Saturday, March 28, 2009

Kill the messenger

I recently went through some of my old blog postings, specifically Research Institutes and the "graceful exit" problem and Partial exit from the graceful exit. For those who didn't follow the blog then, or have forgotten the issue, it was about how to get Indian scientists in the many government-funded research institutes (with minimal teaching responsibilities) involved in the greater task of university teaching. I've felt for a long time that the separation is unfair and that while all possible privileges and benefits are heaped upon research institute scientists, university scientists get a rather unfair deal. I therefore proposed that scientists in research institutes be in some way encouraged or even obliged to move to a university at some stage in their careers.

I've since come to know that I was trashed a few times at coffee-table discussions, understandably in research institutes but also, more surprisingly, in universities. My tone and my recommendations were found to be patronising in nature (the word "offensive" was also used) and apparently even my motives were questioned.

The thing that amazes me today, though, is not any of this. It's that the very premise of the discussion was successfully ridiculed, and the issue I raised appears to have faded off the blogosphere entirely. Commenters on my blog at the time argued, or at least insinuated, that the faculty members at research institutions in India really are not better (with a few minor exceptions) than those at universities. It follows that research institutes are not taking away some of the best scientists from universities and I am therefore talking through my hat. This in turn led to a number of quite upsetting ad hominem attacks on me (go read them if you don't believe me), specially after my second posting where I revised my original proposal. Despite a number of sincere commenters who wrote quite rationally and sometimes offered encouragement, I got discouraged and wrote no more about the issue. Some of them offered their own solutions to the problem, but ended up getting no response from my readers.

But today I ask myself: were the issues that I raised really meaningless? I believe this can be answered using objective criteria, though I'm not going to do that just yet. But I have spent some time at universities during the last year and I also know TIFR a little better than I did last year, despite it being my 25th year here. I am less easily cowed down by the claim that I pontificate without knowing the realities -- I believe the realities are essentially as I wrote in my first posting . Maybe I didn't find a workable, or even in principle appropriate, solution, but then the problem surely still awaits a solution.

And here is where I feel a rather distressing Indian middle-class attitude has come into play. Once something or someone irritates you or provokes your insecurity (e.g. my alleged patronising tone) then you trash the person and the ideas in the hope that the discussion itself will go away. There appears to be no burden on the trashers to answer whether there is a problem, and whether anything can or should be done about it. In all this, there are losers and in the present case they are called "university students".

There is another loser and it is my faith in participatory democracy within academia. I've learned to be on the alert for certain kinds of people: those who vigorously mount opposition to a proposed solution but take no responsibility for solving the problem (a bit like the people who only comment on others' blogs but won't bother to maintain a blog of their own!).

Anyway, to end on a semi-positive note, I predict that many research institutes in India will seriously re-configure themselves within the next decade towards more teaching involvement, both internally and in partnership with universities.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

I haven't heard any of these coffee table discussions (I feel I should say this since I and some of my colleagues commented on your earlier posts). On the other hand, it is entirely possible that I wasn't around at the coffee table, or not paying attention.

I don't know what insinuations were read into what I wrote here at that time, but here is what I feel, as succinctly as possible:

1. The research institutes have better faculty than the universities, as one would hope, given the difference in funding.

2. However, even at the research institutes, very few scientists make very much of an international impact. (I recall a skirmish over the criterion I chose, of the scientist being mentioned in undergraduate textbooks; but I think it is true no matter what criterion you apply.)

3. This is a tragedy in a country of a billion people that has prided itself on a culture of learning. We need to understand why it has happened.

4. Many people have argued that research institutes are part of the problem and not part of the solution. I agree. They have drained talent from the universities, while the absence of undergraduates removes accountability, as well as a certain kind of excitement, from the research institutes.

5. Most of our universities are probably unfixable, but some -- especially some of the central universities -- are probably not beyond hope.

6. Any planning for our scientific future must recognise the error of our separation of university teaching and academic research, and make efforts to undo the separation. The IISERs are a start, but not nearly enough. Eventually, we don't need institutions that take 50 undergraduates. We need institutions that take 5000 undergraduates.

Mind Without Fear said...


I am a regular reader of your blog. I felt a little let down by the following lines

"I've learned to be on the alert for certain kinds of people: those who vigorously mount opposition to a proposed solution but take no responsibility for solving the problem (a bit like the people who only comment on others' blogs but won't bother to maintain a blog of their own!"

Is it quite reasonable to equate these two groups? What is wrong with not writing a blog if I feel I do not have the talent - like what your seem have - of cogently writing points of views, but do believe in participating in discussions through comments, as long as I do not do so with a manifestly mean objective?

The other thing is that this logic can be applied to other dimensions, e.g. I read a lot of books, and have points of views about many of them but have not written any. I see a lot of movies but have not directed / produced one, etc.

Anyway, let me gracefully exit now.

Sunil Mukhi said...

MWF: My profound apologies. The comment that upset you was poorly worded. I certainly have nothing against people who comment on blogs but don't maintain their own blogs (that said, surely thou dost protest too much? "do not have the talent..." come on! I can guarantee from personal knowledge that you are way above the talent threshold for a blog, if indeed any such threshold exists...)

The type of person I had in mind is a perpetual opposition politician, criticising and tearing down everything others write but having nothing to contribute themselves. But my post can be read equally well if you just mentally edit out the comment about bloggers.

Sunil Mukhi said...

Rahul Sid:

Thanks for nicely summarising your comments of last year. On point 2 and 3, I did (and do) disagree with you somewhat, but the difference was (and is) essentially a matter of degree.

However on your points 1,4,5,6 I am in complete agreement with you. And it's precisely these points on which we are up against "deniers" on both sides (institute and university) of the system. Which is what provoked my latest posting.

S. Savyasachi said...
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