Thursday, December 31, 2015

PhD Dissertation Quality: A Workshop at IISc

Some of you may know about the DST Centre for Policy Research (DST-CPR) at IISc, which is a part of a network of five Centres set up with funding from the Department of Science and Technology. The research at these Centres could help inform S&T policies [Disclosure: I am coordinating the activities at the DST-CPR at IISc].

The reason I'm mentioning all this is to alert you about an upcoming one-day Workshop entitled "Dissertation Expectations and Quality Criteria: Is it Enough to have a Good Dissertation?" This Workshop will be conducted by Prof. Maresi Nerad (College of Education, University of Washington, Seattle, USA), a Visiting Professor at our DST-CPR this month; it is meant for "PhD scholars [from Indian universities / institutions] who have completed at least 2 years of doctoral studies, who know what they will do in their dissertation."

Here's my request (bleg? do people still use this term?): If you know 3rd or 4th year PhD students in an Indian university / institution, please encourage them to apply. We are looking for a diversity of students (in terms of backgrounds, fields of study, types of institutions). Do please spread the word; the deadline for filing applications is the 5th of January, and the event itself will be held on the 12th of January (Tuesday).

Thank you for your help!

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Prof. Venki Ramakrishnan on Nobels and Nationalism

In The Telegraph today, Prof. Venki Ramakrishnan (who will visit India soon for a vacation and a lecture tour) says a lot of sensible things:

As for India sharing in the glory of his Nobel Prize (and that of Amartya Sen), he wonders why Indians are relatively unexcited about Ashoke Sen, the theoretical physicist known for his work on string theory and who shared in the $22m Breakthrough Prize in fundamental physics set up by the Russian Yuri Milner.

In Indians not giving as much importance to Sen as they do to Nobel Prize winners, "there is something a little wrong," he remarks. [...]

A question not to ask Venki is: "How should India win more Nobel Prizes?"

"That's actually completely the wrong question because there are so many discoveries that never get a Nobel Prize. It's not a good reason to go into anything," he responds.

"First of all countries don't win them, it's people who win them," he points out. "If a person from a country wins a Nobel Prize it doesn't necessarily mean that that county is doing well overall. It could be just a fluke. It is more important for a country to just nurture scientists and provide them good environments, a decent living and help them to lead a productive life."

Wednesday, November 25, 2015


The three purposes of the University?--To provide sex for the students, sports for the alumni, and parking for the faculty.
-- Clark Kerr, Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley (1952-57)

Source: Wikipedia, Quote Investigator.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Blackmail of a gay student at IISc

Orinam, an LGBT support and advocacy website, carried a report two days ago -- “To the person who wrote the note”: Bengaluru student responds to a homophobic extortion attempt -- on a shocking case of blackmail of a gay student at IISc. When his extortion attempts failed, the perpetrator carried out his threat by outing the student (Tushar) in a vicious note posted on a public notice board.

Then, this happened:

Thus outed to the entire hostel, Tushar, who had only been out to his closest friends until then, chose to respond with the following note on the same notice board [you should go read it now].

Tushar, who describes himself as ‘shy and a bit introverted’ said he felt relieved upon writing the note. Classmates and fellow-hostelites came up to him to express their support. In the weeks since the incident, he, with the support of friends, lodged a complaint with the university administration. At the time of publishing this note, he is still awaiting formal action in response.

I hope the "formal action" will be firm and stern. For now, I just want to convey my sympathies to Tushar (whom I don't know), and to applaud his extraordinary courage.

* * *

This story has also been picked up by Daily O.

* * *

Here's a 2011 post by a gay student at IIT-B. Here's another from IIT-M.

Kwame Anthony Appiah on Adultery

From the Ethicist feature in NYTimes Magazine: Should I Tell My Friend’s Husband That She’s Having an Affair?:

... [If] your assessment is accurate, you are in a deeply compromised moral situation — one in which the cure is worse than the condition. As is so often the case, there’s no way out from under the net. It’s a distressing bind. Moral narcissism is about being more concerned with the cleanliness of your hands than with how your conduct shapes the lives around you. Your sensitivity to this pitfall is commendable. So is the fact that what you’re doing — though the least bad option — bothers you. Life is messy, and the best outcome often has something deplorable about it. I suppose it’s all in the title of the great Bronzino painting that one of Iris Murdoch’s characters found so captivating: ‘‘Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time.’’ If the day comes when Peter asks you why you helped Jane conceal her betrayal, you can tell him the truth. He won’t forgive. But he just may understand.

When Sir C.V. Raman wanted to learn Russian …

… he turned to Mr. K. Narayan, a graduate from our Department at IISc waiting to join the Bhilai Steel Plant that was being created [the story is from 1958]. Nayantara Narayanan recounts an interesting episode, which plays out over a period of perhaps several months, in which the Nobel Laureate learns Russian to become fluent enough to give his Lenin Peace Prize lecture in that language.

When a 27-year-old metallurgist taught Nobel laureate CV Raman how to speak Russian:

Raman asked Narayan to come to his house every morning before starting work. The house, a bungalow named Panchavati surrounded by a sprawling mango grove in the heart of Malleswaram, was walking distance from where Narayan himself lived. And so the lessons began. Narayan used [the Russian language primer by Nina Potapova] to teach Raman basic Russian.

“He evinced a very keen interest, like a Gurukul student of old. Every day he would do his homework and repeat his lessons back to me,” said Narayan. Even though Raman was 60 years old and Narayan only 27, the older man liked to maintain the teacher-student relationship. As payment for the lessons, Narayan would get to sit down with Raman and his wife for a breakfast of hot coffee and idlis.

* * *

[Cross-posted from our department's website]

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Imprint India

The IMPRINT India initiative website has quite a bit of information about its focus domains each of which is subdivided into several sub-themes [Disclosure: I am a part of the team for the Advanced Materials domain, led by Prof. Monica Katiyar and Prof. A.K. Singh of IIT-K]. See also the this brochure.

The Overview is probably where you want to start. The text box on the image says the objective is accelerated research and innovation. Somewhere in the middle of the page, you will find this one-sentence summary of what (this phase of) the initiative is about:

IMPRINT is a first-of-its-kind Pan-IIT and IISc joint initiative to develop a (a) New Education Policy, and (b) Roadmap for Research to solve major engineering and technology challenges in selected domains needed by the country. [source]

The epilogue at the end of the page summarizes the initiative's current phase:

IMPRINT in its first phase is a policy developing initiative covering pedagogy, teaching, curriculum, technology-benchmarking and infrastructure readiness. IMPRINT is not meant only for IITs and IISc; it is a national movement providing an opportunity for the higher echelon institutes in India to integrate with all grass root level institutes, industry and organizations, mutually complement and deliver what the country demands and aspires. Policy is our immediate mandate; technology (products and processes) development and delivery will eventually follow.

Stuff Our Government Says: Global University Rankings Edition

A lot of hue and cry is raised about our higher education institutes not figuring in global ranking. The reason is not lack of high quality research work but the fact that in India, a large section of research work is done in vernacular languages, whereas global rankings only consider research in English
-- HRD Minister Smriti Irani [Source: The Indian Express]

Thursday, November 05, 2015


That's the name of a new initiative "to develop a roadmap for research to solve major engineering and technology challenges in ten technology domains relevant to India today." It was launched today by President Pranab Mukherjee. Here's the official press release. Here's another.

Coordinated nationally by IIT-K, IMPRINT India has identified ten themes including Healthcare and Advanced Materials, and the job of developing and coordinating a coherent research program in a given theme has been given to IISc or one of the IITs [More details at the IMPRINT India website at IIT-K].

While I have not been able to find any numbers in terms of funding for this initiative, a DNA story mentions a sum of Rs. 1000 Crores (over how many years? I don't know).

