Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Two Responses to Prime Minister Singh

First, from my friend, Arati Chokshi:

In any democracy, the voice of opposition or dissent – if heard and responded to seriously, strengthens the democratic process and yields solutions that are more representative of people’s needs and concerns. Yet, you have dismissed all opposition to your individual vision for the nation as effectively ‘non-thinking’.


I ask that you do not resort to potentially slanderous, repressive tactics to gag discussions on nuclear or any other ‘development’ issues using any un-mandated powers of your office, but instead adopt a consultative approach with people of India, to resolve their issues and concerns. While this process may be slow, we must remember that we are not China, as you pointed out in the interview to Science.

The second is from Pratap Bhanu Mehta in an Indian Express op-ed: Do Not Disagree.

... Second, the rhetoric, that the world outside, particularly of NGOs, is a conspiracy to hold India back, is second nature to paranoid regimes. The Chinese construct dissent as motivated. Indira Gandhi revelled in it. But in her case, in the backdrop of Allende, global geopolitics, the CIA and the KGB, there was a touch of plausibility. Now these arguments have so much a touch of farce to them. But they are pretexts to increase state control. Third, think of the pattern with this government. Like the Chinese, we have used the power of granting research visas to regulate research. Our visa regime for scholars is a shame for a liberal democracy. So great is our paranoia that in the small print of even PIO cards, you will see a prohibition on doing research. Like the Chinese, films showing India’s human rights record in an unflattering light are hard to release. Censorship, through formal and informal pressures, is legion. [...]

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Invokes the Foreign Hand

Prime Minister Singh plays the patriotism card. Here's the irony of ironies: The New York Times -- a "foreign hand", and an American one at that! -- is mocking the Indian government using the fact that his "foreign hand" insinuation against his government's opponents is behind the paywalls of another "foreign hand" -- the American Association of Advancement of Science which publishes Science.

Here's the part where Singh insinuates that his opponents are puppets following the orders of foreign powers:

Q: Why did your government put a moratorium on the release of Bt brinjal?

M.S.: Biotechnology has enormous potential, and in due course of time we must make use of genetic engineering technologies to increase the productivity of our agriculture. But there are controversies. There are NGOs, often funded from the United States and the Scandinavian countries, which are not fully appreciative of the development challenges that our country faces. But we are a democracy, we are not like China. [Bold-italic emphasis added]

You know, for example, what's happening in Kudankulam [in southern India, where local NGO-led protests have stalled commissioning of two 1000-megawatt nuclear reactors]. The atomic energy program has got into difficulties because these NGOs, mostly I think based in the United States, don't appreciate the need for our country to increase the energy supply.

Q: After the Fukushima disaster in Japan, do you still think that nuclear energy has a role in India?

M.S.: Yes, where India is concerned, yes. The thinking segment of our population certainly is supportive of nuclear energy.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Things I learned this past week

  1. How "India is well-placed to push ahead with its bid to become a scientific powerhouse" [click the link at the bottom to read Richard Stone's story in Science for free]. Highlights the work of quite a few colleagues at IISc!

  2. How "a single factor goes a long way in explaining the dearth of women in math-intensive fields" by Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci [American Scientist].

  3. Just four of the past 50 Oscar best-picture winners are about women -- a video commentary by Anita Sarkeesian at Feminist Frequency.

  4. Why Journalists Need to Link by Felix Salmon.

  5. That "the practice [of Yoga] can fan sexual flames! Choice quote: "Pelvic regions can feel more sensitive and orgasms more intense."

Bell Labs

Among the American private sector industrial R&D labs (such as those at GE, Ford, IBM, Xeros, ...), Bell Labs has a such a special status that one finds an article appearing every once in a while telling us what a great place it was, and trying to extract some management wisdom about what made it so great. Here's the latest, from Jon Gertner.

Gertner appears to trace the decline of the Bell Labs to the US industry's decision to move their factories to other parts of the globe:

... Bell Labs was sometimes caricatured as an ivory tower. But it is more aptly described as an ivory tower with a factory downstairs. It was clear to the researchers and engineers there that the ultimate aim of their organization was to transform new knowledge into new things.

Steven Chu, secretary of the Department of Energy, won a Nobel Prize in 1997 for his work at Bell Labs in the early 1980s. He once said that working in an environment of applied science like Bell Labs “doesn’t destroy a kernel of genius, it focuses the mind.” At Bell Labs, even for researchers in pursuit of pure scientific understanding, it was obvious that their work could be used.

... Bell Labs’ satellite facilities [were set up] in the phone company’s manufacturing plants, so as to help transfer all these new ideas into things. But the exchange was supposed to go both ways, with the engineers learning from the plant workers, too. As manufacturing has increasingly moved out of the United States in the past half century, it has likewise taken with it a whole ecosystem of industrial knowledge. But in the past, this knowledge tended to push Bell Labs toward new innovations.

Saturday, February 25, 2012


Here's an episode in Prof. Satish Dhawan's years as ISRO chief:

The early days saw many failures. Through all those difficult times, Dhawan never lost faith in ISRO’s capabilities. He took personal responsibility for failure but when success came, he always attributed it to ISRO and his colleagues. Thus, when the first flight of SLV-3 in 1979 failed, Dhawan faced the press. When the second flight succeeded, Dhawan kept himself in the background while Kalam spoke to the press.

