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. iitmsriram said...

    NYU Prof says "completely support the existing selection process for TIFR Director". The selection process does not allow anyone to "apply" for this position. In fact, as the post is not advertised or announced, how would any aspirant know? This makes it completely upto the search cum selection committee to decide who is to be considered and who need not be. The problem now is that of bad timing - one should not raise this issue when the appointment is on the table (especially as we have a good candidate), but should do it well before the process starts up. If not anything else, in the interest of transparency, it would do well for TIFR to have an open announcement, no? (like IITs do; IITs also did not always announce and used this same nomination plus search cum selection committee process. Now, all IITs advertise the Director post). What is wrong if TIFR announces that it is searching for a new director and welcomes nominations?

    Don't know if following can be believed, but the press reports that some TIFR folks wrote to the PM's office some months ago in this connection.

    I think there is also some incomplete knowledge about IIT Director selection; the additional secretary who ran the process has been shifted out. I don't believe this is a case of "ill treatment meted to Scientific community by IAS bureaucrats".

  2. Ankur Kulkarni said...

    No, Prof Sriram. TIFR board should go by its own mind, and not be bullied by legalese. Was Cyrus Mistry's post "announced" when Ratan Tata was to retire? Are we not satisfied with the process regardless?

    Besides, if there is a legal problem, one must not succumb to fear mongering and therefore follow some safe path. Rather, let us get the best lawyers on board and beat the hell out of those trying to intimidate us with legalese. All top institutions should arm themselves with legal expertise and take babus to court whenever they curtail IIT's freedom.

    Eventually, the law is man-made. If there is a problem, it should be changed so that intellectuals can freely exert their mind.

  3. iitmsriram said...

    Ankur, what you point out is precisely the problem. TIFR is not a Tata company but a tax payer funded institution. This requires a certain degree of transparency in functioning. What do I care about who Ratan Tata appoints, it is something between the shareholders and the Board. Maybe you are satisfied with the process by which Cyrus Mistry was appointed, but I could care less, I don't hold any Tata shares. But that is not the case with TIFR. With TIFR, there is no legal problem, there is no legalese. But to proclaim that we will only take secret nominations into consideration is, in my opinion, not the way to go for a tax payer funded institution. The TIFR board should go by its own mind in the selection, but not in the matter of who may be considered for selection.

    Incidentally, what does this have to do with IITs freedom?

  4. Science Crooks said...

    Dear Prof at NYU,
    I just wanted to know how often director/president of your institute get decided by 2-3 ppl, who themselves are retired some 10-20 year earlier? You said that u know candidate X is good and govt is wrong in not accepting that choice. As you and other competent people vouch for him, I fail to understand what candidate X has to fear from an open process?
    Dear Ankur,
    As you do not want govt interference and small matters like rules on public appointment, why you and other scientist try to get financial autonomy too for TIFR? Why to rely on govt money??

  5. Ankur Kulkarni said...

    Again, Prof Sriram, what you are raising is an objection based on what you perceive a publicly funded institution ought to do. I disagree with it. Essentially, you are on the side of the PMO and I am on the TIFR side of the TIFR board. We can debate endlessly on this. Eventually, the only way to rigorously sort this out is by taking matters to the court of law. I would ask my lawyer to carefully and creatively interpret the laws that govern TIFR to win the case.

    Unfortunately, when faced with a possible grey areas like these, our institutions do not seek creative legal ways to do what they need to do. The general way of functioning instead seems to be that one imagines adverse circumstances that can arise or conjures up some norms of propriety and tries to follow them (like you are suggesting, where you want open applications in the name of `transparency').

    There is no need to fear and be so coy. I believe the TIFR board should stand its ground, and fight its case in the court of law.

    (IIT was a typo-- I meant top institutions)

  6. Ankur Kulkarni said...

    @Science Crooks I don't see why it is a given that if one gets govt money, one also gets govt interference. By that logic, since the Supreme court judges are paid for by the govt, do they always adjudicate in favour of the govt? Or the election commission favours the current govt? To be govt funded and to be independent of interference are not contradictory. It only requires some self-restraint on the part of the govt, and some courage on the part of the institutions.

  7. iitmsriram said...

    Ankur states, "what you are raising is an objection based on what you perceive a publicly funded institution ought to do. I disagree with it.". So, Ankur, what do you think is the responsibility of a publicly funded Institution? Any? None?? Would some accountability be required? What would you define as accountability and what would you define as interference?

    Ankur also states "... only requires some self-restraint on the part of the govt, and some courage on the part of the institutions". Would some self-restraint be required / expected on the part of the institutions also? And who is to determine if the institution / government is exhibiting such self-restraint? My determination will not agree with yours, most likely ...

  8. Ankur Kulkarni said...

    That is true. So we disagree and fight it out in court. Eventually the TIFR board is committed to the betterment of TIFR. It should seek creative legal ways to do what is needed to do for this. If it thinks that not announcing the position is better, so be it, so long as it can eventually be defended legally.

    Too often in our institutions we give in to premeditated fear-mongering. We take decisions based on what we as faculty or some other pseudo-expert (some administrator, colleague etc) thinks will happen -- e.g., there will be an RTI, there will be this and that -- and that is always too conservative. This may be ok in minor matters, but in important matters, why not consult a top lawyer instead, saying "this is what I want to do for my institution. If the matter eventually goes to court, can it be defended?"

  9. myopic astronomer said...

    I would agree with Sriram: TIFR, CSIR or any other tax-funded institution has to be a lot more transparent in its mandate, focus and operations. We must give them autonomy, but not a blank cheque for operations. If they want that, they should get a substantial portion of their operational funding from those private players who would grant them blank cheque. At any rate, while I respect my ex-colleagues and teachers in TIFR, I won't them to run institutions on the whims of old-boy networks.

    Those who want blank cheques, please generate your own cheques, don't ask a reluctant tax payer to fund it. Btw, my own PhD was also funded by the tax payer, and I would respect all probity in its funds, focus and final application.