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

The Road to the Top 100

Anubhuti Vishnoi in The Economic Times: Centre to fund 10 institutes for next 3-4 years to help them find a place among top 100 on global academic rankings:

The Centre will soon pick 10 higher education institutes with potential and provide them with substantial funding over the next four years so that Indian institutes can finally storm into the top 100 on global academic rankings like QS and Times ... These 10 institutes, it is proposed, will be granted funds — ranging fromRs 100-500 crore for the next 3-4 years so that they can create world class research infrastructure and laboratories. The end target is getting Indian institutes among global top 100.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Ranjit Chandra

Via Shannon Palus in Retraction Watch (After court verdict, BMJ retracts 26-year-old paper), we get links to two devastating BMJ articles:

  1. Editorial: A major failure of scientific governance.

  2. A feature by Caroline White: Ranjit Chandra: how reputation bamboozled the scientific community

See also: the Ranjit Chandra archive in the blog of the late Seth Roberts.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Parenting HowTo

SMBC offers a tip. Not likely to work on kids over 4, though.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Scientific Papers with 1000+ Authors

Robert Lee Hotz has a great article in WSJ on the phenomenon of papers with long author lists (in a recent case, this list is over 24 pages long -- in fine print!). His articlle has a plot that shows that 2012 saw over 200 papers with 1000+ authors!

Hotz also goes on to discuss some of the pranks played by scientists:

Michigan State University mathematician Jack Hetherington published a paper in 1975 on low temperature physics in Physical Review Letters with F.D.C. Willard. His colleagues only discovered that his co-author was a siamese cat several years later when Dr. Hetherington started handing out copies of the paper signed with a paw print.

In the same spirit, Shalosh B. Ekhad at Rutgers University so far has published 32 peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals with his co-author Doron Zeilberger. It turns out that Shalosh B. Ekhad is Hebrew for the model number of a personal computer used by Dr. Zeilberger. “The computer helps so much and so often,” Dr. Zeilberger said.

Not everyone takes such pranks lightly.

Immunologist Polly Matzinger at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases named her dog, Galadriel Mirkwood, as a co-author on a paper she submitted to the Journal of Experimental Medicine. “What amazed me was that the paper went through the entire editorial process and nobody noticed,” Dr. Matzinger said. When the journal editor realized he had published work crediting an Afghan hound, he was furious, she recalled.

Physicists may be more open-minded. Sir Andre Geim, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics, credited H.A.M.S. ter Tisha as his co-author of a 2001 paper published in the journal Physica B. Those journal editors didn’t bat an eye when his co-author was unmasked as a pet hamster. “Not a harmful joke,” said Physica editor Reyer Jochemsen at the Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Maria Mitchell's Fight for Equal Pay

Becky Ferreirain Motherboard: How a Victorian Astronomer Fought the Gender Pay Gap, and Won:

... [One] of the most interesting fights [Maria] Mitchell [the first professional female astronomer in American history] took up during her life was over an issue that remains incredibly relevant: equal pay for equal work. Given that the gender wage gap still is a pervasive problem in STEM fields, it’s worth revisiting the utterly badass way in which Mitchell approached some 145 years ago.

Phyllis Rostykus on Women Scientists in Films

In her Slate article -- The Real Real Genius -- she says, "Thirty years ago, I helped inspire the lead female character in the classic nerd movie. I finally understand why some critics disliked its portrayal of women."

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Married Kama Sutra

Simon Rich and Farley Katz describe some of the positions from this yet-to-be-written classic.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Interest in adultery as a metric for ranking universities

It turns out that Ashley Madison [Slogan: "Life is short. Have an affair."] had over 74,000 members who used official university e-mail addresses. Who knew?

Inside Higher Ed has done the next thing we all think of -- ranking universities on this metric! In case you are wondering, here are the top two: Michigan State and Penn State; all but one in the top ten are public universities or community colleges.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Life Imitates Onion - Part Deux: Area People Search for Google CEO's Chennai Origins

The farcical search for Venky Ramakrishnan's origins in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, is playing out all over again. This time, the search is for the Chennai origins of Google's newly minted CEO Sundar Pichai.

Exhibit A: Chennai digs for Pichai’s past:

The search for his Chennai connections began soon after news of his new role at Google was announced. Schools, alumni associations and the media came together to track down Mr. Pichai’s roots in the city.

Mr. Pichai was born and brought up in Chennai, but left the city after he completed his class XII in 1989.

At his alma mater, Jawahar Vidyalaya (JV) in Ashok Nagar, the phone has been ringing non-stop since Tuesday morning. “Only when the media alerted us to the news did we start looking through our records. He studied here from 1979 to 1987, and then switched schools,” Alice Jeevan, school Principal said. While the school was able to locate his transfer certificate, they have not yet found his other school records.

“Had he been a naughty child, we would have remembered him,” she said. Mr. Pichai was a quiet student and, though he studied well, was not the school topper.

One of his schoolmates, now in Kolkata, recalls being in the same class with Mr. Pichai, but says they were not good friends. “The only thing I remember is that he and Shankar Subramanian used to compete for the highest marks in science.” She did not wish to be identified.

Vanavani, where he is believed to have attended Classes XI and XII, has been unable to locate his records yet.

Exhibit B: Editing spree on Wikipedia for Sundar Pichai:

The day broke in India with the Wikipedia entry mentioning “done his schooling in Vanavani and Jawahar Vidyalaya, Chennai.” [...]

But then began the edits to the Wikipedia entry on Pichai and, in a sense, all hell broke loose.

Subsequently, various permutations and combinations involving three schools — Vanavani, PSBB and Jawahar Vidyalaya — were the flavour of the day. Other notable mentions were GRT Mahalakshmi Vidyalaya and All Angels Matriculation Higher Secondary School. While the first three were at least in the running, the others were probably long shots for publicity by enthusiastic alumni, taking advantage of the open editing format of Wikipedia.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The FBI File on Paul Erdős

You know you are in for some surreal stuff when the article's headline carries this quote:

"Nothing to indicate the subject had any interest in any matter other than Mathematics.”

And this is followed immediately by this opening line:

Turns out, J. Edgar Hoover's Erdős number is lower than yours.

Academic War!

Three stages of a continuing saga, dubbed the Battle for San Diego by Inside Higher Ed:

  1. July 6, 2015: UC San Diego sues University of Southern California.

  2. July 27, 2015: UCSD 1, USC 0.

  3. August 3, 2015: USC Sues UCSD.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Akshat Rathi on History of Indian Science

Over at Mint On Sunday, Rathi has a great article with a brilliant title -- Separating Fact from Ancient Indian Science Fiction -- exploring the question: "Why is the public’s knowledge of the history of Indian science so poor?"

The sad part is that, despite an ongoing history of science programme, which has been running for more than 50 years, very little of that has filtered in to public knowledge. I asked Subbarayappa why.

“That is a question I have often asked myself,” he said laughing. The commission nudges on with what it has been doing for the past 50 years. Regular articles appear in the Indian Journal of History of Science, but there is little conversation between the few academics working on the history of Indian science and those working on setting the science curriculum.

Anant Bhan on Gender Gap in Medical Education Leadership in India

Anant Bhan has a link-filled post over at British Medical Journal Blogs:

Given the high number of women entering medicine—a status report in 2012 pegged the number of female medical students in India at around 200 000, compared with 175 000 male students—and subsequently also joining as faculty in medical colleges, one would expect a significant number of them to occupy top leadership positions in medical education. This is where there seems to be a gap—much fewer women occupy positions of director or principal in medical colleges in India than men.

Let’s take the example of those institutes of national importance in India which offer medical education courses. There are 11 of them: the seven All India Institutes of Medical Science (AIIMS; in Delhi, Rishikesh, Jodhpur, Bhopal, Raipur, Patna, Bhubaneshwar), the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER, Chandigarh), the Jawaharlal Institute of Post Graduate Medical Education and Research (JIPMER, Puducherry), the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience (NIMHANS, Bengaluru), and the Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences and Technology (SCTIMST, Thiruvananthapuram). Of these 11 institutions, currently only one has a female director—Asha Kishore became the first female director of SCTIMST in mid-July 2015 after the institute had been without a director for two years.

Adversarial Collaboration

David Shariatmadari's profile of Prof. Daniel Kahneman has lots of fascinating details, including some about his childhood years in Nazi-occupied France. In the section on Kahneman's intellectual contributions, we find this episode which I think is fantastic:

... Then there is the concept of adversarial collaboration, an attempt to do away with pointless academic feuding. Though he doesn’t like to think in terms of leaving a legacy, it’s one thing he says he hopes to be remembered for. In the early 2000s Kahneman sought out a leading opponent of his view that so-called expert judgments were frequently flawed. Gary Klein’s research focused on the ability of professionals such as firefighters to make intuitive but highly skilled judgments in difficult circumstances. “We spent five or six years trying to figure out the boundary, where he’s right, where I am right. And that was a very satisfying experience. We wrote a paper entitled ‘A Failure to Disagree’”.

