Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Prawns and greens pasta

I occasionally used to post recipes on this blog, but haven't done so in a long time. Among other things, doing so helps me recover a forgotten recipe. The recipes I post are usually self-invented, but inspired by something I ate or read about somewhere. I only post them when the result is incredibly delicious. All the ingredients are freely available in Pune, where I live.

So if you love prawns, hop into the kitchen and get going:

Serves 2-3:

250 gm prawns, peeled and deveined
One large zucchini, diced
A handful of rucola ("rocket" or "roquette" or "arugula")
Two celery stalks cut in small pieces
3-4 tomatoes, blanched and peeled, then cut into large chunks
Long pasta (spaghetti or better, linguine or fettucine)
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small teaspoon of mashed/chopped garlic
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
1 cube of vegetable stock, crushed into a coarse powder and used in place of salt.


1. Gently warm olive oil in a pan. Add garlic and parsley. Do not overheat the oil.
2. Allow this to cook slowly until garlic is very slightly browned.
3. Add celery, then zucchini. Sprinkle with half the vegetable stock (reserve the other half until later).
4. When the zucchini starts to brown a little, add the prawns and stir. A minute later add the tomatoes and the remaining stock. Cover and keep on LOW heat for about 8-10 minutes until the zucchini starts to soften. The tomato chunks should not disintegrate and the prawns should not be overcooked.

5. Turn off the heat. The pan should contain a nice watery prawn-flavoured gravy. Add the rucola at this point. Check for salt. Do not try to evaporate or thicken the gravy.

The sauce when it's done
The final dish
6. In a pot, heat plenty of water, add a tablespoon of salt and throw in the pasta. Cook for about a minute less than recommended on the package. Then drain and mix the pasta with the sauce. Stir well and cover, with the heat either turned off or very low, for about 1-2 minutes.

7. Serve

I love this dish for its mix of bright colours and subtle flavours. What makes it special is the way the zucchini and tomatoes absorb and echo the perfume of seafood. It needs to be made with some delicacy. If you're Indian you will surely ask if it's OK to add onions, cheese or chillies. The answers are i) NO, ii) NO and iii) NO.

On the subject of cheese with pasta, I must recount a memorable dinner in Venice circa 1990 with Dutch friends. Since I speak Italian, I was doing the ordering. One of them ordered pasta with clams and then told me to ask the waiter for parmesan cheese. I said this was a no-no in Italy: no cheese with seafood. Unconvinced, she spotted some bowls of grated parmesan on a nearby shelf, picked up one, brought it to the table and spooned the cheese over her pasta. When the waiter came by next, I thought he noticed the cheese bowl but he said nothing. Afterwards my friend ordered chocolate mousse for dessert. As I conveyed this order, the waiter came very close to me and whispered: "One wonders if the lady would like parmesan cheese with that"...

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Thoughts on the gallows

I am opposed to the death penalty. But I have some strong disagreements with many of my liberal friends who commented when Yakub Memon was hanged a few days ago. That I also don’t agree with the views of conservatives on this subject goes without saying, but I’ll say it at more length below.

The death penalty is a stage in the progress of ideas about justice. There have been more barbaric things in the past, such as mob lynching, which is now treated as unacceptable wherever there is a developed legal system. A mob can neither verify the guilt of the accused nor decide what punishment should be imposed. These conclusions must be reached by attention to hard facts, careful investigation and a calm dispassionate approach – in other words, a legal and penal system. An important part of such a system is a range of punishments that can be calibrated to fit the degree of the crime.