That note is from P.V. Manoranjan Rao's tribute to Dhawan on the latter's 89th birth anniversary. This memorable anecdote came up in a couple of conversations yesterday, and it felt good to be reminded of it again.

A longer version appears in R. Ramachandran's obituary in Frontline.

Abdul Kalam has recounted his experiences when he was the project director for the launch of India's first launch vehicle SLV-3. 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."

Friday, February 24, 2012

Cartoon Links

  1. Calvin and Hobbes on Academic Writing [via Chris Blattman]

  2. Abstruse Goose: GMail.

  3. PHD Comics: The Mountain Top


Just. Wucking. Fow!

The links are to two anonymous comments on a post by Rahul, who alerted me in this comment.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Prof. Rao responds to the plagiarism row

And the first response is not encouraging. It starts with this howler:

"This should not be really considered as plagiarism, but an instance of copying of a few sentences in the text," Rao, Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister, said.

And it ends with him disowning his co-authors:

He said the paper was written by Prof Krupanidhi and he did not go through it and had no control on the issue. "I did not directly produce the manuscript which I normally do... The paper seemed perfectly alright except that later we found that in the introduction and in the description of an equation, a few sentences had been taken from a paper published already," he added.

Does this make you too wonder who's getting damaged more by this confession?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Jalote and Balakrishnan think Indian faculty members have it easy!

Pankaj Jalote (Director of IIIT-Delhi) and M. Balakrishnan (Deputy Director, IIT-Delhi) have an op-ed in yesterday's Economic Times: Government’s attitude towards research funding must change for our researchers to compete globally.

Specifically, they talk about (a) allowing faculty members to make a bit of money from their grants and (b) allowing foreign travel. They also talk about incentives for institutions with a liberal overheads regime.

Unexceptionable these ideas may be, but I found the premise of the op-ed, um, strange: our faculty members don't exhibit the kind of mad, aggressive drive -- like the professors in the US do! -- to go after the grants. They need to be incentivised!

... there are too many constraints on research grants here and not enough incentives. As a result, whereas in a country like the US, professors spend a lot of effort getting grants, in India, neither the universities nor faculty members are so driven. And this lack of a strong desire to go after research grants makes research funding a government's most powerful tool for directing research, a rather toothless tiger.

This seems to mis-state the case. In the US, the funding environment is so brutal only because the university research system has grown far too big compared to the available kitty. Whereas in India, we seem to enjoy a rather benign funding environment. If anything, this is a great advertisement that our institutions should use to attract all those harried Indian researchers all over the world!

I would think this is a part of the spiel our academic leaders use at meetings like YIM-Boston and YRM-Stanford.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Rao Row

John Cage once said, "I have nothing to say, and I'm saying it." Well, I have very little to say about this issue (and much of it is derivative, anyway):

  1. First, what Rahul said.

  2. The apology issued by Prof. C.N.R. Rao (and his co-authors) is a newsworthy event only because of who he is. Otherwise, there's absolutely no news here.

  3. G. Mudur's a report in today's Telegraph is about the most measured and least sensationalist you'll find [Disclosure: I am one of the people quoted in it; so is Rahul]. Here's a key section from his report:

    A PhD student at the IISc who is among the paper’s four co-authors had copied the four sentences without realising it was wrong to do so, Krupanidhi told The Telegraph. “It was an oversight, but it should not have happened,” he said.

    “We apologised to the original paper’s authors and offered to withdraw our paper from the journal when we learnt that this had happened. But the journal’s editors decided to retain the paper as the transgression was minor,” Krupanidhi said.

  4. Prof. Rohini Muthuswami (School of Life Sciences, JNU) gave a very nice talk at the Workshop on Academic Ethics held last July in the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. Her talk was about why students resort to plagiarism in their written work. As I recall, she dealt with two causes at length:

    • Lack of awareness: Many students don't even know what all the fuss is about. They are conditioned by their prior experiences: at school and college, they were rewarded for answers that are verbatim reproduction of material in text books. Similarly, they were encouraged to find data, text, pictures from various sources and pass them off as their own [anyone who has seen students demonstrating some experiment or the other at a science fair would know what I'm talking about].

      When they get to grad school, they have a lot of unlearning to do; to their credit, most of them (especially those in research-active groups) go through this process without too much of a hitch, and manage to learn -- by themselves, through osmosis from their peers, or through a formal training program -- the key ethical principles that rule the scientific enterprise.

    • Lack of language skills: Many students have done their schooling (and in a few cases, their college, too) in their own language, and simply lack the required level of writing skills in English. While a lot of emphasis is given in grad school on oral communication (talks at group meetings, for example), explicit training in writing is not formalized. Prof. Muthuswami suggested remedial English classes (where necessary), and lots of writing assignments in courses to help them develop confidence in their own ability to express themselves in written English.

    I do not want to sound all sour about the students here. As I said, most students in research-active groups do manage the transition rather well. The real trick is in figuring out how to go from "most students" to "all students".

* * *

Update: Added links to the Workshop on Academic Ethics and to the abstract of Prof. Muthuswami's talk.