Fortunately, that paper is available online.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Richard J. Light: "How to Live Wisely"

Harvard Graduate School of Education's Richard Light talks about an interesting seminar/discussion course in his NYTimes column [Hat tip to an alumnus from our department via e-mail]. The short course (more like a module running into several sessions) is built around a set of exercises which make the students not just think through their core values, but also consider situations where they might lead to conflicting conclusions. Here's one of them:

This exercise presents a parable of a happy fisherman living a simple life on a small island. The fellow goes fishing for a few hours every day. He catches a few fish, sells them to his friends, and enjoys spending the rest of the day with his wife and children, and napping. He couldn’t imagine changing a thing in his relaxed and easy life.

A recent M.B.A. visits this island and quickly sees how this fisherman could become rich. He could catch more fish, start up a business, market the fish, open a cannery, maybe even issue an I.P.O. Ultimately he would become truly successful. He could donate some of his fish to hungry children worldwide and might even save lives.

“And then what?” asks the fisherman.

“Then you could spend lots of time with your family,” replies the visitor. “Yet you would have made a difference in the world. You would have used your talents, and fed some poor children, instead of just lying around all day.”

We ask students to apply this parable to their own lives. Is it more important to you to have little, accomplish little, yet be relaxed and happy and spend time with family? Or is it more important to you to work hard, use your talents, perhaps start a business, maybe even make the world a better place along the way?

Typically, this simple parable leads to substantial disagreement.

Friday, July 31, 2015


  1. Ben Goldacre in Buzzfeed News: Scientists Are Hoarding Data And It’s Ruining Medical Research. "Major flaws in two massive trials of deworming pills show the importance of sharing data — which most scientists don’t do."

  2. Hari Pulakkat in Economic Times Blogs: Why India is lagging in disruptive innovation.

  3. John P.A. Ioannidis in Al Jazeera: Could Greece become prosperous again?

    Populism and a critical lack of know-how is the common denominator among the neo-Stalinist syndicalists, outspoken nationalists and eccentric university professors (most of whom are entirely disconnected from serious global scholarship) who now happen to run the country. Mass media, justifiably anxious to create anti-austerity heroes, manufactured an artificial reality about these people. For example, the original finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, was heralded as a famous professor of economics, while he has never authored a single scientific article in any of the 30 top economics journals (as ranked based on citation impact factor by Thomson Reuters). In education and science, the two fields where Greeks particularly excel, emerging state policies are strikingly counterproductive. In his inaugural parliament speech, the minister of education (a professor emeritus) proudly declared himself a Marxist who considers excellence a stigma; fittingly, his deputy minister, a university professor of genetics, has not published any PubMed-indexed peer-reviewed scientific paper since 1996. This is Greek mediocrity at its finest.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Profiles of Mathematicians

It all started with The Heirs to Ramanujan's Genius: A profile of six Indian mathematicians by Dilip D'Souza in Mint on Sunday (which appeared two weeks ago), featuring Soumya Das (a colleague at IISc), Kaneenika Sinha (blogger and friend from IISER-Pune), U.K. Anandavardhanan (IIT-B), Amritanshu Prasad (IMSc-Chennai), Ritabrata Munshi (TIFR), Nikhil Srivastava (UC-Berkeley).

While I had to wait to get to that article by Dilip, several more landed in my inbox just in the last couple of days. And they are all absolutely fabulous. The first one -- The Singular Mind of Terry Tao -- is a profile of Terence Tao (UCLA) by Gareth Cook in NYTimes.

The world’s most charismatic mathematician: a profile of John Horton Conway (Princeton) by Siobhan Roberts in The Guardian.

Pure to Applied: a nice piece describing the work of Robert Ghrist (UPenn) by Kevin Hartnett in The Pennsylvania Gazette.

And just this morning, I found a great article about four mathematicians (all of them 65+ years of age) "racing to save the Enormous Theorem's proof, all 15,000 pages of it" in the July issue of Scientific American. Unfortunately, the online version is behind a paywall. Grab it if you get a chance!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Janaki Ammal has a great article entitled Remembering Dr Janaki Ammal, pioneering botanist, cytogeneticist and passionate Gandhian by Geetha Doctor on the life and works of Janaki Ammal, a Fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences right from its first year.

Vedic Planes

Siddhartha Deb has a great piece on Those mythological men and their sacred, supersonic flying temples in The New Republic. Subtitle: "What tales of ancient Vedic aircraft tell us about India’s place in the modern world."

Excerpts won't do any justice to the piece. So, go read the whole thing!

ISI, Nalanda, FTII, etc., etc.

  1. R. Ramachandran has an update on the Bimal Roy affair at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata -- A twist in the ISI tale.

  2. Arunabha Bagchi has an op-ed in The Stateman -- Autonomy of Learning -- in which he lists all the known cases of government interference in academic institutions and bodies such as ICHR. It's a very long list indeed.

  3. Bagchi, of course, starts with the now famous critique of the present government by Amartya Sen (published in no less an outlet than NYRB): The stormy revival of an international university.

Here's an excerpt from the first article.

After humiliating the former Director of an institution of national importance and vitiating the atmosphere, the government does an about-turn and tries to save face by appointing him head of a cryptology centre. [...]

The current events at the ISI have resulted in a legal notice being served on the Chairman and the institute by two ISI faculty members (who were at the council meeting on April 23), two petitions being filed in the Calcutta High Court against the government (one by three academics, including two ISI faculty members, one of whom is also a council member, and a member of the ISI society who is a professor at Calcutta University, and the second by Bimal Roy himself), an online petition ( being signed by over 2,000 people, and an open letter to the President of India from the International Association for Cryptologic Research (IACR).

But the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI) does not seem inclined to resolve the issue in a fair, just and democratic way. Significantly, the Ministry, having made all the allegations against Roy, has not served any show-cause notice or a charge sheet, let alone institute, as demanded by the online petition, a “proper public investigation into the allegations… and a proper hearing by the council”.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Robert Shiller: "What to Learn in College to Stay One Step Ahead of Computers"

In an interesting NYTimes column, we find this bit of history of management education at Yale:

Like Harvard and other colleges and universities, Yale has been struggling with the broad issues for a very long time. It once experimented with an undergraduate business program, to prepare students for life beyond college, but shut down that program in 1954. In the 1960s, during the Vietnam War, antipathy to the business establishment increased. According to the former Yale Graduate School dean John Perry Miller, in his book “Creating Academic Settings” (J. Simeon Press, 1991), there was open “hostility” to the idea of business-oriented education at Yale.

Nonetheless, Yale produced many fine businesspeople. But because of this hostility, Yale did not start a business school until 1976, and even then denied that it was just a business school: Instead of offering a Master of Business Administration, it initially conferred only the more idealistic-sounding Master of Public and Private Management. Before 1976, the university had a great economics department, imbued with a lofty sense of pure theory and mathematics, but it was not focused on practical business education.

* * *

Update: I don't know why, but all this history of management education at Yale somehow made my mind wander over to a post from 2010 -- Effects of a Liberal Arts Education on Managers!

Janet Napolitano: Higher Education [in the US] isn't in Crisis

In her WaPo review of a couple of books on US higher education, the president of the University of California system starts with a big splash:

Imagine, if you will, an American business that other countries, from China to Saudi Arabia, seek to emulate. A business that routinely accounts for the advances in science, medicine, technology, arts and humanities that have established the United States as the most innovative nation in the world. A business whose customers number about 20 million in this country alone, spanning the spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds. A business that conservatively contributes more than $400 billion annually to the U.S. economy. A business that is commonly recognized as one of America’s greatest contributions to civilization.

That enterprise is America’s system of higher education. [...]

Links: Tim Hunt Edition

  1. Maki Naro in Popular Science: The trouble with Nobel Prizes -- They're not magic medals of blamelessness.

    So don't write to me saying I don't care about science because a poor guy tarnished his own gold star by making a bad, sexist joke and got called out on it. Instead, ask yourself how much you care about science that you've allowed the past to supersede the future. Take a long look at the choices that led you to put science before people. Instead of blindly defending an old man with a medal, try to listen and reflect upon yourself and the society that led you to defend him in the first place. Then GTFO.

