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 Vox.com, 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.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Pachauri case: An update

This report by Ramesh Menon over at India Legal is an update only in the sense that we now have more details. Here's an excerpt:

The second complainant said that she had brought it to the notice of the second-in-command at TERI, only to be sternly told that she had misread his warmth. She added: “Of the most common and public sight of such behavior by him that many of us vividly recall was performed on the floor where his office is located and is home to a manicured roof-top garden and badminton court. These evening sessions would often draw to a close with high-tea, and many a time with him lifting a female employee as if they were little girls…. Once, he called me to his room to discuss some work but picked up a coffee-table book. He thumbed the pages of what was an architectural design catalogue with designs of swimming pools and gardens. I was still waiting for where he was going with it. What followed was startling: he promised to get me a certain foundation’s pool membership if I would care to join him for swims on the weekends.”

After securing admission to a university abroad, she quit and thought that was the end of her trauma. She alleges that when Pachauri saw the resignation letter, he threatened: “From the airport to the university you are headed to, I have friends at every step. Let’s see if you manage to leave the country.” She added that though all this happened a decade back, she had now found the courage to speak up after the earlier complaint was registered.

Another female employee of TERI told India Legal that she lauded the courage of these two women who spoke up against Pachauri. Yet another former employee said she was shocked that the women in the top management of TERI had not raised a voice against him all these years though they knew what was happening. “Even now, they are not standing up to say the truth,” she lamented.

It's a war out there: Journal Impact vs. Editors' Impact

Mark Johnston fires the first shot in his editorial at the journal Genetics with a journal-to-journal comparison (within a select set of biology journals) of the journal impact factors (JIF) against what he calls the "Journal Authority Factor" (JAF), the average h-index of the journals' editors. [See also: his follow-up post].

The inverse correlation (see the table, above) is pretty strong!

This editorial gets an enthusiastic response from Stefano Bertuzzi of American Society for Cell Biology.

Now that India is through to the World Cup quarterfinals ...

... against Bangladesh, the "minnow" that sent England packing, here's a fake interview of MCC Chairman. Much fun there, including a magical appearance of Moore's Last Sigh.

The interview appears in Paaji vs. Punter, a cricket blog with a keen eye on not just the game, but also on some of the controversial and fun stuff around the game; a previous post, for example, featured another fake interview with Virat Kohli.

I think it's just a matter of time before someone like Lalit Modi makes his appearance there ...

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Links: Pi Day Edition

  1. V. Vinay's tweet-essay on Pi is a must-read! Story of Pi.

  2. Manil Suri's op-ed in NYTimes: Don’t Expect Math to Make Sense. "On Pi Day, Celebrate Math’s Enigmas."

Friday, March 13, 2015

Vinod Mehta

Vinod Mehta, the founder-editor of Outlook, passed away a few days ago. Many obituaries have noted his courageous journalism, one of its high points being the release of the Radia tapes which, by all accounts, caused his exit from the editorship of the magazine. Many also noted his liberalism. Quite a few noted his staunch defence of secularism. I too remember him, and admire him, for all this and more. But what I admire him most for is his light touch -- exemplified by his Delhi Diary columns, one of which ended with this:

Spare Me the Parsimony
Among the two or three abusive e-mails I receive daily, there is usually some mention of my being born out of wedlock. You Parsi b****** is how they frequently describe me. India is a free country, so everyone is entitled to his/her opinion, but errors of fact must be corrected. Hate mailwallahs please note I am a Punjabi, not a Parsi.

* * *

Here are some links: his recent interview, his month-long Twitter stream (created to promote his second book of autobiographical memoirs, Editor Unplugged), or the obituary penned by Arundhati Roy (almost all of whose non-fiction work appeared first in Mehta's magazine).

Tragic Consequences of Writing to the Prime Minister

If you ever visit the website of the Prime Minister, there's this link that beckons you: Interact with PM. Don't click the link!

If you do, you'll find on this page a couple of other links: To share ideas, insights and thoughts, and To write to the Prime Minister. Don't click on them!

A DAE scientist did click on them, and succumbed to the lure of giving some suggestions to the Prime Minister, and what followed is ... .

Well, read it all in this report and cry: Nuclear scientist lands in trouble with DAE for sending suggestions to PM Narendra Modi.

Here's a statement from a DAE official who really knows his Kafka:

As an organisation, we will follow the process.