In the evolution of legal systems, the death penalty was present just about everywhere, from the Christian to the Islamic to the Chinese world. Wikipedia tells us that “By 1820 in Britain, there were 160 crimes that were punishable by death, including crimes such as shoplifting, petty theft, stealing cattle, or cutting down trees in a public place.” Meanwhile back home, the Agni Purana recommends the death penalty for “polluting ponds and temples” according to the book “Crime and Punishment in Ancient India, C. A.D. 300 to A.D. 1100” by Sukla Das (see page 72). By the above rules, a good fraction of the British and pretty much everyone in India would be dead by now. Executions were frequently public and people would come to watch - along with their children - and even applaud. This is understandable: if a picnicker throwing a plastic bottle into a lake in India were publicly hanged today, I too would come and applaud! But at least I understand that I'm joking. Reality used to be much less funny,  and it hasn't changed much in some places.
During the 20th century two important developments took place across the world. One is that courts started not to impose the death penalty even when the offense was severe and execution was an available option in law. We can assume that in doing so, they were guided by an evolution of public beliefs. Public executions were also deemed unseemly and largely stopped. The second development is that, also keeping up with public opinion, parliaments started to abolish the penalty completely or make it so extremely rare that in practice it would never be used. As a result, today 159 countries have actually or virtually abolished the death penalty, while only 36 countries actively practise it. The situation  by country is summarised here and there is an illuminating colour-coded world map. I found it intriguing that Gabon, Latvia, Benin, Mongolia and Madagascar have recently abolished the death penalty, and considerably less surprising that Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Somalia still carry out public executions. Capital punishment is banned by the Council of Europe, and the United Nations General Assembly tried to ban it a few years ago but were opposed by many countries, notably China, India, the United States and Indonesia.

What was the evolution of public opinion and belief that led to a slowdown in executions and eventually an outright ban in so many parts of the world?  This stemmed from a growing ethical discomfort with the fact that anyone should take it upon themselves to execute another person, no matter what that other person may have done. If murder is abhorrent in the first place, civilised society harms itself and its own level of civilisation if it carries out an act of the same level of abhorrence. One of the most influential writers on the subject was the 18th century Italian jurist and philosopher, Cesare Beccaria, who according to Wikipedia:

"openly condemned the death penalty on two grounds: first, because the state does not possess the right to take lives; and secondly, because capital punishment is neither a useful nor a necessary form of punishment"

The article goes on to say:

"Beccaria developed in his treatise a number of innovative and influential principles: 
  • punishment had a preventive (deterrent), not a retributive, function; 
  • punishment should be proportionate to the crime committed; 
  • the probability of punishment, not its severity, would achieve the preventive effect; 
  • procedures of criminal convictions should be public; and finally, 
  • in order to be effective, punishment should be prompt"
I have not read Beccaria in any detail, but I strongly agree with these observations. The third point in the above list is something I've been saying for many years, even when I deal with penalties for academic ethics violations (sadly capital punishment is not an option in this context!! Sorry, joke over.). Namely, what prevents crimes is a relatively milder punishment that is applied on transgressors with certainty, rather than a harsh punishment that may totally ruin the lives of some while letting others go free.

I fear that few in India, even among the highly educated, have reflected on principles of natural justice or tried to understand penology. Indeed, as a society we are not really past the mob lynching stage. With the most minimal factual information, people will recommend the death penalty for anything that makes their blood boil. I've had the unpleasant experience of arguing at length with Facebook friends who feel that rapists, for example, should be hanged. I understand their anger but they rarely seem to understand that justice delivered in anger is not justice. They also don't understand that the principles one is arguing over do not imply any particular "sympathy for the accused", they are principles and have nothing to do with any specific accused.

I would suggest (to whom?) that in India we have more well-informed discussions and debates on justice and on penology, and slowly try to move our society in the direction of abolishing capital punishment. But let's not have these discussions in the context of a horrific case like the 1993 blasts or the Delhi gang-rape. The discussions need to be rational and free of an emotional background.