  2. Alice Bell at Open Democracy: After Tim Hunt: Another Science is Possible. "After the widespread reaction to Tim Hunt’s comments on women in science, it’s time to unpick the various hierarchies that stifle scientific debates and practice."

  3. Janet Stemwedel at the Forbes Science Blog: What if Tim Hunt had done it differently:

    So, let’s rewind the universe to a point in time before Tim Hunt’s trajectory intersected with the controversy. You might think the crucial moment at which to consider “what if” is when Hunt was asked to make some remarks to the luncheon. But let’s go back more than a year earlier, to spring of 2014, when Tim Hunt was interviewed for Lab Times. Here’s part of that published exchange:

    In your opinion, why are women still under-represented in senior positions in academia and funding bodies?

    Hunt: I’m not sure there is really a problem, actually. People just look at the statistics. I dare, myself, think there is any discrimination, either for or against men or women. I think people are really good at selecting good scientists but I must admit the inequalities in the outcomes, especially at the higher end, are quite staggering. And I have no idea what the reasons are. One should start asking why women being under-represented in senior positions is such a big problem. Is this actually a bad thing? It is not immediately obvious for me… is this bad for women? Or bad for science? Or bad for society? I don’t know, it clearly upsets people a lot.

    What if, after the interview, Tim Hunt had done some thinking about the underrepresentation of women in science, especially in senior positions? What if he had sought out some of the people clearly upset by the inequalities in outcomes and listened to them in order better to understand that upset? What if he had looked at the research on the various factors that still present barriers to entry and inclusion for women (among others) in science?

    If he had done that, then by June of 2015, asked to speak at the luncheon, he might have had a somewhat better understanding of the women scientists in his audience.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Sexism in Indian Science

Gayatri Jayaraman has a must-read article on The Secret Sexism of Indian Science. Lots of Bhatnagar Award winning scientists speak out.

Sexism in Indian science did not get enough space in Leelavati's Daughters, probably because it was (meant to be?) a celebratory volume on Indian women scientists. It is good to see it being discussed in Jayaraman's article.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

L'Affaire Bimal Roy: An Update has published An Open Letter to Arun Shourie on the Sacking of the ISI Director by the alumni of the Indian Statistical Institute. Needless to add, it has some rather uncomfortable questions. For example:

Did the ISI Council, at the meeting on April 23, 2015, move and pass a resolution accepting the recommendation of the Selection Committee to appoint Prof Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay as the Director of ISI with effect from August 1, 2015, as required under the bye-laws of ISI, which clearly states that “The appointment of the Director shall be made by the Council (emphasis added) on the recommendation made by a Selection Committee?”

We ask this because, to the best of our knowledge, earlier, at the same Council meeting on April 23, when an objection was raised relating to the appointment of an ISI Centre Head, you, as the Chairman, adopted the admirably correct democratic practice of seeking a majority vote in the Council to resolve the dilemma and validate the appointment.

If the answer to the above question is YES, would you please tell us how many Council members were in attendance during the meeting, how many voted in favor of or against the motion and how many abstained from voting?

If, however, the answer to the above question is NO, and yet the minutes of the meeting asserted otherwise, would you not agree that the purported “minutes” were factually incorrect and Prof Roy did no wrong in refusing to authenticate these minutes, as has been widely reported in the media?

Irrespective of the answer to the above question, would you please review the provisions of the ISI Act quoted in the order for us and assure us that by invoking its emergency provisions to divest Prof Roy of his powers and duties without enlightening him of the charges against him and giving him the opportunity to respond to these charges, the MOSPI violated neither the letter nor the spirit of the law?

Visa Hardball

At the lunch table the other day, the Visa Venkateswara   posts came up for discussion, and it occurred to us that, given her name, Goddess Visalakshi should be able to beat every Hindu deity hollow in this very popular and lucrative game. She is certainly losing out!

The materials-engineer-turned-journalist Sidin Vadukut has a funny post (funny only if you have not been hit by a stray ball in the game of visa hardball) -- Borderline Personality: Put Your Game Face On, Passport Control -- on India's e-visa scheme. Its funny-ness comes from his advocacy of strict reciprocity in dealing with travelers from different countries. For example:

USA: When visitors arrive at an Indian airport, immediately ask them to furnish the passport officer with passport photos that are no more than one hour old. Provide photo booths in the airport where visitors can take pictures at a nominal fee of ₹15,000 per photograph. When they have submitted seven copies of the photograph, allow them into the country after confiscating their footwear.

In any case, the reciprocity-in-the-visa-game is turning into a source of pain for Indians traveling to the US, and vice versa. While this has been happening on and off for quite sometime (1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, with the earliest occurrence in this blog being from way back in February of 2006), the flare-ups make it to the press when the affected parties occupy positions far higher that that of a grad student or a professor. The latest celebrity to be denied a US visa is the Director General of CSIR!

Here's the The Economic Times report -- Indo-US ties: Denial of visas to scientists thorn in the flesh -- by Pallava Bagla who points out that India has been quite good at dishing out pain to the American academics who want to travel to India. The following excerpt is about the troubles of Dr. M.O. Garg, DG-CSIR:

This week, India's leading petroleum researcher Dr M O Garg, Director General of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), New Delhi went livid on what he called was a 'denial of granting a US visa' for him to attend a scientific meeting in Columbus, Ohio. Garg heads India's largest network of 38 civilian labs employing over 4000 scientists with an annually budget of about Rs 3800 crore.

On June 1, Garg recounts that he spent almost half a day filling out screen after screen of questions to apply for his US visa which he calls was like writing down 'my janam-patri or life history', a day later in usual fashion he was finger printed and photographed. On June 3, he was asked to appear for the 'visa interview' which he did at 8.30 am and he recalls that 'questions for which the consular official already had answers' were popped to him which he says he patiently answered.

Then it seems his troubles began when he was asked to appear for another face-to-face interview at new window where he was now given a piece of paper with several questions and a 'tracking number'. Garg says having procured several US visas in the past this now meant to him that he was being 'singled out'.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Rolls Royce of Chalk - Part Deux

Gizmodo has a cute story -- Why Mathematicians Are Hoarding This Special Type of Japanese Chalk. Apparently, the firm that made these chalks is no more.

I posted a link to a post at the Williams College blog on the legend of Hagomoro chalks (this post is also fondly quoted in the Gizmodo story):

3. So what is the best chalk out there?

I have wrestled with this question and spent a bit of time pursing this over my sabbatical last year. There have been rumors about a dream chalk, a chalk so powerful that mathematics practically writes itself; a chalk so amazing that no incorrect proof can be written using this chalk. I can finally say, after months of pursuit, that such a chalk indeed exists. It is called the Hagoromo Fulltouch Chalk.

For those lucky few who have used it, it can truly be called the Michael Jordan of chalk, the Rolls Royce of chalk. [Bold emphasis added]

Visa Venkateswara: Part Deux

BBC has a pictorial story on temples whose gods specialize in visas. Chilkur Balaji temple is one of the two shrines covered there; the other is a gurdwara in the Punjab village of Talhan.

The essay features a priceless picture of toy airplanes offered by the devotees at Talhan; this alone is worth a click on that link!

* * *

'Part Deux' is because this is the second time that this phenomenon appears in this blog. The first time was 9 years ago!

Friday, June 19, 2015

Ricardo Hausmann on The Education Myth

His Project Syndicate column argues that education is not what we should look to for economic growth.

... [T]hough the typical country with ten years of schooling had a per capita income of $30,000 in 2010, per capita income in Albania, Armenia, and Sri Lanka, which have achieved that level of schooling, was less than $5,000. Whatever is preventing these countries from becoming richer, it is not lack of education.

A country’s income is the sum of the output produced by each worker. To increase income, we need to increase worker productivity. Evidently, “something in the water,” other than education, makes people much more productive in some places than in others. A successful growth strategy needs to figure out what this is.

Make no mistake: education presumably does raise productivity. But to say that education is your growth strategy means that you are giving up on everyone who has already gone through the school system – most people over 18, and almost all over 25. It is a strategy that ignores the potential that is in 100% of today’s labor force, 98% of next year’s, and a huge number of people who will be around for the next half-century. An education-only strategy is bound to make all of them regret having been born too soon.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Fired: ISI Director Bimal Roy

Update: I'm adding more information and links at the end. See also the comments.