UPdate 2: For the record, here are the reporters who have written their stories after talking to real persons with real names: Aishhwariya Subramanian (DNA), Kalyan Ray (Deccan Herald), Divya Gandhi (The Hindu), and of course, G. Mudur (The Telegraph)

Monday, February 20, 2012

Notes from the Neighbourhood: The State of Higher Ed in Pakistan

Blunt words from Pervez Hoodbhoy:

Pakistan’s university teachers and researchers have roughly the same ethical standards as its politicians, generals, judges, and shopkeepers. Hiding in the shadows is even easier because it is hard for non-academics to tell the difference between trivial and significant works. So once the PCST and HEC announced cash awards and other perks, almost overnight a research-poor country started producing a bumper crop of “research articles” year after year. The HEC claimed victory but many papers were tired repetitions, contained fake data, were plagiarised, or published in fly-by-night journals. Dr Isa Daudpota, an intrepid academic trouble-shooter has, over the years, documented the academic sleaze. Such stark evidence has, unfortunately, had scant effect upon the HEC.

Fabio Rojas: Is Academia Meritocratic?

Over at, he looks at the evidence -- a couple of bullet points each -- for and against prevalence of meritocracy in academia really is (and the post has attracted some fantastic comments). Here's the evidence against:

There is evidence of un-meritocratic components of the academic labor market:

  • In many studies, there is a correlation of labor market outcomes and gender, even when controlling for # of articles and other relevant performance measures. It may be the case that there is outright prejudice. It may also be the case that gender is correlated with other behaviors that are judged differently by the labor market. Erin Leahey has a series of papers, for example, arguing that gender is correlated with specialization in research, which is correlated with labor market outcomes. Meritocratic? It’s up for debate.

  • Studies like Burris (2004) that show that elite programs dominate the market and people are often judged by status of the PhD program, even when there is evidence of publication.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Trial of Italian Earthquake Scientists

Following the indictment in June 2010, six Italian seismologists (and a couple of bureaucrats) are being tried on charges of manslaughter. Nature has a report on a recent hearing in an Italian court: New twists in Italian seismology trial.

The hearing also included some true scientific debate when Lalliana Mualchin, former chief seismologist for the Department of Transportation in California, testified as an expert witness for the prosecution. In 2010, when news about the indictment broke, Mualchin was among the few experts who openly criticized — and refused to sign — a letter supporting the indicted seismologists signed by about 5,000 international scientists.


The problem is in part a scientific one, Mualchin said. The Italian scientists based their analysis on the frequency of earthquakes in the area. This is known as the probabilistic seismic-hazard analysis (PSHA), a method that is state of the art in many countries, but that, in Mualchin’s view, systematically underestimates seismic hazard because it does not consider extreme and rare events.

“Frequency is not important, what really matters is the largest earthquake we can expect, the strongest one that has happened in the past. Risk prevention should be based on that,” he said. This is the philosophy behind deterministic seismic-hazard analysis, a method that Mualchin says has been mostly abandoned by the scientific community, to the point that younger seismologists do not even learn about it.

PageRank Algorithm Applied to Cricket Matches

A paper from Satyam Mukherjee of Northwestern University implements this algorithm on cricket matches to arrive at a new scheme for ranking countries and captains [Thanks to Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao for the link].

Quick summary: Australia rulz. [D'uh!]

What is more interesting (I have only skimmed the results) is the separate, decade-wise ranking. India's best record is for the 2000s (second in tests, and third in ODIs). It was also #2 in the 1970s for test matches; the following remarks give a flavour of what PageRank algorithm does:

Even though the early 1960s were poor periods for England, during the late 60’s England defeated stronger opponents like West Indies and Australia. Hence judging by the quality of wins, according to PageRank during 1961 − 1970 England was the most successful team. A similar effect is also observed during the 1971−1980 era, where India occupies the second position according to PageRank. During the same period India defeated stronger opponents like West Indies and England. [Bold emphasis added].

Assault on Academic Autonomy at AIIMS

G. Mudur in has the scoop in The Telegraph:

The All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) has decided to promote 39 of its faculty members after recommendations by politicians although they had been declared unfit for promotion by the institute’s standing selection committee.

This assault had bipartisan support:

.... [In] the governing body meeting on January 16, ... BJP leader Sushma Swaraj, a member of the governing body, initiated a discussion for a “solution for these unfit 39 faculty” members who have served AIIMS for a considerable period. [...]

... [G]overning body chairperson Ghulam Nabi Azad, who is the Union health minister, and members Moti Lal Vora, and the director general of health services supported Swaraj and the governing body decided to “in principle” promote all 39 faculty to their respective higher grades. [Bold emphasis added]

Saturday, February 18, 2012


I have no idea how great this Jeremy Lin guy is at basketball, but he has given us some good stuff -- like this one from Jon Stewart's Daily Show.

Watch it here or at the source:

Friday, February 17, 2012

MIT President Susan Hockfield to Step Down

The MIT News story that broke the news also has an extensive section on all the new initiatives and achievements of the Hockfield presidency.

A part of MIT history

Hockfield came to MIT from the outside. After serving on the scientific staff at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, Hockfield joined the faculty of Yale University in 1985, where she focused her research on the development of the brain, and in particular on glioma (brain cancer); she pioneered the use of monoclonal antibody technology in brain research. After gaining tenure at Yale in 1991, Hockfield emerged as an effective administrator, serving first as the dean of Yale’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and then as provost, Yale’s chief academic and administrative officer.

