 105
1986 44
1989 44
1996 50
1997 66
1998 35
2000 58
2001 31
2003 39
2004 45
2005 61
2006 42
2007 86
2008 101

Subbarao also states (p. 295) that "the faculty strength in 1972 was 272 and remained stagnant at 290 (plus or minus ten) till recently."

IIT-B director Devang Khakhar's response is worth highlighting:

“He might have impression of his own time (seventies) when actually IIT’s were not doing any research. We are doing very good research now. IIT-B is publishing more than 1,000 papers in international journals every year."


  1. L said...

    I saw the convocation of IITM recently. There were prizes for best theses in Chemistry, PhDs in Biotechnology. They gave their first set of MA s their degrees. They are no longer focused exclusively on the BTech as was the case in the 70's when even the science depts were neglected.
    There is a lot of collaborative research with industries-- many scholars funded by top student I met was funded by the IBM for his PhD. Can't be bad research if top industries are putting their money in it.
    In the 70's, IBM gave charity to IIXs...IISc got an IBM machine in 1978 or '79... it was one of their obsolete machines at that time. (I am not sure if it was a gift)the English(maybe govt of UK or Imperial college) gave an ICL machine to IITD at the same time... again their outdated model.
    Now IBM is collaborating with the IIX.
    All this was unheard of in the 70's and 80's.
    During that time, the IIX did not even realise that basic sciences and research in these existed in the institute. Every activity was for BTechs. I think they have now become more diversified and more open intellectually.

  2. sajith said...

    What did Arunn say? The link redirects to his IITM page.

  3. Pratik Ray said...
    This comment has been removed by the author.
  4. Vikram said...

    NRN might have his data wrong, but his basic thesis might be right. The data you have presented should be seen in the right context, it should be normalized by the total number of students with bachelor's degrees (the eligible pool). And once that is done, the trend actually looks quite alarming.

    @L, why does industry funded research seem to be the holy grail of Indian academia ? Just to give you one data point, 71% of MIT's research funding comes from the US federal government. At my university, the vast majority of research is funded by the NIH/DOE/DOD/NSF/NASA agencies of the government. Students supported by industry are quite rare.

  5. Kaustubh said...

    @vikram : I think that(=students supported by industry were rarer(=0?) earlier) is precisely the point L is trying to make. 'NIH/DOE/DOD/NSF/NASA' most of these agencies have mandate to fund university research, industries do so if they find it useful. Moreover, he compared the situation as existed in 70's to present situation IBM being present in both the scenarios but with different role.

  6. Ungrateful Alive said...

    Given how little the GoI understands research --- the lifestyle, quality indicators, potential impact --- I would be happy if almost 100% of IIX's budget is supported by industry. I don't see why the US model of research support has to apply to a different space and time. In fact, going farther, I like the research lifestyle personally but I see no reason why research as an enterprise has to be promoted and grown in the college or university system if the public at large does not want it. As for brilliant academics getting worked up about what Jairam Ramesh or Kapil Sibal or NRNM says, it's a loss to research, not to the sayers of the drivel.

  7. gautam barua said...

    Please do not throw the IITs onto the lap of industry. This kind of talk (NRN's article; see also Mohan Das Pai's article in TOI:, I feel, is to generate public opinion (and more importantly opinion in the Govt) against IITs so that corporate take over of IITs can happen. Yes, Govt. can create hurdles, may not understand about research, may be swayed by loose opinions like these, but we will at least have a chance to put forth our views. If corporates take over IITs, NRN's vision of "problem solving and relating theories to reality around them" will rule and the "reality" that we will have to relate to can be easily guessed. In the name of autonomy (see Abi's posts on the Kakodkar Committee report) is the plan to "grab" the IITs? We will fight all such take over attempts.

  8. Ungrateful Alive said...

    Why is industrial (and private foundation) sponsorship equated with "corporate takeover"? I want IIXs to stop depending on a monopoly funding agency precisely to improve autonomy. Working with (not for) a few thousand industrial partners will any day be more autonomous than dancing to one MHRD's tunes. But I understand this is very difficult. The truth is that very few departments and people in IIXs can dare to sustain themselves and their cash burn rates without sucking at the GoI's teats. The unfortunate difference between that same system via the NIH-NSF-ARDA-etc. complex and us is that in USA those governmental funding agencies can still claim with a straight face that university innovation helps the country, whereas very few if any of India's biggest problems are amenable to technological solutions. (When technology is proposed as solutions, they do not fit well, or are subverted. E.g. Adhaar-alias-UID. Oops. Even that project does not have a unique ID.) So IIX academics should be honest and just come out saying they are as entitled to socially irresponsible technical fun as their firang counterparts, but agree to finance that fun lifestyle on their own.