So, back to the late Yakub Memon. If anyone simply says that whatever he may be guilty of, they don’t believe in capital punishment and therefore he shouldn't have been hanged, then I fully agree. Indeed this is my precise view. But some very strange things have been said about this case on social media. First of all, a view has circulated that he was hanged merely for being the brother of a criminal. However the charges against him are rather explicit according to this article in the Hindustan Times:

"According to the charges, key conspirators Tiger Memon, along with Dawood Ibrahim and his brother Anees Ibrahim, had called some of their trusted men, including Yakub, to Dubai between December 1992 and January 1993 to chalk out a plan to execute the serial blasts in Mumbai. It was alleged that Memon had played a key role in the execution of the conspiracy. He was also accused of giving financial assistance to the terrorist activity. It was alleged that Memon had, through his contacts, arranged Rs 21.90 lakh for the execution of the plan. The prosecution had alleged that the Memon family played an active role in the blasts and that their own vehicles were used to plant bombs. Yakub was also accused of distribution of arms and ammunition, detonators and explosives to other accused." 

I cannot verify that these are the exact charges, nor can I be certain that he was indeed guilty of them. And I sense that among many liberal thinkers there is a suspicion the courts were biased in condemning him to death, or that they did so based on insufficient evidence. But (given that we are not party to additional information) we must also contemplate the possibility that he really did everything listed above. If so, he was aware that large numbers of innocent people were going to die in bomb blasts and he materially conspired to make this happen. For this, it seems quite clear he would be deserving of the highest punishment in the land. In this context I disagree with a lot of the whataboutism going on these days: what about Maya Kodnani? what about the Staines killers? what about anti-Sikh riots and Gujarat riots? Well what about them indeed. If anyone implicated in those events was wrongly acquitted, bailed or whatever, that would be a miscarriage or delay of justice and it should certainly be talked about or challenged. But this is no reason to deny Yakub Memon the maximum punishment for knowingly conspiring in a truly awful crime.

The maximum punishment today in India is capital punishment and this is what he got. I've already mentioned that in itself this punishment is morally repugnant to me, and now I would like to bring up one more of its limitations: if evidence were to emerge tomorrow that he is not guilty of the charges (and we have no basis to argue whether that can happen or not) it would be too late to do anything about it. Significant numbers of people executed, typically for murder, have been found innocent after they were dead -- a famous case is that of Timothy Evans. This is another very powerful argument against the death penalty.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The cult of sycophancy

I've lived and worked in India for over thirty years now but never come to terms with the cult of sycophancy. This concept does exist in some form all over the world, but India is very special. Here, groups seem to naturally subdivide into the leaders and the led, and immediately something else kicks in: the followers turn into craven sycophants and flatterers of their leader. The leader quickly starts to enjoy, develop and promote it. The relationship grows, with more flatterers clustering around each leader-figure, who (if he/she is any good at this) manages them with favours.

However, it would be a mistake to think the favours always have to be substantive. If they were, I would be referring not to sycophancy but to simple reciprocity which, though ethically inappropriate, is a very different thing. With sycophants the favours are mainly psychological and consist of a very guarded, almost royal, acceptance of the follower by the leader. The benefit to the follower seems to lie mainly in the thrill of being accepted as a follower -- apparently the more you rub your own face in the dirt, the tastier the dirt becomes!

In politics, examples are not hard to find. Supporters of each political party consider this to be a weakness only of their rival party, but the reality is different. I won't dwell on examples outside India, but here Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi, as well as all the Thackerays, had/have a huge cult of sycophancy around them, and to a lesser extent this also applies to people like Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, L.K. Advani in his time and even most recently Arvind Kejriwal. All the above cults are somewhat eclipsed in grandiosity and absurdity by the admirers of Dr J. Jayalalithaa, as I believe she calls herself. Sycophancy necessarily involves building up the leader to be much more than he or she can possibly be: the late Devakanta Baruah secured a place in history for his infamous statement: "India is Indira, Indira is India".

But that is politics and more generally public life (religion and cinema are other good examples). Personally I populate a different world altogher, the smaller and more private circle of academia. This is built around faculty who teach and do research, and students. Being a naive person I always felt that sycophancy was less likely to thrive in this environment, where each person has an important goal to achieve that can only be achieved through hard work. Yes I know, silly me. Over thirty years I've learned more and more about how things often work in this domain, and it never fails to annoy and upset me.

