Monday, May 5, 2008

Let a hundred universities bloom...

I want to develop a theme that got started a couple of days ago when I posted a comment on my friend Rahul Basu's blog (rahul-basu.blogspot.com). The topic was the allegedly sorry state of Indian science, and the discussion there was sparked off by a couple of recent articles in the press.

What struck me was that every time the decline (or death) of Indian science is invoked, there is a near-unanimous chorus from Indian scientists totally agreeing with this thesis. Now I don't say we should be dishonest and praise ourselves to the skies. But surely much of the perception of our subject is created by us, and if we promptly fall in line with some of the ignorant or motivated criticisms one sees in the press (most often written by people who couldn't tell capacitance from compactification), then we are doing a disservice to our field.

So I've come up with a constructive suggestion. I propose to the Indian scientific community (if any members of it are reading this blog, which is doubtful since no one ever reads this blog!) that we consciously take a different approach henceforth. In public we highlight the genuinely good things about Indian science and in private we try to address the problems. It's amusing how our fundamental inclination is quite the opposite: we moan and groan about the problems in public, and talk about the good things only amongst ourselves!

As to the actual articles which sparked off the discussion on Rahul Basu's blog, they are both written by scientists so I shouldn't call them ignorated or motivated. Unfortunately one of them seems rather motivated, and quite ignorant too. It's called "Science in the Sick Bay" and it would, if it were a research paper, be rejected on the grounds that it's few conclusions do not follow from the premises. As an example, the article starts out by blaming the state of Indian science on "drab" and "dingy" institutes, sexist and hierarchical attitudes, and jealousy. But all of these (particularly the sexism and hierarchy) are well-established problems of Japanese science too, and despite Japan's atrocious female-male ratio in science (and industry), these problems are not considered to have led to the decline and fall of science there. So the inference is rather weak. In fact, rather than an analysis of any general problem this article comes across as a string of personal complaints. To be fair, it ends with a concrete suggestion - to privatise science research. Which merits discussion, but sadly now that the author has finally figured out something to say, the article is over.

The other article, "Neither quality nor quantity", is a more serious effort. The author is not content to spend all his time cursing the darkness, but tries to light a few candles. His primary concern is the lack of well-trained students to input into science research programmes (note how the focus is the opposite of the previous article - asking how to create more science students rather than whine about the miserable treatment of science faculty). Concretely he recommends we follow China which has "set up 100 universities each with a budget of around 100 crore per year, and each handling 10,000 students". However at this point the author over-indulges his negativity by gloomily noting that "sub-critical efforts like starting three IISERs, each admitting 65 students a year, and declaring that we will start two more IISERs, eight IITs, 15 central universities and 14 'world class' universities will take us nowhere." Now if I do the math, I find that the "sub-critical effort" he is referring to amounts to no less than 42 new universities. Even if to start with they are far smaller than in the China example, the effort is on a much larger scale than anything in our country in the last few decades. I am personally filled with optimism by this and suggest we should applaud it for being a reasonable start and ask for more, rather than condemning it outright.

I want to end with a question. For the various new Indian universities under current discussion, I constantly hear the refrain "where are we going to find the faculty to teach in all these places". How then did China, with a poorer record of scientists returning from abroad than India has, actually staff its 100 new universities of 10,000 students each? Has it found competent faculty members for these, or could it be - horrors - that the quality of some of these new Chinese universities is mediocre? It's only a question, and I'm happy to be educated if I've missed something here.

13 comments:

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Much of your post parallels an email discussion some of us (Rahul Basu, I and some other colleagues) were having. A bit too long to summarise here.

But I did dig up an old post of mine yesterday and linked it on my blog (here); the last part covers the issue of science coverage in India.

Basically, I don't think we lack science coverage in our media. When something interesting happens, the press writes about it. (Recent example here.) Indeed, some of my own PhD work appeared in the media -- while it was interesting, it certainly wouldn't have appeared in any major newspaper in the west. (I have no idea why or how it happened here: I plead not guilty and I'm pretty sure much of the bombast is the paper's own contribution.)

As for your pet topic, Ashoke Sen, I see his name in Outlook or India Today every year or two. (Eg, here, here). I don't think he can (or does) complain of being ignored. Witten or Polyakov wouldn't get such coverage in the west. Now if you (as someone in his field) can explain, to a lay audience, what he does and why it is important, that would be a big contribution.

My old post ended with "Some of the media coverage of Indian science is worthwhile, while some is decidedly dubious. I find the media, if anything, too uncritical of self-promoting charlatans." I stand by that. The oroblem is not with our science coverage but with us.

As for the universities thing, it is a start. But we need to fix our school system, and our evaluation system (school leaving exams, UGC/CSIR NET, etc). Standardised exams that test analytical thinking and problem-solving thing will at least provide an incentive for improvement, which simply doesn't exist today.

