Why the new director of IISc has his role cut out
In the din and bustle, hope and anxiety, of the national elections, one big event which is being sidelined is that India’s largest and one of the oldest institutions is going to have a new director. Even if most of the public couldn’t care less about a research institution’s new director, it is a big deal. The Indian Institute of Science is country’s finest research and higher education institution and after 105 years of existence, it perhaps faces its biggest existential challenge. Just as there’s a groundswell of political awareness in the country as we go into polls in April, there’s a groundswell of yearning for change within the institute too. But the question is: Has the Search Committee noticed this yearning?
Compared to most big institutions, and even science administrative agencies (which many times keep their leadership positions vacant for want of timely selection of their chiefs), a director for IISc is chosen well before the expiry of the term of the serving director. In this case, P Balaram’s term expires in June 2014. After a reasonably good eight-year tenure, Balaram, who also edited Current Science until mid 2013 and where his absence is sorely missed by”outsiders” (like me) since he wrote fearlessly and with a flair that is rare among Indian scientists, leaves a position that has to carry the old and at the same time carve out brand new traditions. What worked for IISc for the last 100 years will not carry it through even in the next quarter century, let alone the next century. And while rankings are a function of many things — number of PhDs, faculty, budget, etc. — and not really reflective of the true value of the institution, the 2014 Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings shows that IISc has slipped in ranks, from 130 to below 200.
Somebody, and who better than the new director, has to take a long shot at how IISc can compete with itself — it has no competition from any other institution in the country and it can continue to do what it is doing –, contribute to the halted economic progress of the country, and break free from the culture of publishing papers to also creating products and processes that the country can use. In the past when I raised the issue of quality research resulting in products, Balaram told me I was “soft” on the industry (and hard on the academics) in not asking them to invest more in R&D. He is right to the extent that journalists cannot question industry’s poor investment in R&D, it is their money and if they don’t see merit in R&D, their short-sightedness will come to haunt them. But institutions like IISc do research with public funds. But frankly, it’s not about value for public money, it’s about regard for public need. India needs scientists and engineers working on Indian soil to solve its problems, particularly in game-changing fields like energy, healthcare, water, and so on.
IISc also has to figure out how to get the smartest people into science. Better still, if it rustles up resources to find a way to educate future discoverers of the country to live up to their potential, we’d all be the beneficiaries.
In the current election frenzy as we hear politicians take credit for good economic growth in the past, it’s sad to see scientists and engineers being left behind as unsung heroes. This perception has to change. IISc has to lead from the front, articulate its vision, especially now that it also has a second 1500-acre* campus coming up in Chitradurga which offers it a mind-boggling opportunity to create a global institution.
I have no idea who are the search committee members, what age group they belong to, and, if at all, they will make any wild card entry this time and get a young director. But it’d be worthwhile to remember that Satish Dhawan, who later went on to lead ISRO, became the director of IISc when he was 42 and by all accounts is considered a distinctive administrator of all times. When I went around checking who is likely to become the new director, some students and faculty sounded blase (“who cares, someone who is in CNR Rao’s good books will come”); some others sounded anxious and passionate (“can someone show us the vision and take risks?”).
As a journalist who has interacted with three directors in the last 17 years in Bangalore, here’s what I think IISc’s new director must not ignore:
Break free from the paper-publishing cycle: Career scientists and engineers in research institutions like IISc have thrived mostly by publishing papers. That calls for a change. Peer review is ailing and collapsing under its own weight. The world is already moving towards open peer review, what with initiatives like F1000Research. Excessive competitiveness in science has led to flawed research. In an eye-opening cover story last year, The Economist argued how scientific research, which has changed the world, must change itself now. The process, the outcomes, and I’d argue the incentives as well, associated with it are full of flaws.
India is no different. In fact, it is worse. The head of an Indian arm of a large publishing house tells me how “vanity publishing” has proliferated in India as the entire reward system is based on paper publication. IISc can argue that it cannot sever ties with the national academic system but given the stature it has, it can certainly change the status quo and create new reward systems that encourage faculty and students to try out new ideas and thrive even in failing. Darwin said, “I love fools’ experiments. I am always making them.”