But first the good news. During this long period I've been fortunate to come across many people who were surrounded by no cult and who did excellent and admirable work. I can think of several physicists I've known personally, and even worked with, who were inspiring in this regard. Any momentary weakness (on the part of myself or anyone else) to "admire" them would be met with a change of subject or even a sharp remark. The implication was that one must keep a strong focus on the work. Admire the work if you like, not the person. Such people were not entirely selfless, rather they exhibited a form of enlightened self-interest. If you decline the opportunity to be flattered, your reputation actually rises higher and higher and (I believe) last longer and longer. So in this sense, accepting sycophancy is merely a short-term thrill.

And yet, so many in Indian academia do go in for the short-term thrill. Looking at all the Directors, Vice-Chancellors and Presidents of Academies, it's self-evident that the vast majority of them have reached where they are either by being sycophants or commanding a large army of flatterers, or both. Indeed there is no clear distinction between the giver and receiver of sycophancy - each one takes from the people below and gives to the people above. It is deeply ingrained in our academic hierarchies, where the word "dignitary" occupies an unseemly and entirely inappropriate place.

In this regard, a recent comment from a friend and colleague visiting from a US university made a major impact on me. "In the US, a Director is just one among us - the person who happens to be doing the job at the moment. I understand that in India a Director means something different, someone who is seen at a much `higher' level than everyone else, enjoying powers over everyone". How true.

This may be slightly off the main point but I must relate a little anecdote. Some years ago I was tasked with inviting the legendary Murray Gell-Mann to a conference in India. So one night, when it would be morning for him, I looked up the webpage of the Santa Fe Institute, dialled a number and was amazed when it was answered with "Gell-Mann speaking". He was courteous and chatty even though he did not in the end come for our conference. On another occasion I wrote to the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge and received a personal reply on the following day. But mails to a Director of an Indian institution (even my own, when I was in TIFR) would simply go un-answered.

Getting back to the issue, I'll conclude by pointing out many fall-outs of the sycophancy cult in Indian academia: (i) At least in academically strong institutions, everyone agrees that a scientist is to be judged by the quality of his/her work. However even in such insitutions, administrators are never judged by what they do, only by "who they are" (e.g. how many powerful committees they are in) and which powerful persons are backing them, (ii) Discussions about academic ethics are resisted by senior academics in positions of power. Offhand, I can't think of a single Director/VC/Academy Chair in India who has enthusiastically promoted greater sensitisation on the subject. The best ones simply tolerate some discussions/workshops on this issue and the worst ones don't even permit that, (iii) Our academic achievement is stuck where it is - small pockets of excellence but no larger push for collective achievement. It seems to be that the more we owe to our immediate leader, the less we owe to our country. So sycophancy in academia is deeply anti-national.

One wishes Mr Narayan Murthy had thought of mentioning some of this when he gave his recent talk at IISc.

Friday, May 29, 2015

What about whataboutism?

"Whataboutism" is a type of argument, often in the context of politics, that goes like this: person A says something (X) is very bad, and in response person B says "but what about Y" where Y is something different that (usually) is also very bad. The term was apparently coined during the Cold War, when apologists for the Soviet Union would respond to any criticism by counter-criticism of the United States. Another version of whataboutism is the "fallacy of relative privation", typified by the following hypothetical conversation: when dinner is delayed, Person A says "I'm hungry" and B replies "but there are children starving in Africa".

Whataboutism is a special case of the popular fallacy "two wrongs make a right" which, as an argument tactic, is rather pathetic. After all if X is bad, then the fact that Y is also bad does not make X any better. Sometimes the intended implication is different: "you say X is bad, but you've never said Y is bad. This proves you are dishonest and therefore your views on X are not respectable". In this form, whataboutism is recast as an ad hominem attack: A is a crook, therefore anything A says need not be believed. This is also illogical, for A may be a crook and yet what he/she says on a specific occasion may be true.