  9. Abi said...

    @Vikram: You said, "The data you have presented should be seen in the right context, it should be normalized by the total number of students with bachelor's degrees (the eligible pool). And once that is done, the trend actually looks quite alarming."

    I disagree. By any objective measure, the IITs are doing much better in research now than they did 40 years ago. This has nothing to do with the available pool -- and everything to do with (a) society's -- er, government's -- expectations and demands, (b) funding levels, and (c) incentives.

    One may quibble with the pace of this positive change; but one cannot deny that this change is real.

    What NRN has done is to not just deny this positive change, but to somehow claim that the change has actually been negative. He is totally wrong -- Epic Fail! -- on this claim.

    In the process, he ends up bestowing a golden-ness to the IITs' Vedic Era -- aka the 1960s; maybe it's NRN's inner Flower Child who spoke in Gandhinagar that day!

    I think you also misinterpreted L's comment, which used the evolution of IITs relationship with private industry essentially to illustrate the IITs' growing stature in research.

    @Sajith: Yes, there was a glitch at Arunn's site at that time, redirecting you to his IIT-M page. His site is working fine now.

  10. L said...

    Kstbh has said what I wanted to say to Vikram.
    Research may be of immediate application as often is in engg. or may be more fundamental in nature. Industries will finance only those that will pay back in near/medium term. They will not fund fundamental research. So the ideal situation would be a mix of the two.... the industries funding research useful to their businesses and govt agencies funding more basic research and socially important projects. Why look down upon industry-funded research?

  11. gautam barua said...

    I reacted the way I did because Webminer said "I would be happy if almost 100% of IIX's budget is supported by industry". This is not the same thing as Industrial sponsorship. Of course we would like to see more funding from industry. Funding has no colour, so whether it is from industry or from Govt., why should it matter to a researcher? Another reason I brought up this issue of "corporate takeover" is not as a reaction to Webminer, but because I feel there is a deeper scheme of things going on lately ( I made reference to two instances; there are more) which points to some form of "corporate takeover" using "autonomy" as a tool. There are people in Govt. who believe in this and that is why we need to have a debate on this. Things may start happening before we realise what is going on. IIMs are very different from IITs, and the autonomy issue at IIMs (also opposed by many in the IIMs) is quite different from that of IITs. I fear the IIM case may be used to push through "autonomy" for IITs.

  12. Ungrateful Alive said...

    Gautam, there is no doubt that considerable mischief and naughtiness have been afoot regarding IITs (and to a smaller extent IISc) for at least the last two, possibly three ministries. As in, "they could not have damaged IIT's interests more effectively if they were actively out to screw us!" But as long as MHRD pays the vast majority of IITs' bills, IITs have no way to protect themselves.

  13. Ankur Kulkarni said...

    In engineering I really don't see much difference in the kind of research done in the US universities through projects funded by industry or by NIH/DOE/DOD/NSF/NASA etc. A significant portion of the research is, regardless of funding source, like a glorified consultancy project with minor or no advancement of state of knowledge in the field.

  14. Anonymous said...

    Aren't you happy that NRN shares your antipathy towards the JEE?

  15. ani said...

    Although the blog is about some comment by NRN, it is digressed to funding in several places. Being from the Industry, I have a different take on sponsored projects.

    When we compare the universities in US of Europe with IISc, on the metrics of funding, there is a diference in the way funding is routed there!

    In Canada, US and many parts of Europe, the govt offers different kinds of grants to the universities to conduct research in specified areas. And sometimes, companies have an incentive in setting up a collaboration with the universities there. If a company sponsors a Phd student, the govt puts in twice the money.

    This model is very different from the one in India, where the student is anyway paid by the govt, and the money the companies pay goes as a consultancy to the corresponding dept (divided among the dept, lab infrastructure, and a small part to the professor, and top up of stipend for the student.).

    Sometimes, comparing the funding situations, multinational companies seem to prefer collaborating with the European universities on account of the govt funding their projects will receive!