* * *

The firing of Prof. Bimal Roy from the post of the Director of the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Kolkata, seems unusual because (a) a new Director is to take charge in less than two months (b) the said new-Director has also been identified, and (c) Bimal Roy is among the recipients of the 2015 Padma Awards. To top it all, the official order says the man is being fired "to prevent indiscipline and mischief, and to prevent the eventualities of administrative malfeasance."

Here's an excerpt from the order from MoSPI, the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation:

... A number of general and specific matters of financial and administrative irregularities which show the direct or supervisory responsibilities for acts of omission and commission on the part of present Director, Prof. B.B. Roy, are available in the Ministry in the various files on the different subjects.

There is justified and reasonable apprehension that the present Director, Prof Bimal Roy may indulge in propagation of indiscipline and mischief, including acts of administrative and financial impropriety in the interregnum up to 31st July, 2015 (before the new Director, Prof S Bandyopadhyay takes charge on 1st August 2015)

After this news became public, the Chair of ISI Council, Dr. Arun Shourie, has defended the order from MoSPI, saying that the Government had no option.

Given the unusual combination of a blunt verdict and vague allegations about possible future crimes, it is surprising that no news organization has chosen to dig deeper. The silence of The Telegraph, in whose backyard all this stuff is happening, is not just surprising, but also deeply puzzling!

* * *

Update 1 (20 June 2015):

  1. The Wire has a story (thanks to commenter Pulsereed) with some additional details culled from a petition seeking Justice for ISI, and from this Reddit thread.

  2. Outlook also has a story with original reporting by Dola Mitra: Portal Of Unease ("The ISI director is ruthlessly sacked as curtains are drawn shut in secrecy").

    Thanks to a comment (by "counterfeiter", an ISI alum), we now know of this Facebook page ("Justice for ISI") which features messages of support for Prof. Roy, and messages of protest against the Ministry; it also features video messages from ISI alums who are now academics in the US.

  3. The petition (which I have signed) gives some background information, and concludes with the following demands:

    1. Proper independent public investigation must be done regarding the Ministry's allegations against Prof. Roy, the charges against Prof. Roy must be presented to the council, and a proper hearing must be conducted by the Council, before deciding upon the next course of action.

    2. The audio recording of the Director selection meeting along with its transcript should be released immediately and investigated by independent authority.

    3. Till these investigations are over and the Council decides otherwise, citing valid proof, Prof Bimal Kumar Roy should be immediately reinstated at the position of interim Director.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Sir Tim Hunt: Part Deux

  1. "... [Yes], I made those remarks – which were inexcusable – but I made them in a totally jocular, ironic way. There was some polite applause and that was it, I thought. I thought everything was OK. No one accused me of being a sexist pig.”
    -- Sir Tim Hunt

  2. That assertion -- "I made them in a totally jocular, ironic way" -- is strongly disputed by Deborah Blum, who was there and who quized him about what he meant. [Update: She elaborates on those tweets in an essay at The Daily Beast.]

  3. Michael Eisen offers a different perspective on Hunt's self destruction, and it involves a previous event in Kashmir: Sympathy for the Devil?

  4. Geoffrey Pullum in CHE: 36 Words.

  5. #DistractinglySexy -- storified!

* * *

Update (2 July 2015): Connie St Louis in The Guardian: Stop defending Tim Hunt.

Sunday, June 14, 2015


  1. Barbara Oakley in Nautilus: How I Rewired My Brain to Become Fluent in Math. "Sorry, education reformers, it’s still memorization and repetition we need."

  2. William Kremer in BBC: The strange afterlife of Einstein's brain. A truly bizarre story.

  3. Steven Shapin in WSJ: Why Scientists Shouldn’t Write History. A review of Steven Weinberg's book To Explain the World. The following excerpt gets to the main problem with an enterprise like Weinberg's:

  4. There’s a story told about a distinguished cardiac surgeon who, about to retire, decided he’d like to take up the history of medicine. He sought out a historian friend and asked her if she had any tips for him. The historian said she’d be happy to help but first asked the surgeon a reciprocal favor: “As it happens, I’m about to retire too, and I’m thinking of taking up heart surgery. Do you have any tips for me?”

    The story is probably apocryphal, but it displays a real asymmetry between two expert practices. The surgeon knows that his skills are specialized and that they’re difficult to acquire, but he doesn’t think that the historian’s skills are anything like that. He assumes that writing history is pretty straightforward and that being a 21st-century surgeon gives you a leg up in documenting and interpreting, for example, theories of fever in the 17th century. Yet not every kind of technical expertise stands in this relation with the telling of its history. Modern installation artists don’t think they can produce adequate scholarly studies of Dutch Golden Age paintings, and it’s hard to find offensive linemen parading their competence in the writing the history of rugby.


  1. Carnegie Mellon Reels After Uber Lures Away Researchers (Mike Ramsey and Douglas Macmillan in WSJ)

  2. Deepak Singh in The Atlantic: 'I've Never Thanked My Parents for Anything'. "In America, saying thank you is routine. In India, it can be insulting."

  3. Chris Woolston in Nature: Fruit-fly paper has 1,000 authors "Genomics paper with an unusually high number of authors sets researchers buzzing on social media." See also a related story from physics.

  4. The Economist: Keeping it on the company campus. "As more firms have set up their own “corporate universities”, they have become less willing to pay for their managers to go to business school."

  5. A picture gallery on 150 years of mathematics in the UK in The Guardian

Sir Tim Hunt

A high-caliber scientist has some unscientific notions about women scientists. Who knew?

A couple of links on the Nobel laureate's thoughts "his trouble with girls".

  1. Marion Walker in Nobel laureates must set an example to their field, not bring shame."Sir Tim Hunt's resignation as honorary professor at University College London must not be the end of the debate over gender in science."

  2. #Distractinglysexy Twitter campaign mocks Tim Hunt's sexist comments

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Computer Science, Women, NYTimes!

NYTimes has yet another story on how some college or the other is doing such a great job of attracting, and retaining, women in its computer science program. If it is the University of Washington this time, it was Harvey Mudd last year, and Carnegie Mellon back in 2007. These are the ones I have read; there may be others that I didn't even know about. [Update: And, oh, there's also this from 2011, though it is not quite about women in computer science].

It would have been interesting if the later stories showed some awareness of the earlier ones -- for example, if Carnegie Mellon did some great things get a lot more women into its computer science program back in 2007, how well is it doing now? Has it improved enrollment figures for women even further? Has it hit a wall? Has it let things slide?

But, but ... I'm just quibbling here. The most recent intervention by NYTimes in the Women-in-Computer-Science debate is quite good in its coverage of the kinds of experiments at different places (UWashington, Michigan State, Harvey Mudd, Harvard, ...), as well as of the kinds of curriculum-related debates within Computer Science.

Doing Science is, in fact, "Rocket Science"

Leonard Mlodinov has an op-ed in NYTimes arguing against the myth that science is just a series of flashes of intuitive insights that just hit people by accident.

Two thousand years ago, Aristotle’s “Physics” was a wide-ranging set of theories that were easy to state and understand. But his ideas were almost completely wrong. Newton’s “Principia” ushered in the age of modern science, but remains one of the most impenetrable books ever written. There is a reason: The truths of nature are subtle, and require deep and careful thought.

Over the past few centuries we have invested that level of thought, and so while in the 19th century the Reuters news service used carrier pigeons to fly stock prices between cities, today we have the Internet.

Even if we are not scientists, every day we are challenged to make judgments and decisions about technical matters like vaccinations, financial investments, diet supplements and, of course, global warming. If our discourse on such topics is to be intelligent and productive, we need to dip below the surface and grapple with the complex underlying issues. The myths can seduce one into believing there is an easier path, one that doesn’t require such hard work.

But even beyond issues of science, there is a broader lesson ... We all run into difficult problems in life, and we will be happier and more successful if we appreciate that the answers often aren’t quick, or easy.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Bad Incentives are behind Big Science Frauds

Updated with links.