Hockfield’s appointment as MIT’s 16th president represented two historic moments in one: Hockfield was both the first woman to be named MIT’s president and the first life scientist. ...

Bloomberg notes:

Hockfield is among a small number of women to lead elite research universities, including Drew Faust at Harvard University, Shirley Tilghman at Princeton University, Ruth Simmons at Brown University and Amy Gutmann at the University of Pennsylvania, all members of the Ivy League in the northeastern U.S. Simmons announced last year she would step down this year.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Academic Subcultures: Economics

Noah Smith has a great post on how the Economics Job Market works in the US. Since this Market includes faculty positions, this part came as a surprise -- and I'm sure it would cause deep envy among those who can't hope to even apply for faculty jobs before 3-6 years of post doc experience):

What do you need in order to go on the Job Market?

You need a Job Market Paper, or "JMP." This is a piece of original research, usually the first chapter of your dissertation.

That's it! Really! That's all you need! In the words of the great professor Yusufcan Masatlioglu, "All you need is that one damn paper."

At your AEA Meeting interviews, you will mainly discuss your JMP. At your flyout, you will present this paper. You don't need to have published this paper; in fact, you don't need a single academic publication (most people save publishable papers for when they are already working as assistant profs, where the papers will count towards tenure). "All you need is that one damn paper."

Prof. Roald Hoffmann on Chemists' Angst over "their" Nobel Prize

In his excellent editorial in Angewandte Chemie -- What, Another Nobel Prize in Chemistry to a Nonchemist? -- Prof. Hoffmann, a Chemistry Nobel winner (1981) (whose website showcases his wide interests, offers several arguments to pacify "pure" chemists whose reaction to the 2011 Chemistry Nobel (which went to Prof. Dan Shechtman, a materials scientist) had a "an angry, resigned note to it: 'Once again, not a real chemist …'."

[Go ahead, click through to the editorial -- it's free!]

To someone like me who's outside the field, the arguments look eminently sensible. But the pure chemists who became grumpy about all those Nobels that got away? I suspect that they are not going to be convinced.

Here's an argument that points the finger at chemistry's forefathers:

The Nobel Committee has in its wisdom decided that biochemistry and molecular biology are chemistry. A significant part of our community has (in my opinion unwisely) disagreed with this. I would place the blame elsewhere —- for reasons buried in history and personalities, about a hundred years ago we allowed the biological to get away from chemistry, so to speak. That was a mistake, with molecular biology and the chemical turn in biology around the corner (well, 50 years after we lost biochemistry). Perhaps the situation is being repaired, in part, as evidenced by the renaming of some departments in the US as one or another variant of chemistry and chemical biology.

It would be really interesting to learn a bit more about "the reasons buried in history and personalities about a hundred years ago" that let "the biological ... get away from chemistry." Any pointers?

* * *

Hat tip to: Gautam Menon (via e-mail), Ashutosh Jogalekar and Ross McKenzie.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Iconic Problem of Ponytail Shape ...

... has been solved. Here's the abstract of the paper in Physical Review Letters entitled Shape of a Ponytail and the Statistical Physics of Hair Fiber Bundles:

A general continuum theory for the distribution of hairs in a bundle is developed, treating individual fibers as elastic filaments with random intrinsic curvatures. Applying this formalism to the iconic problem of the ponytail, the combined effects of bending elasticity, gravity, and orientational disorder are recast as a differential equation for the envelope of the bundle, in which the compressibility enters through an “equation of state.” From this, we identify the balance of forces in various regions of the ponytail, extract a remarkably simple equation of state from laboratory measurements of human ponytails, and relate the pressure to the measured random curvatures of individual hairs.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Prof. V.G. Idichandy on JEE

The Fifth Estate, the "official magazine" of IIT-M, has a wide ranging interview of Prof. V.G. Idichandy [Part 1, Part 2]. First a brief intro:

In a career spanning more than 40 years at IIT Madras, Prof. Chandy has held numerous positions in the campus administration – Dean of Students, Deputy Director, Chairman – JEE and many more. He has played an instrumental role in setting up many of the institution’s current systems and is widely known for his camaraderie with students of the institute. He retired from the role of Deputy Director in October, 2011."

The second part has a section devoted to his views on JEE:

On the JEE System

During his association with JEE, he made a general observation that a diligent student with good marks in the 10th and 12th did well after coming in to the IITs but that there was no correlation between performance in JEE and performance at IIT. [See this Indian Express report from 2005 on Prof. Idichandy's study. To the best of my knowledge, it's not (yet) in the public domain.]

It’s a 12th std boy who’s writing the exam, what’s the point in asking him to solve M.Sc. level questions? This way we were purposefully driving them towards coaching institutes.

As the way forward, a suggestion was made that every board should select their top students; that is to say, those who scored more than mean plus two times the standard deviation, and ask them to write the exam.

We also suggested collapsing the two-part examination into a single objective paper that tested your analytical skills and comprehension.

The latter proposal was accepted, but the former was not, because the minister of the time remarked that the cutoff being based on statistical quantities was not something most people could understand. Instead, it was decided to insist on a first class. So only 60% and above were able to write the test. Prof. Idichandy was still not convinced.