Although whataboutism and ad hominem arguments come up all the time (and I'm sure I unconsciously use them myself on occasion), they seem to be particularly popular among the right-wing trolls who have positioned themselves all over social media these days. I would not bother to blog about trolls but it disturbs me when (a few) friends and colleagues take such arguments seriously. When the BBC documentary on a gangrape in India, "India's Daughters" was recently released (and swiftly banned) a significant section of the Indian middle-class said, in effect, "but what about rape in Western countries?". It takes hardly a moment to accept that whatever happens in any other country, India's record on the safety of women is dismal. I could not understand why the film was treated not as an opportunity to reflect on ways to improve the situation, but as an occasion to counter-attack people who (whatever their other faults) are not responsible for rape in India. As I fully expected, months after this controversy erupted it's business as usual. The documentary has been seen by everyone who wants to see it (basically because nothing is banned on the internet), but its possible role in stimulating discussion and action on women's issues has effectively been diminished.

To be fair one shouldn't entirely blame right-wingers. A meme circulating on social media these days points out that a TV channel (CNN-IBN) which praised the first-year's performance of the current government is owned by Mr Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Industries. It concludes with a photo of Mr Ambani having a friendly chat with the Prime Minister. This is pure and simple ad hominem (or "ad channelem", if you prefer), the implication being that the channel chose to praise the government because of its owner's vested interests. By itself, this meme leaves us no wiser whether the first year of this government has indeed been a success or not. I have to say, though, that (perhaps because of my own political sympathies), I'm inclined to consider an ad hominem attack against a TV channel as less illogical than one against an individual.

The point in any case is that such arguments deflect the original discussion entirely away from the topic at hand, and on to generalities and personalities. This is their purpose. For many people, any mention of India's poor record on various things (women's safety, human rights, the environment, the treatment of minorities) induces guilt and shame above everything else. This in turn creates the urge to deflect the discussion and all the illogical arguments come in handy. What I've never understood is why anyone would feel personally guilty or ashamed of their country's poor record on issues unless they personally have a poor record on the same issues. It speaks of a level of identification which I personally cannot aspire to (thankfully).

Let me conclude with a telling joke that surely deserves an Indian version. This is from Wikipedia.

In a 1962 version, an American and a Soviet car salesman argue which country makes better cars. Finally, the American asks: "How many decades does it take an average Soviet man to earn enough money to buy a Soviet car?" After a thoughtful pause, the Soviet replies: "And you are lynching Negroes!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Memories of a Dead Head

I realise that science administration may not be everyone's favourite topic, so today I want to talk about the Grateful Dead instead. I can reveal that at the tender age of 17 or thereabouts, I became an officially certified Dead Head, the name given to fans of this rock band. It all started when my cousins in Delhi got hold of a couple of albums of the Dead, as they are known to their fans. I quickly became a convert. So much so, that eventually (with consent) I pinched my cousins' long-playing record of "American Beauty", one of the Dead's seminal albums, and still have it in my possession. It plays rather well, even though I vividly remember their dog once jumping on it while it was playing on their turntable.

Rock music has long been one of my passions though it has steadily become a guilty pleasure as I grow older. In 2003 I attended the Rolling Stones concert in Bombay and was relieved that everyone there was in their forties/fifties, as I was. With hindsight I can see now that it was the entire combination of power chords, pounding rhythms, exploration of meaning with an anti-establishment attitude, and (occasionally but importantly) brilliant poetry that attracted me to rock music, and still does.

Still, rock music is one topic and the Grateful Dead are quite another. One wonders if they even qualify as a rock band. Some of their albums (like American Beauty mentioned above) are described on Wikipedia as "folk rock and country music". And yet, if it wasn't for the Dead, I wouldn't be caught dead listening to country music! So what is it about them, exactly?