The scientific regulatory agencies, such as the NIH, have come to realize that brushing failures (and not reporting negative results) under the carpet is proving disastrous for science.
Big ideas, bigger risks: IISc is not just an education centre; it forms the bedrock of fundamental research for industries in aerospace, materials, energy, and several other areas. The new director must pick a bunch of faculty and their research groups, seek bold ideas, and back them to the hilt. If India waits for agencies like DARPA or ARPA in the US, another century will go by. The much-celebrated role of private finance (or venture capital) role in innovation and economic development is debunked by economist Mariana Mazzucato in her 2013 book The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs Private Myth, clearly establishing the solid role that government labs, engaging in high-risk research, have played in the global economic boom of past decades.
This means many will have to get out of their comfort zones, stop playing safe and do risky research. Only a director can ensure such research reaches a critical mass in a short span of time.
Bring engineering on par with science: A general observation in the institute is that in the last two decades and under “science directors”, engineering at IISc has suffered. Given the strength in civil, mechanical, computer science automation and electrical engineering, IISc faculty members don’t exactly dominate the industry events or the country’s thought processes. One could argue that “S” in IISc stands for Science but science and engineering, notwithstanding their different measurement scales, yield best results when progress in tandem. There’s only one centre in the last decade, CENSE (Centre for Nano Science and Engineering) that has been designed to be multi-disciplinary. At least half a dozen such centres must have been thriving at IISc. At its launch, I remember Prof Balaram, with his characteristic wry humour, saying he had put a condition on the collaborating people: Only those having more than 8-10 years of service would actively participate. The new director should find ways to even hand pick people from any geography or walk of life (yes, lateral hiring) to set up new centres that do translational work from the start.
Strike big collaborations with industry: At any given point, there are more than 150 companies working with IISc researchers. But most of those can be categorised as projects, hardly any would qualify as big, ambitious goals. Senior professors say there’s foundation for this at the Institute but that needs to be scaled up. India cannot build massive institutions like China or the US, so IISc must rise up to the challenge and forge big collaborations with the industry to solve country’s needs.
Create role models: Since I’ve earlier argued why engaging with the public on science is necessary, I’ll quote a former computer science IISc faculty, V Vinay. He says, “IISc must allow the media to create a few superstars. CNR Rao’s Bharat Ratna was a great moment for India. Unfortunately, it had to happen with Tendulkar and he lasted two news cycles.”
How many even within IISc can list a few of his/her major accomplishments and place them on the world canvas? “Hardly any one of us,” says Vinay, who, along with three other IISc colleagues incubated Pico Peta at IISc and later founded Limberlink Technologies. “Storytelling and myths are such an integral part of our lives that this is really the only way to build the institution beyond its present boundaries. Old timers will squirm saying ‘quality will speak for itself’ etc and this is precisely the reason why we require a young director with fresh eyes. The only grand story we have is Ramanujan. And it tells us that we will find our solutions in a Hardy who lives on a distant shore. This is the myth we still follow.”
[It’s fitting to recall that 14 years after Vinay and team made Simputer, there hasn’t been one comparable project or product of any scale from IISc. Nor has there been a highly successful student/faculty start-up spin-off from the institute.]
Do all this without losing its basic character: “We have a joke,” says former director G Padmanabhan, “that IISc runs by itself and it does not matter who the Director is. There is academic freedom, absence of hierarchy and a laid-back environment, which are fundamental to the character of IISc.” Indeed, all searches for leadership positions at R&D institutions in the country either begin or end with IISc. “In our effort to evolve we should not compromise on this basic character of this institute,” says G Padmanabhan.
It’s likely that many inside the 400-acre campus are already toying with these ideas. But as George Orwell once wrote: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”
The new director no doubt will have to have many irons in the fire. Two-term IISc director CNR Rao during his recent Bharat Ratna felicitation ceremony at IISc said he doesn’t find the institute “unique”. If he really has the clout that many in the community believe him to have, then he must bring in a director who can do some, if not all, of the above. He can always start with improving the IISc website!
PS: *This blog has been corrected on the size of the new campus in Chitradurga. A reader has pointed out that it is not 150 but 1500 acres.