Sunil Mukhi said...

Rahul, thanks for your comments. I'm not sure why you thought I was suggesting we lack science coverage in our media. I don't believe I said something like that, and certainly not on this blog.

Perhaps you are responding to my comment on Rahul Basu's blog, where I did say that we do ourselves the disfavour of not highlighting outstanding contributions in Indian science. As an example I did mention that the Indian press (and some scientists too) do not seem to know the standing of Ashoke Sen.

Now I'm gratified to see the Outlook article on Sen, which I had missed when it came out. So my comment needs to be moderated accordingly. However, I would continue to suggest that we (scientists) not "forget" our high points whenever a discussion on the decline of Indian science takes place. Instead of taking the attitude that one can't think of anyone except TVR and Manindra Agarwal, one could take the more thoughtful one that we have D.D. Sharma, E.D. Jemmis, M.S. Raghunathan, Rajesh Gopakumar, P. Balaram, Sandip Trivedi, V. Srinivas, Sriram Ramaswamy, Deepak Dhar, T. Padmanabhan, Rohini Godbole and Varun Sahni - just to make a short list of world-class researchers who come to my mind at this moment.

The list I've provided (it's very random and not carefully thought-out) will, on being read by an Indian scientist, immediately lead to comments like "but X shouldnt't belong in it". My point is that no one puts a limit on such a list - we can add as many names as we think fit, and if a few of them don't belong, the rest still make it an impressive one. It's this kind of thing that, say, the French scientific community would produce if they were told their science is on the decline.

To repeat myself - I don't deny the decline in Indian science, but would suggest we scientists highlight more and more names of good people and their work. Maybe I will take up your idea and try to explain these peoples' works on my blog.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Sunil - I was responding both to your post on Rahul B's blog and to your statements here: "ignorant or motivated criticisms one sees in the press (most often written by people who couldn't tell capacitance from compactification)..." "So I've come up with a constructive suggestion... in public we highlight the genuinely good things about Indian science and in private we try to address the problems."

I think when something genuinely good happens in Indian science, it does get highlighted, sometimes beyond reason. And the problems, as I said (and will probably expand on shortly), go well beyond Indian science and pervade our educational system. So it doesn't make sense to me to discuss it "in private", if by "in private" you mean "over coffee at one of our elite research institutions" (or even "on a closed mailing list").

Your list of names, of course, contains some very good scientists -- I know many of them well. But, as you yourself say, some people will argue that "X shouldn't be on this list". And many more should be, but I would estimate that the list would increase at most by a factor of 3 or 4 in length, and not at all in impact. Now, how many of these people have actually made an impact in world science -- that is, if you somehow removed every publication of theirs from databases around the world, the void would be widely noticed? I fear the answer is "not many".

It's funny you mention the French -- they've been worrying about their own decline for quite a while, and many of the causes they cite are similar: bureaucracy, low pay, discouraging creativity in favour of "safe" career choices, etc. And I think they can easily trot out 20-30 names that would rank far higher than any on your list.

Anyway -- I'm toying with the idea of starting an online journal club, whose purpose would be to discuss current literature in a manner accessible to a lay audience, and in the process tell (some sections of) the Indian public what we're up to. I think, even if it doesn't have a wide primary readership, if we do a good job we'll attract several science journalists so it could have a secondary effect. Lets see.

Gautam said...

Actually, I've been of the view that, compared to the west, there is actually relatively little *useful* science coverage in India. There are the usual quota of Ramanujam or S.N. Bose articles, but these are often - but not always - of a similar genre, bemoaning the decline of Indian science/mathematics following these greats. In fact, apart from the article on his own work that Rahul Siddharthan mentions (which I didn't know of), and reasonable coverage of Ajay Sood's group's work on flow across carbon nanotubes (which seemed to focus more on the patent aspects than the science, I felt), there's precious little more I can think of
in terms of condensed matter coverage. Nothing about Sriram Ramaswamy et al.'s very pretty work in Science last year, even though it was something that could have been explained simply to a lay audience, no coverage I can remember on the Indian work on self-organized criticality, where admittedly some of the most critical work in this area has come from Deepak Dhar. Or even, closer to home in Chennai, Simon's very well cited work (500 odd citations in 6 years or something like that)in quantum information theory.

In a typical U.S. institution, as soon as the paper would have been accepted in Science or PRL or wherever, information packages would have been mailed to local journalists, there would have been a small snippet on local radio and an announcement would certainly have been placed on the departmental website. This isn't generic, but most other universities do and it's often a pleasure to see the names of someone one knows in the news for such reasons. The reason, of course, is funding - unless funding agencies (states, private donors, NSF etc) feel that their money is being well spent, they will take it elsewhere and some measure of this is popularization... your tax dollars at work.