They lack much of the obvious appeal of rock bands -- they are nothing much to look at, they did not dress up or perform stunts on stage, they have few hit songs and never sought commercial success. They don't use power chords or pounding rhythms very much - quite the opposite, in fact. The Dead were always a "Zen" thing. With a very light rhythm and bass section and a singer (the late Jerry Garcia) who always sounded as if he had a bad cold, the only obvious redeeming feature was Garcia's amazing lead guitar -- melodic, gentle and sweet as honey. I strongly recommend this live version of "Uncle John's Band" from 1974, a peak period for them. You should be delighted by the incredibly subtle guitar solos sprinkled throughout (particularly if you're a fan of either jazz or Indian classical music). You may also notice Garcia's out-of-tune singing at various points, no doubt related to the massive ingestion of chemicals for which this band was collectively famous. Though I suppose we can't rule out that he also had a cold.

But it was not Garcia alone who made the band what it was. It was an extremely collective effort with Bob Weir and Phil Lesh playing key roles in composition and vocals, along with Ron McKernan in the early days. In fact the first song I remember hearing was the beautiful "Box of Rain", Lesh's outpouring of affection for his terminally ill father:

What do you want me to do,
To do for you to see you through?
A box of rain will ease the pain
And love will see you through.

If there was one thing that rock bands rarely did, and still rarely do, it's write songs for their fathers. So that was very special, right there. But the other song I remember from those days was "Dark Star", a long, rambling spacey blues that was sung (out of tune as usual) by Garcia. It was mostly a vehicle for his guitar playing, but also featured the memorable lines:

Shall we go, you and I
While we can?
Through the transitive nightfall
of diamonds

One has to remember that in those days pretty much everyone was seeing strange things in their mind's eye, but few could put them down quite so compellingly. Much of this was due to their resident poet Robert Hunter, who was a member of the band but didn't perform any instrument other than poetry. You can read the full lyrics of Dark Star here. In the process you will learn another special thing about the Dead: there is an entire website devoted to analysis and interpretation of their lyrics. For this song, one reader has contributed the following gem:

"Each haiku-like verse of "Dark Star" captures an image in transition, and does so in very economical language. The star crashes; reason tatters; searchlights seek; the mirror shatters; a hand turns to a flower; a mysterious lady disappears."

So how did I become an official Dead Head? In 1974 or so, I wrote an airmail letter to an address I found in a magazine. A month later (I know this sounds unreal today) I got a reply from one of their staff saying "We didn't know there are fans in India, that's great! I will put your letter up on the notice board for the band to see". This was followed by a gift of an LP, From the Mars Hotel, which arrived quite warped in the post but I was able to play it after it had settled down for a few days. Sadly I don't seem to have this LP any more, nor the letter.

I did manage to see them live, and can even tell you the exact date and venue: 23 April 1977, or 38 years ago last week, at the Civic Center in Springfield, Massachusetts. I was then doing my Ph.D. in Stony Brook and hitched a ride with other fans to see them. It was not their best concert - there were issues with the sound, and the crowd was rather listless. It included a bunch of Hell's Angels who sat around looking tattooed and mean, as is their habit. And (did I mention?) Garcia sang mostly out of tune. But it was the Dead for sure, and thanks to modern technology I possess the actual recording of the entire concert. This is due to another remarkable quirk of the band. Every concert they ever performed for which "soundboard" recordings exist, only excluding those marketed as live albums, is available for free on a dedicated Grateful Dead section of I recalled the venue and the approximate year and was able to track down the precise concert. It even has the disappearing vocals during "Scarlet Begonias" that I can distinctly remember.

The cosmic-sounding name Grateful Dead arose for its own fascinating reasons and seems to have influenced their work. Among other things it led them to record an album called Blues for Allah and I recall they even performed it in Egypt in the shadow of the pyramids (I remember this story from the old days, but can't find internet evidence about such a concert. Still, do read this excellent article about the title song).