* * *

Hat tip to Ankur Kulkarni for the comment-alert.

There was an Open Page essay in The Hindu about a month ago that described the author's experience of writing to the PM through his website, only to see his hopes (of conversing directly with the PM) dashed by a missive from the PMO informing him that his letter has been forwarded to some ministry or the other. The essay, which I am not able to locate, was dripping with mild sarcasm that made me chuckle here and there. At some level, this news item would also be funny if only the consequences for the DAE scientist were not so tragic.

Problems at AIIMS

While the present government has chosen to continue with the UPA regime's policy of opening new AIIMS in different states, how well has the original AIIMS at Delhi been functioning? M. Rajshekhar has a two-part   series in The Economic Times on this very question. Here's an excerpt from the second part from a section on the governance structure of AIIMS, and how the Health Minister's leadership of the board poses problems:

Corruption and nepotism

A handful of India's public health institutions are deeply respected across India. There is AIIMS, Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGI) Chandigarh, National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, Bengaluru, and Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research (Jipmer), Pondicherry.

Of these, AIIMS stands out in one important way. Says a former health secretary: "There is greater political interference in AIIMS than in other colleges like Nimhans or Jipmer. It is almost a tradition that the health minister will be the chairman of AIIMS."

An MP on the board of AIIMS, who spoke to ET on condition of anonymity, said the minister outranks everyone else on the AIIMS board. As per the AIIMS Act, the governing board should have the DG (health services), representatives from the ministries of health and finance, four medical scientists, one "non-medical scientist" and three MPs. "In this board," said the MP, "everyone is at the same level — below the minister. So what he says goes."

Should the health minister also be AIIMS' chairman? Does this indeed leave AIIMS autonomous? "It's a position with a lot of prestige and power. They can oblige people by getting them admitted into the hospital," says the health ministry ex-CVO.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

PMO Interference in the Selection of TIFR Director?

Disturbing report in The Hindustan Times: PMO Rejects TIFR Director's Appointment:

he Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has rejected the appointment of the new director at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) on technical grounds.

While scientists have termed this government interference, sources said this is the first time in the history of TIFR, the country’s premier scientific research institution, that a director’s appointment has been vetoed by the PMO.

“It has happened,” scientist CNR Rao, chairman of the search committee and Bharat Ratna, told HT over phone from Bangalore.


  1. A great infographic on migration patterns of international students.

  2. Duncan Watts at BuzzFeed Books: Should you go to grad school? "It’s expensive, time consuming, and risky ... so is it right for you?"

    ... Certainly it was a great experience for me, but it’s not for everyone. Grad students are by nature competitive, analytical types who are already predisposed to overthinking everything, so the intensity and uncertainty of grad school make it a breeding ground for insecurity and anxiety. It’s definitely not something you should subject yourself to because you can’t think of anything else to do, nor should you suffer through it on the grounds that you’ll be happier with the academic career that it leads to. There are plenty of miserable academics out there as well, and lots of great and interesting things to do with your life that don’t require a Ph.D., not to mention the five to seven years that most people spend getting one. Don’t sign up for it lightly.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Everyday, the internets teach me ...

... something new.

This one is about the vicious campaign in 1897 at the University of Cambridge to protest against "proposals to allow women to get degrees." The link takes you to a tweet-pic, followed by interesting tweet-comments (some of them taking you to other pictures; this one is quite revealing). There's also this Wikipedia entry on women's education at Cambridge.

* * *

[See also: A previous post on women's education at Princeton University.]

Saturday, March 07, 2015

"Wittgenstein, Schoolteacher"

That's the title of this charming Paris Review essay about the six-year slice of the philosopher's life spent as a teacher in several Austrian villages.

... [His] later work is full of references to teaching and children. His Philosophical Investigations opens with a long discussion of how children learn language, in order to investigate what the essence of language is. And Wittgenstein is sometimes explicit about the connection; he once said that in considering the meaning of a word, it’s helpful to ask, “How would one set about teaching a child to use this word?” If nothing else, the style of his later work is absolutely teacherly; his post-return writings are so full of thought experiments phrased in the imperative that they can feel like exercises in a textbook or transcripts of a class discussion. “Consider for example the proceedings that we call ‘games’ … What is common to them all?—Don’t say: ‘There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’—but look and see whether there is anything common to all … ”

The style reflects Wittgenstein’s new aim, which was pedagogical. [...]