We weren’t very happy about that, because the purpose wasn’t served.We had also decided to curtail the number of JEE attempts to two. There were people who stayed in coaching institutes for years together, till they succeeded; at that time there were people who were admitted to an undergraduate programme here even at the age of 28. Such was the attraction towards getting into IITs!

Views on Branches being allotted based on AIR JEE Rank

Another proposal was that branches should not be allocated on the basis of JEE rank. As he put it in his own words:

I’ve been fighting for this for a long time, I have not succeeded so far.

His explanation for the same was such: once you get into IIT after several years of rigorous exercise, you’d most likely be spent and exhausted; you’d want to relax and enjoy your first year. As a result, 30% of students fail in Physics, Chemistry and Math – these are all students who have cleared JEE. So the idea was to not allot a branch on entry, but to give them time to prove themselves or earn a branch.

Admission into a particular branch need not only depend on an All India Rank.

Instead, he suggests, one could study basic engineering, understand what each branch has to offer, and then make a well thought out decision – maybe at the end of second or third semester; until then, they would all have common courses. This way they are also away from the pressures of parents as well as those of society, a society that believes only people in Computer Science and Engineering would survive. Aptitude for a branch is never taken into account at all.

The senates of every IIT had deliberated on this before, and it was almost decided upon a few years back, but then two IITs objected, and there was no consensus. This year, once again, it has come up as an agenda item, and will be discussed again.

He backed up the idea of a branch of study called General Engineering, which wouldn’t specialise in a particular discipline.

Why should every student who get into IIT go through the rigours of high funda mathematics which are required for design and analysis? Many students would be happy to choose such a stream – why should you do a specialised degree in Aeronautical Engineering if you’re intending to do an MBA afterwards?

A student undergoing this degree could choose to specialise in a suitable branch at masters level.

Unified entrance examination:

The pool of students writing AIEEE and JEE are almost the same; at least for the first five lakhs. He further questions the need for two separate entrance exams. A more important change that has come about is the adequate weightage given to 12th standard performance. The fact that a 90% in different boards may mean different things is being compensated for by calculating percentile instead of using the absolute marking – a lot of analysis is being done in this regard.

2013 students have been given sufficient notice regarding 12th standard marks weightage”, he concludes.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Recruitment Drive for Mathematics / Statistics / Computer Science

A Young Researchers Meet will be held in Stanford during 26-27 May 2012; it appears to be following the apparently successful model of YIM Boston, which has already seen three editions.

From the website of YRM-Stanford:

A large number of new Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs), IITs and Central Universities have been started recently in India. All these institutions and existing academic institutions have a fairly large requirement of outstanding faculty members in mathematics and computer science. In view of this, it is proposed to organize a Young Researchers Meet at Stanford University, California, USA on May 26 and 27, 2012. The primary goal of this meeting is to inform junior faculty, post-docs and senior graduate students in the US about academic opportunities available in India and motivate them to return to India. A delegation from India representing a wide cross-section of institutes/universities will make presentations on various aspects of an academic career in India.

This meeting is funded by the Department of Science and Technology, India and the Indo-US Science and Technology Forum.

All interested persons are requested to send a mail to including their CV and a one-page research statement (in PDF format) on or before March 15, 2012. If you need travel support to attend this meeting, please indicate this in your cover letter. Based on the applications received, a maximum of 40 participants in the areas of mathematics and computer science will be selected for participation. Selected participants would be given an opportunity to make brief 5-10 minute presentations on their research work so that a dialogue can be initiated between the participants and the academic institutions in India.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Superior Autobiographical Memory

Amazing people who remember pretty much everything in their lives. Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes has put together a remarkable episode [Thanks to Namit Arora for the pointer]:

Direct links: Part 1 and Part 2.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Annals of Gaming (the System)

Stephen Budiansky describes a scheme once used by the Case Law School to get ahead in the US News ranking that is way too awesome: Three birds in one stone! [Hat tip: Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber]

Their other tactic was pure genius: the law school hired as adjunct professors local alumni who already had lucrative careers (thereby increasing the faculty-student ratio, a key U.S. News statistic used in determining ranking), paid them exorbitant salaries they did not need (thereby increasing average faculty salary, another U.S. News data point), then made it understood that since they did not really need all that money they were expected to donate it all back to the school (thereby increasing the alumni giving rate, another U.S. News data point): three birds with one stone!

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

"Fraud in a Glass of Wine"

Ashutosh Jogalekar has an excellent post -- Fraud in a Glass of Wine: The Dipak Das Case -- on research misconduct by the UConn researcher Dipak Das.

Das has been at the university since 1984 and got tenure in 1993, so it’s curious why he decided to fabricate results in the last decade or so. I am quite ready to believe that his work on the complex effects of resveratrol on disease may have run into roadblocks, prompting him to start making up results that he wanted to see but which he didn’t. Most research these days and especially biomedical research is a complex game. In some ways we are trying to bite off more than we can chew. In such cases wishful thinking can dominate, and when expected results don’t pan out because of the complexity of the system under consideration, it becomes easier to succumb to desperation and temptation. The resveratrol story may fit into this paradigm, with initial reports suggesting a tantalizingly simple connection between the drugs and aging and more recent reports questioning this connection. Yet again, nature is not just more complex than we imagine, but it is more complex than we can imagine.