Their lyrics, if not their lifestyle, reflected a keen interest in philosophy and the mystery of life and death. If you saw the video of Uncle John's Band linked above, you may have noticed the lovely thought "Like the morning sun you come, and like the wind you go". Famously, their song about touring, "Truckin'", has the chorus "what a long, strange trip it's been." I'll leave you with the full lyrics of their haunting song Ripple which says what many bands have tried to say, only somewhat better. The concept of "ripple in still water" is borrowed openly and directly from Zen philosophy. Do listen to the original version of the song, which Garcia even managed to sing vaguely in tune:

If my words did glow
With the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played
On the harp unstrung

Would you hear my voice
Come through the music?
Would you hold it near
As it were your own?

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go, no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone

Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow

It's a hand-me-down
The thoughts are broken
Perhaps they're better left unsung
I don't know, don't really care
Let there be songs to fill the air

Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow

You who choose to lead must follow
But if you fall, you fall alone
If you should stand then who's to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home

Thursday, April 23, 2015

I told you so

I was casually browsing some old articles and letters stored on my computer and found a letter of mine published in Current Science in January 2003. I had mostly forgotten what I'd written in it, but it turns out to be closely related to the issues in my last two blog postings.

While no one seems to have disputed any of the suggestions I made, approximately zero percent of them have been implemented in any institute I know of in India. In view of several disasters that have struck Indian academia in the last few years, I'm really tempted to say "I told you so"! Of course my suggestions were hardly original, these are standard procedures in much of the developed world. Sadly it seems quite clear that we in India claim to aspire to excellence but won't put in place the things that would help lead to it.

The original letter can be viewed here, but for the reader's convenience I'm reproducing the full text below.

Science Administration

The editorial ‘Requiem for a missing generation’ has done well to raise pertinent questions about science administrators and governing bodies of science institutions in our country.

I would like to make a few observations in this connection. The present set-up of science administration in India is inherently feudal. This was perhaps understandable at the time the system was set up, but it is now a serious liability. A feudal approach to administration is inherently personalized and based on the whims and prejudices of a small number of ‘eminent’ persons. In such a system, senior administrators are given power without accountability, their appointments are based on cronyism rather than administrative merit, and the administration functions in its own interests rather than the interests of the institution.

In order to pass to a new system, we must codify and implement modern administrative principles, namely consultative, transparent and accountable functioning. A few examples would be the election of Chairpersons and Deans by the Faculty for limited terms, the public announcement of search committees and inviting of nominations for Directorial candidates, and the regular rotation of Governing council members (following consultation with faculty members). Institutions should be subjected to regular peer reviews which critically examine both their science and their administration. Also, those practices in which age or seniority are deemed to be the equivalent of wisdom should be discontinued. Committees should be constituted based on genuine suitability for the given purpose, and we should not panic if the youngest member is made the Chair.

It would also be useful to have a written statement of what tasks are expected to be performed by administrators such as Chairpersons, Deans and Directors, and their performance should be honestly assessed. Reappointment to such positions should be based strictly on past performance. The mission statements of institutions should be formulated or updated, along with their rules and bye-laws (which, for many Indian scientific institutions, have remained essentially unchanged since independence, and today seem rather antiquated and irrelevant).

In this context, I cannot help recalling a famous piece of folklore from Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, that a Senior Professor was entitled to commandeer an Institute vehicle, even if another member had already booked it! This pernicious practice may now be forgotten, but it symbolizes the old system, in which it did not matter what was being done so much as who was doing it. It is high time we moved to a new system where personal power and privilege is largely irrelevant and is replaced by consensual, principled functioning in the interests of science.

1. Editorial, Curr. Sci., 2002, 83, 1297–1298.

Department of Theoretical Physics,
Tata Institute of Fundamental Research,

(Current Science Vol. 84, 25 January 2003, page 123)

Postscript: I just re-read Prof. Balaram's editorial "Requiem for a missing generation", to which my letter was a response. The editorial is also remarkably prescient about recent developments!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Checklist for hiring in academia (II)

Last Sunday I quoted an article in Nature about hiring at top levels in academia. I listed some of the recommendations from that article about how such hiring should be done, and today I'd like to continue the discussion by looking at the instruction "Articulate the offer clearly".