Bob Goldstein: The Thrill of Defeat

In Nautilus, he tries very hard, perhaps too hard, to convince us that people whose research gets scooped would always feel bad -- horribly, horribly bad; his article has quite a few sentences like this one: "Months or years of work can become redundant, or worthless." He then goes on to show that the reaction of Francis Crick and Sidney Brenner was totally the opposite of sadness or bitterness. Maybe this is some sort of a narrative ploy to make Crick and Brenner look more noble and almost superhuman (which they probably are!).

The rest of the story is quite good, actually. Along the way, you get some interesting science as well (and some inside dope about how the biochemists and geneticists hated each other).

Anyways, here it is:

Crick would later write that the audience in Moscow had been “electrified” by Nirenberg’s result, changing the word later to “startled.” Crick may have felt both startled and electrified. But disappointment? If Crick felt some disappointment, it wasn’t apparent to Meselson, who characterized Crick’s initial reaction to the news as “joy.” “What else could it be?,” Meselson explained to me by phone, “by god, we’d know the answer in our lifetime!”

Even Meselson, who had his own research program on DNA, had impulsively hugged Nirenberg at the end of his talk. I tried to imagine two men of that era spontaneously hugging in a lecture room at a conference, particularly when one was a geneticist and other a biochemist. Maxine Singer, a biochemist who gave Nirenberg the RNAs he needed for his experiments, told me that the “biochemists and geneticists were suspicious of each other,” something that Brenner echoed to me in person.

Mint: Centre-funded institutes can now hire non-academicians

Prashant Nanda reports in Mint that MHRD has "allowed" IITs and IIMs to hire engineers, civil servants and other such professionals as (adjunct?) faculty for up to 3 years:

The human resource development (HRD) ministry has issued formal guidelines to all central government-funded technical institutes to this effect. [...]

The schools can now hire professionals to fill up to a fourth of their allowed faculty strength, and pay them a maximum of Rs.1.2 lakh a month, two government officials said, citing a circular from the ministry.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Stephen King on Writing

An article he published in 1986 in The Writer -- Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully – in Ten Minutes -- is largely devoted to advice on publishing fiction [hat tip to @AkshatRathi on Twitter].

By sheer coincident, Jessica Lahey's interview of Stephen King on how he teaches writing to high school students also showed up in my linkstream.

If you are into this sort of stuff, both are worth your time. Let me post a couple of excerpts from the first article. Here's how he defines success for a writer:

... For the purposes of the beginning writer, talent may as well be defined as eventual success – publication and money. If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented. Now some of you are really hollering. Some of you are calling me one crass money-fixated creep. And some of you are calling me bad names. Are you calling Harold Robbins talented? someone in one of the Great English Departments of America is screeching. V.C. Andrews? Theodore Dreiser? Or what about you, you dyslexic moron?

Nonsense. Worse than nonsense, off the subject. We’re not talking about good or bad here. I’m interested in telling you how to get your stuff published, not in critical judgments of who’s good or bad. As a rule the critical judgments come after the check’s been spent, anyway. I have my own opinions, but most times I keep them to myself. People who are published steadily and are paid for what they are writing may be either saints or trollops, but they are clearly reaching a great many someones who want what they have. Ergo, they are communicating. Ergo, they are talented. The biggest part of writing successfully is being talented, and in the context of marketing, the only bad writer is one who doesn’t get paid.

He ends his piece on a highly quotable quote:

If it’s bad, kill it

When it comes to people, mercy killing is against the law. When it comes to fiction, it is the law.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

The Not Entirely Unintended Consequences of the Erasmus Program

Ah, the possibilities of student exchange [This is six months late, but I'm struck by the timelessness of this "news"]:

A study published by the European Commission this week suggests that more than a quarter of those who take part in its long-running Erasmus scheme meet their long-term partner while studying abroad – and that more than one million babies may have been produced as a result. [...]

European Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen said the one million babies statistic was a “touching little figure” that proved the scheme “creates a lot of positive things”. “It is a great encouragement to young people to go and live abroad and open up to all the opportunities that exist if you are willing,” she added.

And, oh, the report has a lot more about how great the Erasmus program has been.


  1. David Pilling: Lunch with FT: Amitav Ghosh.

  2. Ram Guha in HT: The suit might not have suited Gandhi and Patel.

  3. Nandini Sundar in The Indian Express: Whose National Interest?