Scientist-Administrators in Legal Trouble

Three different cases. Three different reasons. All from the US. Only one is about research misconduct and its aftermath; the other two are financial disputes..

  1. Judy Mikovits:

    ... Dr. Mikovits left her position as research director at the institute in a dispute over management practices and control over research materials. The institute sued her, accusing her of stealing notebooks and other proprietary items. Dr. Mikovits was arrested in Southern California, where she lives, and jailed for several days, charged with being a fugitive from justice.

    After her split with the institute, Dr. Mikovits denied having the missing laboratory materials. But a lab employee, Max Pfost, said in an affidavit that he took items at her request, stashing notebooks in his mother’s garage in Sparks, Nev., before turning them over to Dr. Mikovits.

    At one point, “Mikovits informed me that she was hiding out on a boat to avoid being served with papers from W.P.I.,” Mr. Pfost said in the affidavit. Some lab items have since been returned.

    In December, a judge ruled against her in the civil case. The criminal case is pending ...

  2. Craig B. Thompson:

    The president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York is in a billion-dollar dispute with his former workplace, a cancer institute at the University of Pennsylvania, over accusations that he walked away with groundbreaking research and used it to help start a valuable biotechnology company.

    Dr. Craig B. Thompson, now of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, is being sued. In a lawsuit, the Leonard and Madlyn Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute at Penn described its former scientific director, Dr. Craig B. Thompson, as “an unscrupulous doctor” who “chose to abscond with the fruits of the Abramson largess.”

    The dispute reflects the importance that academic research centers now place on turning discoveries made on their campuses into sources of revenue. Some have engaged in protracted legal battles to ensure compensation for their intellectual property. Yale, for example, won more than $1 million in compensation and legal fees in 2005 from a Nobel laureate it had accused of taking its technology.

  3. Craig Grimes:

    Former Pennsylvania State University electrical engineering professor Craig Grimes, considered a world leader in materials science, has been charged with misusing $3 million in federal research grants.

    The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania accused Grimes on Jan. 31 of misusing $1.2 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health and of falsifying information when applying for a $1.9 million grant through the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act. If convicted, Grimes could face up to 35 years in prison fines of up to $750,000.

Two Potential Game Changers in Indian Higher Ed

First, the government has put in place a framework for vocational education [Prashant Nanda has the story in today's Mint].

This is something I heard about nearly two years ago from someone who claimed this initiative would create a vocational education system with a potential to rival that in Germany. I'll wait for experts in this area to offer their views on how good this policy framework really is.

Here's the press release:

The Scheme envisages Seven certificate levels with each certificate level with approximately 1000 hours each certificate, with each 1000 hours being made of certain number of hours for vocational competency based skill modules and the rest for general learning simultaneously integrated and providing a Diploma for vocational education after the certificate level five or leading to a Degree for vocational education after level seven in the university system, subject to their statutory approval, is highlight of the scheme.

A student can choose to avail of competency based skill learning along with general education in this scheme without losing the possibility of changing course and moving at any certificate level into a formal system of education and vice versa. This would ultimately provide a full multi-entry exist system between vocational education, general education and the job market.

AICTE would seek to provide the requisite statutory approvals to any institutions wishing to conduct these programmes from the Academic Year 2012 throughout the country. The institutions can choose a maximum of 500 students per institute in any five sectors, 100 students per sector.

The success of this program depends crucially on how well it's implemented, so we have to wait for the details of the regulations (by AICTE?) under this broad policy framework.

The second initiative will create an ETS like entity to run entrance exams / aptitude exams. Here's an excerpt from this Mint story filed by Prashant Nanda:

The body will take over the preparation and administration of entrance exams, besides the delivery of national-level exams through a dedicated group of professionals, researchers and independent experts having knowledge of the assessment and testing field, without involving teachers.

It will begin by managing tests such as the All India Engineering Entrance Examination (AIEEE) and the joint entrance exam of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT-JEE), both key graduation entrance tests for engineering and science fields. [...]

CBSE chairman Vineet Joshi said, “It will be an Indian ETS. It will do research for preparing question papers, administer and conduct exams.”

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Nair Affair: The System's Counterattack

Perhaps in response to Dr. Madhavan Nair's demands, ISRO has posted online the Main Report of the Chaturvedi-Narasimha Committee (or HPRC, the High-Powered Review Committee), and Conclusions and Recommendations of the High Level Team (HLT) headed by Mr. Pratyush Sinha. With its scathing tone and language, and blunt naming of names, the HLT excerpts are especially revealing.

To get a quick sense of why the deal fails the smell test, see the news summaries here, here, or here.

Though the government sounded conciliatory last week (following Dr. Nair's loud, indignant protests), it appears ready to play hardball now. First came the release of two reports, along with a note on follow-up actions taken by ISRO in light of the findings of HPRC and HLT. It now says the ban on Nair and three others will stay even while floating a whisper balloon about keeping open the option of a criminal investigation.

