Thursday, April 03, 2014

Mathai Joseph and Andrew Robinson on What Ails Indian Science

Their opinion piece in this week's Nature -- Free Indian Science -- lays out (some of) the problems that hold Indian science back. The entire article is worth reading, so go read it now. I'll use this post to highlight some of the interesting points made by the authors.

Let me come right off and say that this is a great line:

Indian science needs public funding, but not government control.

Many people -- including some clueless journalists -- fail to realize that in terms of funding, academic institutions in India are the bit players; the biggies are the government labs, and it is good to see that Joseph and Robinson hammer this point home:

Nearly 60% of India's science budget2 is now spent on the CSIR, scientific departments and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) — an enormous and impenetrable empire set up in 1958. None of these national institutions has stimulated scientific excellence [...]

Joseph and Robinson also nail a key problem in the grants made by funding agencies to faculty members in academic institutions:

... [Although] research in the leading institutions is well funded, [...] the funding is subject to unsuitable restrictions applicable to the entire government bureaucracy. These include limited foreign travel and no travel support for research students, ruling out regular participation in leading conferences and research gatherings.

Their analysis of the problems that plague Indian science leads to a four-part solution. The first part is about insulating the funding agencies from government control:

The first step towards reinvigorating Indian science must be to create an empowered funding agency, staffed by working scientists, some of whom could be non-resident Indians. A possible model is the European Research Council, which deals with a complex of national governments no less formidable than India's 29 state governments, yet manages to focus on supporting research excellence. The crucial requirement is obviously that an Indian scientific research council be permitted to set its own criteria for the evaluation of research proposals, independent of direct government control, and disburse government funds accordingly.

There's a lot more in there -- go read the whole thing.

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Thanks to Prof. S. Ranganathan for the e-mail pointer.


  1. gautam barua said...
    This comment has been removed by the author.
  2. gautam barua said...

    One of the yardsticks employed to measure success is the number of nobel laureates. Even Mathai Joseph and Andrew Robinson have "succumbed" to this measure. Something has been bothering me about this measure for a long time, and so I checked the Net and came across a wikipedia article titled "List of Nobel Laureates by country". I went through the list and what did I find? Taking 1950 as the starting point (to avoid controversy about whether Raman's work was "indian" or not), I found that there has not been a SINGLE NOBEL PRIZE in Sciences (Physics, Chemistry, Medicine) awarded to any scientist who did his work while he was in a THIRD WORLD country. Every scientist from a third world country, whether from China, Pakistan, or Egypt did their work while they were in some first or second world country's institution. No "CNR Rao like" scientist from any third world country has got the Nobel prize since 1950.
    Why? That is for another day!

  3. Ungrateful Alive said...

    Working in the trenches for 15 years and trying not to deflect blame for all my failures on to the supporting organization (to which I still remain very grateful), I must say that Mathai et al. evince inadequate appreciation for some key reasons why Indian sci-tech will never be world-class barring a few welcome exceptions.

    Scientists and engineers represent the pinnacle of a society's technological capabilities, and their creativity depends critically on a sound underbelly of supporting staff. This sort of ecosystem cannot be built by XYZ1 and XYZ2 governments in five years by setting up an IIX wherever a dart lands on the map of India. The results of grassroot neglect of primary education and vocational skills can be seen and measured today. India has among the fewest per-capita number of researchers, doctors, AC repair persons, electricians, and plumbers in south-east Asia, leave alone second and first world countries.

    Mathai's own organization, TRDDC, may not have given him a faithful picture of how lab apparatus, ACs, servers, networks, bathrooms, telephones --- everything, really --- are (not) maintained in IIXs. He talks about budget at a high level without the highly overdue critique that IIXs should face for procuring with abandon without ownership, scrapping at the drop of a hat and going for the next model, because the manufacturer and vendor have no commitment and no local expertise behind the products, basically living in a purely import-and-sell culture.

    Another 800-pound gorilla they barely notice, and then only peripherally as a nebulous "bureaucracy", is the buy-in and commitment of red-blooded young faculty members that must finish the next great paper no matter what, contrasted with the attitude of the non-academic support staff, who cannot be bothered to come to the lab even in the face of critical instrument malfunction during a weekend. They sign off on erroneous consignments, sit pretty on broken gadgets for months until the warranty expires, make mistakes typing part numbers on purchase orders, and despite all these, have jobs that are untouchable.

    A third major issue is the terrible state of preparedness of students and how faculty members do not (or are not allowed to) strategize sufficiently to work around it. To repeat a point above, mentally agile and critically inquisitive students do not land like aliens from outer space (well, they do in USA, not here) --- they must be grown from the soil up. Most colleges in India are putrefaction plants for young minds. JEE has grown to a monster that chews brains alive. By the time most students enter IIXs, they need remedial education and therapy. If IIX faculty are to maintain and grow international research profiles, it is essential to give them the flexibility to spend time working and writing with peers and colleagues, rather than get mired in degree-granting mills that demand compulsory "research projects" --- a sham and joke for most students in most IIXs.