* * *

Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, the folks behind Retraction Watch have penned an op-ed in NYTimes: What’s Behind Big Science Frauds? They flag a circle of behaviours to support their thesis that "the incentives to publish today are corrupting the scientific literature"

  • Science fetishizes the published paper as the ultimate marker of individual productivity. And it doubles down on that bias with a concept called “impact factor” — how likely the studies in a given journal are to be referenced by subsequent articles.

  • Journals with higher impact factors retract papers more often than those with lower impact factors.

  • Scientists view high-profile journals as the pinnacle of success — and they’ll cut corners, or worse, for a shot at glory.

  • [The reviewers at top journals] seem to keep missing critical flaws that readers pick up days or even hours after publication.

  • [P]erhaps journals rush peer reviewers so that authors will want to publish their supposedly groundbreaking work with them.

The news that appears to have triggered this op-ed is a recent retraction of a high profile paper. Since the original paper was on a topic of wide interest, it got picked up by many news outlets. Now that many problems with the data presented in the paper have been uncovered, the senior author (Prof. Donald Green, at Columbia) has sought a retraction, the journal (Science) has responded with an expression of concern, and the junior author (Michael LaCour, a grad student at UCLA) says he stands by his study and promises a comphrehensive response by the 29th of May.

Read the whole thing at Retraction Watch: Author retracts study of changing minds on same-sex marriage after colleague admits data were faked.

Here's a round-up of how various news outlets which covered the original paper have responded to the retraction.

* * *

Update (26 May 2015): An Interview With Donald Green, the Co-Author of the Faked Gay-Marriage Study by Jesse Singal in New York Magazine.

How the Gay Rights Canvassing Study Fell Apart by Naomi Shavin in The New Republic.

Anil Kakodkar speaks out

In the NDTV interview by Shekhar Gupta, Dr. Kakodkar opens up on recent controversies surrounding selection of IIT directors, as well as the government's disgraceful treatment of Prof. Shevgaonkar, director of IIT-Delhi. Kakodkar chooses his words carefully (at one point he says he "stays within limits"), but the subtext is clear.

Here's the video -- the IIT-related discussion starts after 10 minutes or so. The interview is set to continue next week as well.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Ultimate Kill Bill - Volume II

Watch this interview of HRD Minister Smriti Irani by Rajdeep Sardesai:

* * *
[Self-plagiarism alert!]

In the (unlikely) event that you haven't seen the two Kill Bill volumes (errr, movies), here's the iconic scene from the first volume.

The Ultimate Kill Bill - Volume 1

Watch this interview of HRD Minister Smriti Irani by Arnab Goswami:

In the (unlikely) event that you haven't seen the two Kill Bill volumes (errr, movies), here's the iconic scene from the first volume.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Gender and Affirmative Action Policies in India

S. Rukmini in has an interesting report in The Hindu -- ‘Quotas for education helped SCs, but boys alone reaped the benefit’ -- summarizing the results from a recent study.

The broad conclusion is in line with another study from 2008: Affirmative Action in Education: Evidence from Engineering College Admissions in India (pdf) summarized in a Mint op-ed by the authors. Key quote: "... we find that the affirmative action policy appears to hurt female applicants, given that a higher percentage of those let in through affirmative action are males."

Selecting Higher Ed Leaders

Two stories about recent director-level appointments.

Check out a pretty nice piece in The Telegraph by Basant Kumar Mohanty -- A 10-minute IIT puzzle -- How to pick directors. Mohanty starts with this post from Dheeraj Sanghi's blog, and adds to it with some original reporting on the process used recently for selecting IIT directors at Ropar, Bhubaneswar, and Patna.

[Aside: Buried deep inside, we get this: "Late tonight, it was learnt that Prof. R.V. Raja Kumar of IIT Kharagpur had been appointed director of IIT Bhubaneswar and Prof. Pushpak Bhattacharyya of IIT Bombay that of IIT Patna. Prof. Sarit Kumar Das of IIT Madras will be the director of IIT Ropar."]

* * *

Thanks to R. Ramachandran's Frontline report with a terrific headline (Disappointing a Director), we now have clearer picture of the botched process of selecting the next TIFR director. The way he tells it, almost all the blame is with the Department of Atomic Energy, whose job it was to ensure that all the formal procedures were followed.

You should read Ramachandran's report just for spicy insider stories from the selection process. Let me limit myself here to some of the key points from his report:

  1. The sticking point is about the new norm (that an open advertisement should be the starting point for the search for a new director) which all institutions are expected to follow. The PMO appears to have been (mis)led by a DAE official's adverse comment about the lack of an open advertisement; it turns out that TIFR's own bylaws do not require one.

  2. The search committee followed the same process (i.e., one which did not use an open advertisement) as the previous search committees did.

  3. After the search committee chose Prof. Trivedi, the DAE sat on the file for several months before it was sent to the PMO.

  4. Also, TIFR should also have waited for the final go-ahead from the PMO before asking Prof. Trivedi to take over. Instead, they jumped the gun.

  5. PMO's rejection of Prof. Trivedi's appointment came well after he had taken over, causing much embarrassment all around.

  6. While the PMO could still have accepted the outcome (of the seemingly flawed search process), it is certainly well within its right to say no to the appointment. This, by itself, would not constitute violation of institutional autonomy.

  7. Apparently, the government might mandate that the constitution of the search committee itself be approved by the government (Ramachandran's report is not clear on this point). If this step becomes operational, it would certainly undermine autonomy.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Links: Women in Science Edition

  1. Toni Schmader, Jessica Whitehead, and Vicki H. Wysocki: A Linguistic Comparison of Letters of Recommendation for Male and Female Chemistry and Biochemistry Job Applicants.

    Letters of recommendation are central to the hiring process. However, gender stereotypes could bias how recommenders describe female compared to male applicants. In the current study, text analysis software was used to examine 886 letters of recommendation written on behalf of 235 male and 42 female applicants for either a chemistry or biochemistry faculty position at a large U.S. research university. Results revealed more similarities than differences in letters written for male and female candidates. However, recommenders used significantly more standout adjectives to describe male as compared to female candidates. Letters containing more standout words also included more ability words and fewer grindstone words. Research is needed to explore how differences in language use affect perceivers’ evaluations of female candidates.

  2. Joan C. Williams in HBR: The 5 Biases Pushing Women Out of STEM.

  3. Jessica Collett at Scatterplot: Feeling Like a Fraud? You Are Not Alone. A summary of her recent research on the impostor syndrome.

  4. Noah Smith in Bloomberg: Bigotry Is Expensive.

    So if a society bases its decisions of who gets which job on race and gender, it’s going to be sacrificing efficiency. If women aren’t allowed to be doctors, the talent pool for doctors will be diluted, and wages will be pushed up too high, choking off output. This would be true even in a bizarro world where every man was a better doctor than every woman! Of course that’s not even remotely true, but the point is, the theory of comparative advantage doesn’t care about average differences in absolute ability. If you’re making rules about which type of people are allowed to do which type of job, you’re hurting the economy.

    Just how big of a difference does this make? A team of top economists has recently studied the question, and their results are pretty startling. In “The Allocation of Talent and Economic Growth,” economists Chang-Tai Hsieh and Erik Hurst of the University of Chicago Booth Business School and Charles Jones and Peter Klenow of Stanford estimate that one fifth of total growth in U.S. output per worker between 1960 and 2008 was due to a decline in discrimination.


  1. Anjali Vaidya at India BioScience: Unaddressed demands remain after research fellowship hike. Uses several quotes from IISc students and faculty!

  2. Prashant Nanda in Mint: Govt climbs down, to drop IIM council plan. "The HRD ministry’s change of heart came after the business schools raised concerns, say two government officials".

  3. Adam Connor-Simons in MIT News: How three MIT students fooled the world of scientific journals. SCIGen is 10 years old, and this is a timely (and short) profile of the MIT grad students who created it.

  4. For the Ilayaraja fans: Rare Photos Of Music Composer Ilaiyaraaja. Look at those bell-bottoms!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Links: Higher Ed Edition

  1. The most depressing thing you will read this month. Kendall Powell in Nature (April 2015): The future of the postdoc. "There is a growing number of postdocs and few places in academia for them to go. But change could be on the way."

  2. As usual, Google has figured it all out!

  3. Ivan Oransky in The Conversation: Unlike a Rolling Stone: is science really better than journalism at self-correction?

  4. Richard Van Noorden, Brendan Maher & Regina Nuzzo in Nature (October 2014): The top 100 papers. "Nature explores the most-cited research of all time."