I think the only place where such coverage exists is - where else - Kolkata/Bengal,where the names of
Ashoke Sen or Bikash Sinha are far more well known than their counterparts in the other Indian cities/states. So there are regular articles and interviews explaining the fundamentals of string theory or QGP to the interested layman or young student in popular magazines. This is mainly, I think, due to the fact that being a scientist still carries some cachet in Bengal, unlike the rest of the country and such articles are widely read.

I feel that this is urgently required (a) to counter the somewhat negative picture that a layperson would receive of Indian science if he/she was to read the Mehta/Desiraju articles but also (b) so that young students and their parents(!) know that there is
international level work going on in India in a reasonable number of areas. In conversations with non-scientists through the past several years, I am always struck by how little they know about Indian science and scientific institutions. C.N.R. Rao is perhaps the only name which is recognized - all credit to him for that. As for Indian academic institutions, TIFR is often confused with TISS, IISc is known by name but most people would have no other knowledge of it or of its standing world-wide. Finding someone who knows of my own institution, IMSc, is fairly rare. (Even if they do, they are nowadays increasingly likely to confuse it with CMI, which runs an undergraduate program .) The IIT's have, of course, universal brand recognition, but for their undergraduate programs.

I think it is to some extent our duty to convince the general public that Indian science is worth funding and my problem with that Mehta/Desiraju articles is that - while I agree substantively with a lot of what they say someone reading them would be seriously concerned about the usefulness of doing so. We certainly need to increase the number of quality universities, reduce bureaucracy and hierarchy wherever possible and make it more attractive for young people to take up science, by whatever means. But we should also, on our own part, try to ensure that quality science coming out of India meets the public eye.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

As for Indian academic institutions, TIFR is often confused with TISS, IISc is known by name but most people would have no other knowledge of it or of its standing world-wide. Finding someone who knows of my own institution, IMSc, is fairly rare. (Even if they do, they are nowadays increasingly likely to confuse it with CMI, which runs an undergraduate program .)

What's common to all these? Ridiculous opaque abbreviations, that's what. Why can't we give sensible names to our science institutes? At one time, Matscience was recognised all over Madras, but obviously nobody knows IMSc.

I agree that we should have more organised news coverage -- perhaps have a PR person to mail out press releases on significant publications (hey, if hospitals like Dr Rajkumar's can do it, why not us?) I maintain that there is a lot of science coverage that happens, but I think much of it is on the initiative of science journalists.

Sunil Mukhi said...

No Rahul, it's not the ridiculous opaque abbreviations I'm afraid. (I really think you make up negatives about India very unfairly.) Gautam's point is that no one knows what goes on at TIFR, not that no one knows what it's name stands for.

In another country, a well-funded institute like TIFR would have had an eloquent PRO whose sole job was to sniff around for new results and send them out to the press on an almost daily basis. On the contrary, a very innocuous suggestion made to the Director, TIFR in 2001 (by my colleague Rajeev Bhalerao) for an "open day" at TIFR aimed at high-school students (and a similar proposal that a committee I chaired had made some years earlier) were summarily junked by the then Director. Bhalerao's proposal was resurrected the next year when it came to the attention of the next Director, who supported the idea and thus began (very very late) TIFR's engagement with the outside world. This has been a fantastic success though to a limited audience. In due time we may even have the type of pro-active PRO I described above.

The problem, as I see it, is that we are so allergic to wrongful or personalised promotion of science that we have - for years - subscribed to a policy of no promotion at all. Our system will not, therefore, "sell" to the outside world the excellent work mentioned by Gautam (Sriram Ramaswamy, Deepak Dhar...), leaving the field wide open for charlatans to promote themselves. It's shooting oneself in the foot, really.

I also think, Rahul S., that your query about my list of world-class scientists: "if you somehow removed every publication of theirs from databases around the world, the void would be widely noticed? I fear the answer is "not many"." is another example of us shooting ourselves in the foot. Why set up impossibly high standards and use them to drag down our own people? Yes you can do that, but why? Maybe you think of it as severe unflinching honesty, and maybe it is that. But wouldn't things change for the better if we agreed to speak well of the good work being done? Gautam's comment is an excellent example - where he approvingly cites Sriram Ramaswamy, Deepak Dhar, Ajay Sood, Simon, Ashoke Sen, Bikash Sinha... Too often the discourse among scientists instead consists of picking out one of these names and explaining in relentless detail that the person is a fraud. To what end? Even people who have some "fraudness" about them are capable of having done very good work, and it is the work really that needs highlighting.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Sunil - do you really think Americans know what LANL or LBL or CSHL stand for? Of course not. And nobody calls those institutions that, except in their internet URLs. Name-branding is important.

Of course, Gautam's point that we should tell people what goes on inside is important too -- not just to publicise our work, but because it is almost entirely taxpayer-funded research. But even if you do that, it is easy for the to get snowed under with the abbreviations.