* * *

As I said earlier, the allegations against Nair and his associates are entirely about commercial, financial, strategic, procedural aspects of the Devas deal -- in short, its about the administrative actions of ISRO leadership. Nair needs to stop using "oh no, Indian science is under attack" as a shield, not only because it is wrong, but also because his outbursts are now being countered with something that's even more obnoxious: the patriotism bomb:

The central government cancelled the Antrix Corporation-Devas Multimedia deal for reasons of national security and not for purported loss of revenue in sale of spectrum, Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office V. Narayanasamy has said.

Nair's indignant stance early on may have won him some supporters. In addition to David and Goliath, there's also Kafka lurking in the story when Nair said he did not even know what The System was punishing him for! In such a battle, it is difficult to take the side of The System.

But Nair's later utterances have undermined his case. For example, Nair's original claim that he never met the Sinha panel (HLT) has now been countered, forcing him to change his story. And his personal attacks on his successor at ISRO are so unwittingly self-incriminatory that Nair himself has now become the butt of jokes about his "management style." [What good does it do to your credibility when you claim that you handpicked an incompetent to the throne?]

Nair appears to be admitting that there might have been some errors of judgement. Let's see how long this phase lasts ...

* * *

See also: Nair's interviews in Rediff and Outlook.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Talking of naming things ...

... how about this: naming bathrooms through endowments? Financial desperation is not the only reason for universities to choose this method of fund-raising, as illustrated by this story from Harvard:

As first reported by Above the Law, Harvard Law School recently opened the Falik Men’s Room. Like tuition, bathrooms seem to cost more in Cambridge. William Falik told Above the Law he received the honor – if you want to call it that – after donating $100,000 to his alma mater to create a public interest fellowship in his father's honor. Falik didn’t return messages from Inside Higher Ed seeking comment, but his office voicemail confirmed that his surname is pronounced exactly as it’s spelled. With a gift of that size, Harvard Law's dean for development and alumni relations Steven Oliveira said he was happy to play along with Falik's wishes.

Read the article for more toilet humor.

The most interesting job in government

It has got to be the job of coming up with cringe-worthy names for higher ed initiatives.

So far, I could cite as an example the category of Institutions of National Importance Says something about the importance (national or otherwise) of other higher ed institutions, doesn't it?

Now, we have a far more cringe-worthy example. It's a UGC initiative called "Universities with Potential For Excellence. If you "win" this "status", would you want to advertise it on your website?

What next -- universities with potential for sub-par performance?



Benjamin Wallace in New York Magazine: The Virgin Father -- a truly fascinating portrait of an offbeat American who's "the father of fifteen children—and counting" primarily through his sperm donation. There are many angles to the story, all of it very, very interesting, but I'm just going to post this excerpt about why FDA got involved in this man's dissemination business:

Although sperm is neither a food nor a drug, the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research regulates those who traffic in it, enforcing frequent and comprehensive tests designed to curb the spread of communicable diseases and genetic disorders. Historically the agency has focused only on traditional sperm banks, not private donors, but Trent was unprecedentedly public about what he was doing. When the FDA first contacted him, he had na├»vely signed a piece of paper confirming that he was “an establishment.” In August 2010, using that as a pretext, the FDA sent three agents to his house, where for several days they interviewed him and copied his records. Trent had by then made 340 donations to some 46 different recipients. The scrutiny was time-consuming and stressful; he didn’t have a lawyer and worried than he might land in prison.

By November, the FDA determined that Trent wasn’t screening for diseases nearly often enough, and it issued its cease-­manufacture order. Trent replied that he wished to contest it. He wasn’t charging money, as he explained, and he was helping people. He knew that he was celibate, that he was disease-free, and that he took extraordinary measures to safeguard his DNA. He considered his relationship with his recipients to be “intimate.” Why should the government regulate what he was doing, when anyone, with who knew what health issues, could walk into a bar and have a one-night stand? A government-accountability public-interest group, Cause of Action, agreed, seeing the FDA action as a ringing example of regulatory overreach, and filed a brief on Trent’s behalf. “We questioned him as to the parameters of his relationship with recipients,” Amber Taylor, the chief counsel for Cause of Action, says. “We took away that he’s a very generous, helpful person who sees people in need who could not have children without some form of assistance, who are often lower income or underserved by the fertility-medicine industry.” Trent is currently awaiting a decision by the FDA on whether to grant him a hearing, and in the meantime, the cease-manufacture order has been suspended.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Quote of the Day

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.
-- H.L. Mencken [in A Little Book in C major (1916)]

[Source: WikiQuote.]

A big con at UConn?

At 60,000 pages, the University of Connecticut's report into alleged misconduct by Dipak Das is so huge that its executive summary alone runs to 49 pages!

The Retraction Watch blog has been all over this case with several posts (each with links to all the relevant documents).

A Boston Globe   editorial -- UConn’s account of research flaws should be a model for others -- praises UConn for its handling of the Das case, and contrasts it with Harvard's handling of the Hauser case:

... after the federal government’s Office of Research Integrity relayed a complaint in 2008 of possible misconduct in a research paper produced by Das’s center, UConn launched an extensive investigation. After the special review panel concluded that Das and his team had manipulated images in dozens of instances, UConn sent letters to 11 journals that had published their work, vowed to return $890,000 in federal grants, and started disciplinary proceedings. The university also noted that it is investigating others in Das’s lab.

