A Letter to the Prime Minister: Saving Science from Scientists
Dear Mr Prime Minister,
I know corruption cases, policy logjams, and a slowing economy preoccupy you these days but Iâ€™d still like to draw your attention to the plight of Indian science, rather scientists, because in any knowledge economy scientists and engineers form the bedrock on which long-term edifices are built. Though Iâ€™d also like to point out the irony of not having a full-time minister for science and technology (five ministers in three years), especially when you have said that the country will spend 2% of its GDP on sci-tech in the 12th Plan, but Iâ€™d leave that for a later date. Here I want to focus on how we need to save Indian science from the scientists themselves.
Ever since we attempted to capture some of the proposed and ongoing changes in Indian science, we have been flooded by comments and reactions from this community. The passionate outburst which continues on our five-month old blog, Does Indian Science Suck, shows that the issues Â rankle, particularly among the younger scientists. Your Scientific Advisory Council (surprisingly not listed under the council/committee section on the PMO site) chaired by CNR Rao does not have any young outstanding achiever as a member and the 30+ strong body can, at best, boast of an average age of ~60 years.
Sadly, it reinforces the fact that despite all the institution building and fund infusion, Indian science is an aged-system cracking under its own weight. Without naming any names, Iâ€™d like to submit that most of the SAC members have been permanent fixtures in this body. Shouldnâ€™t some of them give way to younger, accomplished folks?
To make my point starker, Iâ€™d quote a reader, Tania: â€œYes, at 38 I was told I was too young to know this or that. The Indian academia is not an academia. They behave like the mafia bosses. It is really and truly a mafia, cruel, corrupt and dangerous.â€
Well, if under-40 chief executives can run multi-billion dollar businesses, why canâ€™t under-40 scientists/researchers be entrusted with the task of getting some dynamism, accountability and transparency in the system?
Cutting short the preamble, let me curate and summarize some of the issues which our (scientist) readers have been raising with us, clearly in the absence of any fair forum within their own institutions:
1)Â Â Â Â Â Science is the only officer grade profession in the government without any defined selection procedure, based primarily on recommendations and interviews. The system works well in developed nations where many checks and balances are in place. The industry follows the same procedure but the recommendation/interview system works due to the presence of a feedback mechanism where the employee gets fired if he/she becomes a non-performing asset to the company. Scientists on the other hand cannot be selected by a common entrance procedure/ exam, and in the absence of a feedback mechanism wherein they are judged for their work (research/teaching) makes them the least productive professionals. Therefore, ALL recruitment panels of faculty should have international experts and scientists. In this manner, recruitments will be least prone to corrupt influences and the faculty thus chosen will impact the downstream processes of doctoral and post-doctoral selection.
This will ensure that mediocrity doesnâ€™t breed mediocrity.
2)Â Â Â Â Â Bring in performance-based appraisal and do away with promotion based on seniority. Other than one instance of tenured track being denied to a professor in mathematics at IISc, I donâ€™t think this practice is followed at any institution in true earnest. From enhanced salaries to research grants, the amount of money at stake in science today is much higher, as is the future of the countryâ€™s progress. So the least that can be desired is a periodic appraisal system that seeks results, be it in quality publications, patents, or technology commercialization. The director of a CSIR lab recently told me that â€œIndian academics peak early in life and then stagnateâ€. In other words, they keep their benchmarks very low, after a few good publications, which may come by age 40 or 50; academic life is put on cruise control. Thatâ€™s unthinkable in private sector, where people have to keep reinventing themselves. Why should scientists and researchers be exempt from this?
3)Â Â Â Â Â Install mechanisms for publishing students’ feedback on a faculty member as is being practiced in the West.
4)Â Â Â Â Â To bring transparency and credibility (nepotism is recurring theme across all institutions), seek project proposals during a fixed time of the year and set up international panels for the evaluation of proposals. The government can even do some bit of crowd-sourcing to fill the expertise gaps. This is very important as a growing section of young researchers complain that there isnâ€™t sufficient technical expertise in the country to evaluate proposals. Given how fund-starved Western universities are,Indiacan spend some money to borrow global talent.
5)Â Â Â Â Â One reason in favour of setting up of centers of excellence that CNR Rao often gives is that â€œuniversities are beyond redemptionâ€. He is right to a great extent. Â The opportunity cost of getting all universities on par with the worldâ€™s best is too high. But itâ€™s not a question of either/or. If a central pool of resources were to be kept aside to be distributed among all universities/centres/institutes based on their national performance ranking or rating, some life can be infused into these universities. Measurement of performance is missing at all levels. Collect data and use that for planning and investment decisions.
6)Â Â Â Â Â Having attended several scientific conferences, I can safely say that hardly any breakthrough or seminal work is presented or announced in these conferences, including the 100-year-old Indian Science Congress. Restrict them to a minimum and use the fund to host international conferences of repute (IEEE, SPIE, AIP, etc). Thatâ€™ll hold a mirror to the Indian scientific community. â€œThis will improve the quality of local science and provide room for introspection,â€ says a reader, Jayachandran.
7)Â Â Â Â Â Thereâ€™s a virtual scam of sorts in the area of PhD degrees. Mushrooming of â€œMorphed Thesesâ€, as one reader has pointed out, is the best kept secret in science and engineering inIndia. A computer science professor tells me how heâ€™s seen three PhD theses being written on ONE paper by an overseas academic, and, ironically, the three copycats repeat the minor error/typo in the original paper. Letâ€™s not make a mockery of doctoral programmes!
I hope this letter reaches you and its contents merit Â your attention. A lot of money and new initiatives are being devoted to lure talent from overseas. Looking outward is necessary, even fashionable to some extent, but looking inward is critical.
I am not aware that any government has fallen due to poor attention to sci-tech, or if any political party has won elections due to scientific reforms. But you know, more than anybody else, that no country has prospered in the absence of sound science and engineering.
With Warm Regards