I applaud the "open day" idea. I think the PRO thing is important. Incidentally, NCBS has a "headlines" section on their web page, not all of which is related to NCBS's own work; that's a good idea too. But they mostly seem to be following the news media, not creating the news.

I'm really intrigued by your last comment:
Too often the discourse among scientists instead consists of picking out one of these names and explaining in relentless detail that the person is a fraud. To what end? Even people who have some "fraudness" about them are capable of having done very good work, and it is the work really that needs highlighting.

I haven't heard any suggestion of fraudulence about any of the people mentioned so far (I would very much hope that you are not suggesting any such thing), and I really cannot agree with your last sentence. Fraudulent work taints the researcher, the researcher's past work (it is extremely difficult to uncover well-designed fraud, but when you know that someone's work is not always kosher, you simply can't give it the same credence), and often the entire establishment and community. I think we need a zero-tolerance approach to it. But perhaps I misunderstood you.

Sunil Mukhi said...

Well we seem to be converging. I plead guilty to using "fraud" in an incorrect (or at least less common) sense. I did not have in mind a person whose science is fraudulent, but rather a person who is excessively vain, self-promoting, a windbag etc etc. In other words, it's a personality type. That sort of fraud (I would indeed like a better word if possible) is fairly prevalent here, as elsewhere (I can think of a few Nobel Laureates who fit in this category), but I feel in India such a person is dismissed as being of no consequence even if he/she has really done good work. I can't name names here, and I'm not even totally sure about the names I am thinking of. So that discussion will have to wait for a suitable coffee table!

Gautam said...

I've been fiddling with the following idea for some time, with a view to actually implementing it as and when I become a real blogger, (as opposed to a mere commenter on others' blogs). That is to invite comments - say 250 words each - from a cross-section of Indian scientists - on a specific topic each fortnight or month, relating to a specific aspect of Indian science. Some possibilities: the interaction of experiment and theory, funding priorities within fields, translational research, milestones in Indian condensed matter physics,
statistical mechanics, particle physics etc. I am presuming it would not be hard to get people to write for this and the more relaxed and informal character of a blog lends itself well to this possibility.

The standard 1-2 day "brainstorming" format favoured by DST/DBT doesn't, I think, work very well, partly because ideas expressed in such forums don't tend to go well beyond the obvious (pay scientists well, increase funding across the board and place fewer restrictions on how the money is spent) and there is also some premium attached to being seen and heard, as opposed to actually making sense and thinking along non-standard lines.

I think this would be a useful, India-centred solution, where the positives could be accentuated as well as the negatives discussed.
This would also have the function of providing some information to science writers regarding the context of the science and the people doing it.

But as I said, its just an idea at the moment.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Sunil: I suppose "self-promoting" is descriptive enough? It's not a crime...

Gautam: good idea. But it should be the basis for mainstream articles. Perhaps I'll mail you all offline.

as said...

One word, information. There is a complete dearth of information from every end.

A student at university X would find it extremely difficult to find out about the quality , quantity of research being pursued at any institution in India. Some faculty have bothered to provide such information about themselves but even luminaries like do not provide a non-specialist summary of their research. I made a count of the theory dep at TIFR and 7/20 faculty did not even bother to put up minimal information about their work; and this is the most accomplished department in India, what to speak of others!

The same can be said at the level of departments. Minimal information is provided , the Theory group at TIFR is again a prime example. All the research is condensed into the bald statement "We do research in condensed matter and statistical physics, high energy physics, string theory and mathematical physics. "
Contrast this with the
theory page at princeton .

Faculty may be doing first rate work but seem to be working on the principle that if no one hears a tree falling in the forest , it still makes a sound.

Anonymous said...

I think a lot more students would be willing to return to India, to staff the new universities, if the universities were being set up in the first place AND with the aim of turning them into excellent research centers.

N Sharma said...

My take on the following question:

"How then did China, with a poorer record of scientists returning from abroad than India has, actually staff its 100 new universities of 10,000 students each? Has it found competent faculty members for these, or could it be - horrors - that the quality of some of these new Chinese universities is mediocre?"

I was once talking to one of my Chinese colleagues about this. He said that the Chinese govt. is throwing money on these Universities. Even the B/C grade new Chinese Universities get in excess of 100 million dollars. Pay scales are decent; travel money is not a problem not just for the faculty but also for the students. He also added while trying to be balanced that the quality is not good.

Now if I try to be balanced then can't I argue that even if now the quality in these Universities is not good, the fact that they are getting exposed to the outside world through conferences, visits etc., they will make attempts to come up to speed with the other schools, and some of them might actually succeed.

I've mentioned this to several people including those in TIFR and some of them seem to agree that Indian government is not paying enough attention to remain competitive with China.