There are several aspects to such articulation. If hiring is being made to a definite institute or agency, the goals of that institute/agency should be stated. Is it dedicated to teaching, or research, or both? If the last, then in what combination? What areas fall within its scope? What standards would it realistically like to achieve and what resources would it provide in order to achieve those standards? Does it have some additional responsibilities besides its primary mission (e.g. mentoring another institute, providing some assistance to the underprivileged etc). An important detail is the duration of the position, and the agency/committee/board to which the hired person would report. Finally, the role to be played by the person has to be eludicated in some detail, including the degree of autonomy that he/she would, or would not, enjoy.

If you seek the opinion of any senior academic in India on this matter (though I haven't personally tried), they would most likely brush it aside impatiently with "it's all obvious, isn't it. If someone of any calibre is applying for a position then they would know about the institute and its goals, they would figure out whom they report to, and they would dynamically work out the role they have to play". Readers are invited to verify/falsify my hypothesis by asking a senior person of their choice...

Personally I'm all in favour of articulation, and I'm not completely alone. In 1996 the Lord Porter Committee, which carried out the first-ever academic review of TIFR, recommended that TIFR should formulate a brief statement of its goals and put this up prominently in the institute. They even offered a draft of such a statement. It was briefly discussed in the faculty, where someone humorously suggested it should be put up prominently outside the Registrar's office! (This was a comment on the series of dubious Registrars at TIFR from the late 1980's for the next three decades. These gentlemen all held the view that faculty members were the main problem. A research institute without faculty, like the famous hospital without patients in Yes Minister, would evidently have suited them better). Anyway, this recommendation of the Porter Committee was buried and, to my knowledge, there is no such statement of goals in existence even two decades later.

People may still be wondering why articulation of a job offer is important, so let me try to articulate this here ;-). Different people carry different models in their mind of what a particular institute is intended to achieve, and what the role of the chair/registrar/director/board of governors really is. In my three decades at TIFR I could identify widely varying models that were implicit in the discussion. Later when the Hyderabad campus of TIFR came into existence the debate sharpened and people came up with truly divergent models that, at the root, were based on entirely divergent assumptions. Today, looking at the five IISER's and the differences between them, one can see that varying models are still the norm.

I'm referring to variations not just in fine details but in major conceptual issues. Given an institute X, is it predominantly a teaching institute where a little research is done? Or the reverse? Does the institute train students primarily for its own benefit (because they contribute to research) or for their benefit (because they, or rather their parents, are taxpayers)? Are faculty members in an institute considered part of a pyramidal decision-making structure that evolves academic goals and standards, or should such goals and standards be decided exclusively by the top bosses? Do students have any statutory rights and authority (in some institutes they are part of the Senate). Is it ethical for a Director/Vice Chancellor to institute major changes that affect faculty and students without consulting them? Or even against their will? Besides ethics, is such a thing practical? Is the Institute responsible to raise funds for its faculty's research or is that the sole responsibility of faculty members? I have posed each of these questions as either/or, but in fact there is a continuum of possible answers and I believe it helps to know where on this continuum the true answer lies in every case.

Look at the recent history of TIFR, BARC, the other DAE research institutes, IISc, IIT's, IISER's, central and state universities. The newspapers are full of stories about controversies and disagreements (as a widely known example, consider FYUP). I claim that these have at least part of their origin in the lack of articulation of what the institution is for, and what the role of the Director/VC is supposed to be.

I'm sure many readers will also cite political interference (then, as well as now) as another important source of controversy. That could be true enough, and I can propose a related solution. When a citizen puts her faith in a politician at the voting booth, she should be asked to "Articulate the offer clearly". That would perhaps be hard to record or take into account, but it would keep Arnab Goswami busy for years, and for a change this is something the nation really does want to know.