  1. Prem Panicker at Smoke Signals: RIP Jayakanthan.

  2. Sriram V. at Madras Heritage and Carnatic Music: A Chola Gift to Chennai.

Thursday, April 09, 2015


  1. Susannah Locke in 15 ways to tell if that science news story is hogwash

    The excellent chart ... offers "A Rough Guide to Spotting Bad Science." It was put together by the blogger [Andy Brunning, a chemistry teacher in the UK] behind the chemistry site Compound Interest. It isn't meant to be an exhaustive list — and not all of these flaws are necessarily fatal.

  2. A bold initiative in France: Ambition in Paris:

    The creation of the University of Paris-Saclay’s campus will cost €2 billion ($2.17 billion), and a government-funded €2.5 billion ($2.72 billion) extension of the Paris Métro will connect the high-tech hub to the center of the French capital in 35 minutes.

    However, Dominique Vernay, president of Paris-Saclay, has bigger concerns than the infrastructure challenges involved in constructing the university’s 1,300-acre campus over the next few years, namely how to get 19 fiercely independent organizations to pull together and move in the same direction. [...]

    “They were not that keen to work together in the beginning, but they have taken steps over the past seven years to come together -- the commitment was to set up a common organization.”

    To this end, nine of France’s most prestigious grandes écoles, such as the École Polytechnique and the École Normale Supérieure, will work with less selective traditional universities, business schools and national research organizations at Paris-Saclay.

    Within 10 years, 12,000 researchers and 70,000 students will be based at the Paris-Saclay campus, with the institution aiming to take its place among the world’s top 10 universities by 2025.

  3. Charles Seife in Slate: Science’s Big Scandal. "Even legitimate publishers are faking peer review."

    It can be read alone, but it's even better to read it with Seife's previous article in Scientific American: For Sale: “Your Name Here” in a Prestigious Science Journal. "An investigation into some scientific papers finds worrying irregularities."

  4. Barbara Fister in Inside Higher Ed: New Predatory Publishing in Old Bottles. "... What worries me far more than these fairly obvious scams are the emerging business practices being used by highly profitable publishers with long and distinguished pedigrees that are treating open access as a new revenue stream that can be both open and closed – earning money through subscriptions and author fees. [...]"

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Links: Misconduct in Science Edition

  1. Jill Neimark in Aeon: The Retraction War. "Scientists seek demigod status, journals want blockbuster results, and retractions are on the rise: is science broken?"

  2. John Rasko and Carl Power in The Guardian: What pushes scientists to lie? The disturbing but familiar story of Haruko Obokata. "The spectacular fall of the Japanese scientist who claimed to have triggered stem cell abilities in regular body cells is not uncommon in the scientific community. The culprit: carelessness and hubris in the drive to make a historic discovery."

  3. James MacDonald at JSTOR Daily: Research Fraud: When Science Goes Bad.

  4. Neuroskeptic: Editorial Misbehaviour in Autism Journals?. See also: The games we play: A troubling dark side in academic publishing by Pete Etchells and Chris Chambers in The Guardian.

  5. To end all this bleakness, here's a link to something positive. Dan Hopkins in Washington Post: How to Make Scientific Research More Trustworthy. An interview with Brendan Nyhan, who advocates registering research designs before scholars begin the work.


  1. Veenu Sandhu in The Business Standard: Sexual harassment at work: Tell and suffer. "A woman's ordeal only worsens after she protests against sexual harassment at the office."'

  2. Cat Ferguson in Retraction Watch: Rolling Stone retracts UVA gang rape story: A view from Retraction Watch. [The only (and, barely) redeeming thing in this disaster is that Rolling Stone got an external review done by Columbia Journalism School, and made the review report public.]

    Ferguson quotes from the NYTimes article on the report's findings:

    It is hardly unusual for journalists to rely on members of advocacy groups for help finding characters, but it is a practice that requires extra vigilance. “You’re in a zone there where you have to be careful,” said Nicholas Lemann, a professor at Columbia and the journalism school’s former dean.

    Mr. Lemann distributes a document called “The Journalistic Method” in one of his classes. It is a play on the term “the scientific method,” but in some respects, investigating a story is not so different from investigating a scientific phenomenon. “It’s all about very rigorous hypothesis testing: What is my hypothesis and how would I disprove it?” he said. “That’s what the journalist didn’t do in this case.”

Monday, April 06, 2015

Trouble at IIT-Jodhpur?

I was alerted about this early last week by someone with an interest in a faculty job at an IIT; since then the situation has really got out of hand, with students taking the lead in asking for the removal of the director of IIT-Jodhpur. The main complaint appears to be that a lot of faculty members have been dismissed in the short tenure of the current director, and the most recent such case has sparked a strong protest by students.

IIT-Jodhpur has had a rather turbulent beginning -- the first director (Prof. Prem Kumar Kalra, the man behind the first generation Akash tablets) was sent back abruptly, and replaced by the current director, Prof. C.V.R. Murthy. I don't have any clue about the protests there other than what I have read in the newspapers. I am posting this stuff here in case people with some personal knowledge can share what they know.

Annals of Professorial Mistakes


Drexel University is investigating a law professor who thought she was sending her class a link to an article on writing legal briefs, but who actually sent a link to a pornography site's video [...].

Thursday, April 02, 2015


  1. Curt Rice in The Guardian: Don't be fooled by the closing gender gap in science PhDs.

    [The researchers] found that historically men have had higher persistence rates than women, with a greater proportion of men having continued for a PhD. Since the 1990s, we see something else. The persistence rates have coverged: men and women continue in equal rates. That’s great news. Or so it would seem.

    Unfortunately, the new study doesn’t actually show a pipeline being tightened up to leak less – it shows the opposite. The convergence in persistence rates for men and women is not a result of an increase in the rate of women taking a PhD: it’s the result of a decline in the rate of men doing so, which now stands at 3%.

    Is this something to celebrate? I can’t imagine why. ...

    See also: Bob Grant's article in The Scientist -- New Look at the Leaky Pipeline -- on the same research.

  2. An idea whose time has come! Noah Smith on Affirmative Action for Conservatives.

  3. Finally, do yourself a favor and go to the 58th minute of the video below (or at YouTube) and wait for Bobby McFerrin's magic over the next several minutes. [I know I have linked to this stuff a long time ago, but it's worth watching any number of times]:

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Selection of IIT Directors

Before we plunge in: This issue is not just restricted to TIFR or the IITs. It turns out that the process of selecting leaders at many other S&T institutions has been muddied. See this IE editorial -- A leadership vacuum -- for a sense of the utter badness of it all. Here's a short quote from the editorial: "Such a leadership vacuum, resulting from indifference or political interference, should be seen to be unacceptable for national institutions that have contributed enormously both in terms of research and high-quality manpower generation."

Let's now turn to the main post.

* * *

In a better world, the process of selecting the director at each of the IITs at Bhubaneswar, Patna and Ropar would have been a straight-forward affair. In the real world, it has turned into a deeply controversial affair.

At first, everything appeared to be moving smoothly until, of course, it unraveled rather fast about a month ago. HRD Minister Smriti Irani junked the list of candidates selected by the committee constituted for this purpose.

[Unlike the TIFR case, I don't know of any procedural problems with the way those candidates were selected, and the HRD Ministry does not appear to have given any reason for scrapping the results of that process.]

In any case, a fresh round of interviews were held two days ago for some 35 candidates; it's not clear how many showed up.

But four days before these interviews, there was some drama: Dr. Anil Kakodkar resigned his position as the chair of IIT-B's governing council. Since he was a standing member of the committee to select IIT directors, his resignation was thought to be a fallout of the way the work of that committee was junked so unceremoniously.

Within a day of media playing up this news, HRD Minister Smriti Irani was reported to have convinced him to withdraw his resignation; again, the implication was that he would continue to serve in the selection committee, and more importantly, that he would participate in the fresh round of interviews on the 22nd of March.

It turns out that he didn't. Neither did three others on the committee -- M.S. Ananth, Lila Poonawalla and H. M. Nerurkar.