    Mathai and suchlike are now too far above the trenches to highlight the above issues. Which again goes to demonstrate, perhaps inadvertently, what (more) is wrong with Indian sci-tech.

  4. Ankur Kulkarni said...

    @Prof Barua, What exactly is wrong about that measure? So what if no scientists from the third world have got the Nobel in sciences since 1950? A measure of excellence need not be one that gives everyone equal opportunity to succeed at it.

  5. gautam barua said...

    @Ankur, Well this data could be interpreted to mean that there is no use trying to get a nobel prize while working in India, or to hope that someone from India will get a Nobel prize, till India becomes a "first world" country. So we should not use the Nobel prize as a stick to beat Indian Science or Institutions with. We should rather work to agree upon some other metrics of success in the environment we work in. And, as a corollary, there is no point in criticizing our environment. We have to remove poverty, and the environment will automatically improve.

  6. Ungrateful Alive said...

    If there is anything beyond a Prozac-like prescription in what Baruah says, I have certainly missed it. "Don't criticize India, and ignore what world-class people recognize as world-class." Mathai would perhaps recognize this sort of prescription as yet another disease that ails Indian sci-tech.

    (I wonder how many Bhatnagar recipients would even survive the tenure process in a middle-tier US school. Of course, like the Nobel, we can reject that as a useless caste system as well! There, I feel better already.)

    Baruah is calling something a "corollary" that simply isn't, in any logical sense. We need insightful criticism to merely survive, forget the Nobel. I find most criticism that I hear actually constructive, if only I can listen. India's formidable antibodies against criticism essentially guarantees stalemate.

    Finally, I can't believe that an academic, supposedly capable of nuanced, complex thought and analysis (and not beholden to a fundamentally dysfunctional cargo-cult democracy) can come up with "remove poverty" as the baseline prescription for the complexly-broken India.

    As a corrective caricature of oversimplification, if I dared choose between chicken and egg, I would not say Indians are poor --- I would say they are unproductive and inefficient. The former is the language of entitlement and victimhood; the latter, of proactively improving one's and others' lives.

  7. Ankur Kulkarni said...

    I still don't see why the number of Nobels is a wrong measure of excellence or success. It may hurt that we are not excellent, but that does not mean the measure is wrong.

  8. gautam barua said...

    @Ungrateful Alive , Sorry for the delayed responses. It is not possible to put forth all aspects of one's views in a blog response. So what I was alluding to is "in the ultimate analysis", real changes in the environment can only come about when we are no longer a poor country. Of course, we must try and improve, of course we must criticize, but we must understand the limits to what we can achieve given our current circumstances. This response has to be seen as part of a larger debate on development, society, ideology, which I cannot get into here. Just an example from something topical: can corruption be eliminated / limited by MERE legislation (however tough it may be)? I think not.
    @Ankur: what is the point of holding a test where everyone gets zero? I am not criticizing the Nobel prize in an absolute sense. I am merely referring to the Indian context.

  9. Ankur Kulkarni said...

    "in the ultimate analysis, real changes in the environment can only come about when we are no longer a poor country"

    I am afraid, no. This means that doing excellent high quality research requires first world environment. Which means if we want our scientists to do high quality research, we should provide them a (living, work etc) environment at par with that in the first world.

  10. Ungrateful Alive said...

    "In the ultimate analysis, real changes in the environment can only come about when we are no longer a poor country."

    China and India were at about the same GDP up to 1978. China did not instantly become a rich (or non-poor) country and only then implement a rule of law in which people who adulterate food are executed. They attacked two choke points with a desparate energy: population growth and primary education. It took 30 years for the investment to pay off. I know, China is not home and dry yet, by a long chalk --- energy and pollution being formidable challenges. And Indians will love to level "human rights" type attacks too. But India does not even have a prayer in comparison. And the various "right to ..." bills that our government passes make us the laughing stock of the world.

    Your "ultimate analysis" is the ultimate expression of recursive fatalism. We all know Indians working in a well-endowed environment do well, even Mathai+ say so. The only meaningful question for India (and that train left the station decades back) is, how to break the vicious cycle. Any objective measure shows the cycle as far more vicious today than in 1970.

    I try not to prefix my analysis with "ultimate". There is no "ultimate analysis" here, just a ship that is sinking slowly. Titanic took hours to sink. An elephant may take hours to die after being shot. The apparent continuity of the daily grind is hiding some very disturbing trends. Indian science is just one of the canaries in the coal mine, and not even a very important one, in the "ultimate analysis".