UConn’s detailed reporting of the Das situation contrasts sharply with, for instance, Harvard’s limited explanation of its inquiry into the work of renowned psychologist Marc Hauser. Even after an investigating committee found Hauser “solely responsible . . . for eight instances of scientific misconduct,’’ administrators were remarkably vague about the nature of his offenses. A dean’s letter noting that the data in one of Hauser’s published experiments “did not support the published findings’’ left open an obvious question: Why not?

Thanks to Richard Symonds for his comment-alert about the Boston Globe editorial.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

One for the Annals of Gaming

... Gaming the System, that is. An alternate title would be: Journal Editors Behaving Badly.

Here's the abstract of the article by Allen W. Wilhite and Eric A. Fong that appeared in Science:

Coercive Citation in Academic Publishing

Despite their shortcomings (1–4), impact factors continue to be a primary means by which academics “quantify the quality of science” (5). One side effect of impact factors is the incentive they create for editors to coerce authors to add citations to their journal. Coercive self-citation does not refer to the normal citation directions, given during a peer-review process, meant to improve a paper. Coercive self-citation refers to requests that (i) give no indication that the manuscript was lacking in attribution; (ii) make no suggestion as to specific articles, authors, or a body of work requiring review; and (iii) only guide authors to add citations from the editor's journal. This quote from an editor as a condition for publication highlights the problem: “you cite Leukemia [once in 42 references]. Consequently, we kindly ask you to add references of articles published in Leukemia to your present article” (6). Gentler language may be used, but the message is clear: Add citations or risk rejection.

The full article may be behind a paywall, but EurekAlert has a good summary.

How many continents are there?

It's all so confusing that the number could be anything you want it to be, as long as you can justify your choice.

Very nicely done. Watch:

Hat tip: Lisa Wade at Sociological Images.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Marc Hauser's Scientific Misconduct

Princeton psychologist Charles Gross has an excellent article: Disgrace: On Marc Hauser. In addition to the information unearthed by other people (which Gross excerpts and summarizes), there is some new reporting -- some of it is about confirming others' findings. The entire article is worth reading, especially for Gross' own take on the specific instances of Hauser's misconduct.

I want to focus on two things in the following excerpts. The first is the gratifying new piece of information in Gross' article about the three whistleblowers:

[...] For graduate students, the PI is usually the most important person in their scientific life, acting as mentor, supervisor, model, adviser, critic, editor, co-author, supporter, reference and sometimes rival.

All labs are like complicated families, but each lab is complicated in its own way. Along with sibling rivalries, there are battles for attention, praise, identity, privacy and independence. The intimate relation of a PI to his graduate students often lasts as long and as intensely as a familial one. For a graduate student to blow the whistle on his or her mentor is an extraordinary and very risky step. Aside from the emotional and psychological trauma, whistleblowing by graduate students about their PI, even if confirmed, often ruins their careers. If the PI is fired or loses grant support, members of his or her lab usually stand to lose nearly everything—their financial support, their laboratory facilities, their research project and sometimes their credibility. But in the Hauser affair things have turned out very differently: the three whistleblowers whose action prompted the Harvard investigation have gone on to successful careers in scientific research. [Bold emphasis added]

There is one part of the saga that still remains infuriatingly inaccessible: the findings of Harvard's own investigation committee. Here's Gross:

The procedures and conclusions of the investigation raise many questions. Its methods and results remain secret. Its procedures bore no relation to the due process that is the goal of our judicial system. We have no clear idea of the exact nature of the evidence, of how many studies were examined and if anyone besides the three whistleblowers and Hauser was asked to testify. I was told by one of the whistleblowers that, to this person’s surprise and relief, the committee, which included scientists, did look carefully at evidence, even going so far as to recalculate statistics.

Aside from their potential injustice to the accused and accusers, the secrecy of the investigation and the paucity of specific facts in the conclusions are deleterious to the entire field of animal cognition. Exactly what kind of irregularities existed in the “eight instances of misconduct” and what they might imply for other papers by Hauser and for the field in general remained unclear.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Manu Joseph on the "Mother of All Exams"

He's talking, of course, about the JEE. Here's the concluding paragraph:

It is improbable that the I.I.T.’s will ever regain their old glory. The circumstances of the nation have changed, and the smartest Indians do not need an engineering degree to find a place in the world or to make a decent living. Also, the government has not invested enough in the I.I.T.’s, and the most talented scientific minds have the option to enroll in genuinely outstanding centers of learning in the West instead of being stuck in a place that has derived its prestige largely from the fact that only one in 50 cracks its entrance exam.

A pitch for liberal arts education

This one is by an Indian student, Vedika Khemani, who, studied "studied history, economics, linguistics, philosophy and creative writing ... while taking intensive physics and mathematics classes" at Harvey Mudd College. Khemani is doing a PhD in theoretical physics at Princeton.

An excerpt:

The ability to synthesize different perspectives into the big picture is far more powerful than narrow expertise in any single field. The social sciences offer perspectives from vantage points separated by time, place and society. Drawing and painting offer perspectives on what perspective even means. Critical thinking is the logical result of being able to simultaneously synthesize multiple ideas in one’s mind.

Real-world problems rarely ever have textbook solutions. More than anything, the purpose of a college education is to learn how to think critically and what questions to ask. Liberal arts colleges aim to mold their students into well-rounded, well-informed global citizens with a wide skill set [...]