A day later, Kakodkar talks to Yogita Rao of ToI:

"It is too casual a process for the appointment of directors of IITs," said nuclear scientist Anil Kakodkar in his first remarks on record after his run-in with the HRD ministry over the appointment of directors of the IITs at Patna, Ropar and Bhubaneshwar. Union minister Smriti Irani had called for a fresh process to interview 36 candidates in a single day. "What was done before was okay. Looking at all 36 candidates in one day is not right. There is a fundamental difficulty with the process. How do you ensure that you make the correct selection?" he asked, while speaking to TOI on Monday.

"IITs are far too important to the country to have such a casual process for the appointment of its directors. It has to be dealt with seriously. How can one be party to such a process?" he said.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Selection of TIFR Director: An e-mail from a professor at NYU to the Prime Minister

What you see below is a slightly edited version of an e-mail addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with "Expressing Concern over PMO & HRD Ministry Interference in TIFR, Premier Institutes (IITs, etc)" as its subject. I have the permission to identify the sender only as "a Professor from NYU, who wants to withhold his name."


  • Expressing solidarity with Scientific Community’s concern about PMO’s interference in TIFR Director selection.

  • Expressing concern over Minister’s/Bureaucrat’s increased interference in selecting IIT Directors, Premier Research Institute Directors.

* * *

Hon’ble Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi,

I am writing this letter to you to express my solidarity with my fellow Scientist’s concern over the recent unhealthy developments, in the process of setting directions for premier Academic Institutes (IITs, IISERs etc) and Central Government Research Institutes spread across India, and the arbitrary manner bureaucrats are starting to take decisions.

We, Visiting Scientists in Central Research Institutes, are deeply concerned about the ill treatment meted to Scientific community by IAS bureaucrats in PMO and in key Ministries, resulting in situations where our fellow scientists are getting demoralized. Dr Sandip Trivedi is a brilliant Scientist of international repute and held key investigator roles in Fermi Labs in Illinois, US, a reputed lab for Theoretical Physics, for several years. We get alarmed when Internationally accomplished Scientists like Dr Sandip Trivedi are rejected based on Technical grounds and by bureaucrat’s whims in PMO, suggesting that PMO bureaucrats have no clue in evaluating eminent Scientists like Dr Sandip [Trivedi]. In addition, my fellow Professors in IITs are unhappy with HRD Minister Mrs Smriti Irani [whose] style of functioning has been a source of concern for many Faculty members in IITs and other centrally funded Technical Institutes. Expressing dissatisfaction about HRD Ministry functioning, even senior Scientists like Dr Anil Kakodkar are starting to dissociate from IIT Governing bodies, suggesting an unhealthy trend. Series of incidents prompts us to come to the rescue of our friends in India and urging you to intervene and make suitable corrections.

Institutes of National importance like IITs, IIMs etc, Premier Research Institutes like TIFR, CSIR should be allowed to function autonomously and key Ministries like S&T Ministry, HRD Ministry, Dept. Of Atomic Energy should be managed with a scientific temper, like in United States and Europe. When Scientists of Indian origins shine outside of India, it is the responsibility of Government of India to provide an equivalent ecosystem in India itself to harness the potential of Indian Scientific community. Unfortunately, from what I gather from my fellow Scientists in India, Ministers in-charge, Senior bureaucrats in PMO and Ministerial Secretaries do not have the Scientific bent of mind to make them accountable by coming up with proper metrics, instead constantly interfere in their work citing frivolous reasons.

I was able to pursue my higher study in [Institution X] and have been [serving as a Named Chair Institution Y] from the year 2011 onwards, and [I] completely support the existing selection process for TIFR Director. I urge Hon’ble Prime Minister to solicit inputs from eminent scientists, study Government labs in US, Europe and Japan, take [everyone] on-board and make suitable corrections.



[A Professor at NYU]


  1. Michael Gordin in Aeon: Absolute English. "How did science come to speak only English?"

  2. Noah Berlatsky in Pacific Standard: What Is the Point of Academic Books? "Ultimately, they're meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell."

  3. Gillian Tett in The Financial Times: A degree of creativity. ‘Vocational degrees provide skills that can become outdated or be replaced by robots.’

  4. Attention Decay in Science, a paper by Pietro Della Briotta Parolo, Raj Kumar Pan, Rumi Ghosh, Bernardo A. Huberman, and Kimmo Kaski. Here's the abstract:

    The exponential growth in the number of scientific papers makes it increasingly difficult for researchers to keep track of all the publications relevant to their work. Consequently, the attention that can be devoted to individual papers, measured by their citation counts, is bound to decay rapidly. In this work we make a thorough study of the life-cycle of papers in different disciplines. Typically, the citation rate of a paper increases up to a few years after its publication, reaches a peak and then decreases rapidly. This decay can be described by an exponential or a power law behavior, as in ultradiffusive processes, with exponential fitting better than power law for the majority of cases. The decay is also becoming faster over the years, signaling that nowadays papers are forgotten more quickly. However, when time is counted in terms of the number of published papers, the rate of decay of citations is fairly independent of the period considered. This indicates that the attention of scholars depends on the number of published items, and not on real time.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Crusaders against bad science

Links to interviews of people at the forefront of the fight against bad science:

  1. Over at, Julia Belluz has an interview of a leader in the fight against bad science: John Ioannidis has dedicated his life to quantifying how science is broken [see also Ioannidis's recent paper: How to Make More Published Research True]. An excerpt from the interview:

    Julia Belluz: How do you guard against bad science?

    John Ioannidis: We need scientists to very specifically be able to filter [bad] studies. We need better peer review at multiple levels. Currently we have peer review done by a couple of people who get the paper and maybe they spend a couple of hours on it. Usually they cannot analyze the data because the data are not available – well, even if they were, they would not have time to do that. We need to find ways to improve the peer review process and think about new ways of peer review.

    Recently there’s increasing emphasis on trying to have post-publication review [see below for an interview with the founders of PubPeer]. Once a paper is published, you can comment on it, raise questions or concerns. But most of these efforts don’t have an incentive structure in place that would help them take off. There’s also no incentive for scientists or other stakeholders to make a very thorough and critical review of a study, to try to reproduce it, or to probe systematically and spend real effort on re-analysis. We need to find ways people would be rewarded for this type of reproducibility or bias checks.

    Julia Belluz: Doesn’t this require basically restructuring the whole system of science?

    John Ioannidis: These are open questions, I don’t have the answers. Currently we have a couple of time points where studies get reviewed. Some studies get reviewed at a funding level, and the review may not be very scientific. Many focus on the promises of significance here, and scientists have to overpromise. There’s review at the stage of the manuscript, which seems to be pretty suboptimal. So if you think about where should we intervene, maybe it should be in designing and choosing study questions and designs, and the ways that these research questions should be addressed, maybe even guiding research — promoting team science, large collaborative studies rather than single investigators with independent studies — all the way to the post-publication peer review.

    Julia Belluz: If you were made science czar, what would you fix first?

    John Ioannidis: [...] Maybe what we need is to change is the incentive and reward system in a way that would reward the best methods and practices. Currently we reward the wrong things: people who submit grant proposals and publish papers that make extravagant claims. That’s not what science is about. If we align our incentive and rewards in a way that gives credibility to good methods and science, maybe this is the way to make progress.

  2. Another must read is Julia Belluzs interview of PubPeer founders:

    Why you can't always believe what you read in scientific journals. PubPeer is a website / platform to promote post-publication review, discussion, and scrutiny. Here's a sample from the interview, where the founders comment on the craze for publishing in "high impact" journals, and take a swipe at the editors at these journals:

    JB: There's been a lot of talk in recent years about how broken science is, particularly the peer-review process. What are the bigger systemic changes that need to happen in order to fix it?

    PP: The biggest problem is the pressure to chase after "metrics" — indirect measures of scientific success. The most important metric is publication in top journals, which determines jobs, grants, everything. This distorts the scientific process toward mostly illusory "breakthroughs" and "high-impact research" at the expense of careful work. Scientists now find themselves ruled by often-incompetent kingmakers — the editors of the top journals — who effectively decide their futures and make scientific fashion.

    PubPeer is helping scientists retake control of their lives, work, and careers by providing a collective judgment that is independent of and ultimately more important than acceptance by the top journals. That judgment is the expert opinion of your peers. We are also big fans of open-access publishing and the use of pre-print servers such as ArXiv or the newer bioRxiv; we believe these will also loosen the stranglehold of the top journals on research.