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.

 

Indian Institute of Science

Indian Institute of Science

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.

 

20 comments to “Why the new director of IISc has his role cut out”

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  1. Paul Ratnasamy says: -#1

    Excellent, thoughtful article with useful ideas and suggestions. Unfortunately, these suggestions and ideas will not be implemented because:
    (1) IISc gets most of its research funds from central govt agencies(DST,DBT, CSIR etc..) in Delhi wherein WHO you know is more important than what you know to get funds. And, many of those in the committees that disburse funds had come up by the “publish or perish” route with no understanding or appreciation of technology or industry. Funding proposals for “increasing knowledge” are more likely to succeed than those that develop new products or processes; This is reflected in the predominance of journal papers over patents in projects funded by these central govt agencies. How many MAJOR technologies have reached commercial stage from the combined funding of all these agencies in the last 50 years? Not even a dozen.
    (2) most of the faculty at IISc( with some exceptions, of course) are also in the same category and, thus, unless a wholesale transplant of new talent (with industry expertise /experience)is recruited at ALL levels ( from junior lecturer to Head of Division level), there is a dominating vested interest in perpetuating the old culture and promotional avenues;
    (3) The entrepreneurial instinct for making money by developing and commercializing new technologies thru start-ups based on R&D at IISc is neither encouraged nor developed thru institutional structures.

    In view of these ( and many other factors), a diversion to applied research at IISc without adequate needed cultural preparation, will only lead to “falling between stools” ! IISc will lose even the little space (rank-200) it now holds in basic sciences? That is a real danger.

    • Paul Ratnasamy: I agree with all of what you say, particularly with your fear of “falling between stools”. Still, someone has to make a start somewhere. Some people must give up their so-called career security and exhibit ‘social’ courage. I think if there’s one place where any experimentation in these areas could work and have an impact, it is IISc.

      • Paul Ratnasamy says: -#3

        Researchers will “give up their career security and exhibit ‘social’ courage” only if the alternative is more attractive : If they can continue doing advanced research and also leverage the results to enhance their individual and institutional monetary earnings. The latter can enable them to build better experimental and infrastructure facilities, travel to conferences etc. This will be possible, IN PRACTICE, only if the organizational culture , rules and regulations are changed in a concrete affirmatiive way. Why can’t we have the following scenario In IISc?
        – All faculty should teach a certain minimum number of hours per week and mentor students (for Ph.D.). This ensures the continuation of basic research.
        – The faculty can also hold, simultaneously, a regular position paid for by the industry (Indian or foreign)? Not a consultant but, say, Scientific officer. He will pay a certain percentage of his personal industrial salary/earnings( 20-30-40% ?) to IISc for using its facilities(office space/library / students/ academic atmosphere etc). There is no upper limit to his earnings from industry. The scientist who got the funds from industry, should have the final powers to approve (1)purchase of equipment,chemicals etc, (2)travel as well as (3) hire students/assistants for the project subject to the audit rules of the institute. While he/ she can get research funds from the govt agencies, a minimum ( say, 20-30%)of his total research funds ( utilized for hiring assistants/students, buying chemicals, equipment etc) should come from non-govt sources.
        – While the IPR generated by him/her and the students/colleagues will be owned by IISc ( similar to the Bayh-Dole Act in US), IISc will license the patents to him on preferential terms if he/she starts a new company(wherein IISc people/ Indians have > say,25% equity) to develop that patent into a technology and attract outside(indian / foreign) industrial support. On successful commercialisation, the start- up company will pay a royalty to IISc.
        – 50% of the income earned by IISc by way of patent license fees / royalties etc from industry will be given to the inventors named in the patent( this is the practice in many US universities).
        The above is only a very brief illustrative description of the new situation..

  2. Ms Seema, now that a new IISc director has been appointed, what is your reaction?

    • Well, I don’t have any specific reaction, except that I am glad an engineer will steer the ship for a while and I hope he’ll chart a new course. Engineers are, after all, trained to build things. I have no biases here, but I like what Theodore von Karman said: “A scientist discovers that which exists; an engineer creates that which never was.”

  3. We have a 1500 acre campus (not 150 acre) at Challakere (Chitradurga). The biggest mistake IISc made in it’s 105 year history was to bring in C N R Rao as Director………..the rest is HISTORY. He continues to “stay” on in the campus of IISc and destroy it further from within.

  4. Does He or She have to be a Scientist? Once Dr.U.R.Anantha Murthy had suggested that all such positions need people from Humanities Background.

    • Ajit: You bring up a very bold idea in Dr Murthy’s suggestion. While I agree with the sentiment behind it, I don’t think it’s practically possible for anyone to run a scientific or engineering institute with humanities background. But most good institutions get around the issue of balance and social relevance by having a vibrant humanities school/division and a bustling communications department within their campus. Unfortunately, both are missing from Indian science/tech institutions. They’ve managed without it for so long and so don’t feel the need for a change. The US NSF has made it mandatory for grant proposals to outline a public engagement and outreach plan, Indian funding agencies need to do the same.

  5. A Concerned Serving Faculty says: -#1

    In two days, the mystery should be over, and the new man/woman chosen to take on the mantle will be known. However, from what we have been hearing, no surprises are expected; no luck for fresh air.

    The most unfortunate thing is that the position of the Director is considered a reward (for perhaps being a “good boy”) and, therefore, a person is chosen who has a string of medals and might do even better with one more. Director’s position at IISc is not a job!! That’s why all sitting Directors, perhaps after Satish Dhawan, have been part-time Directors. If it is a reward for doing something well, then you will obviously continue to do what you have been doing well, even more. And, that, at IISc is research. Unfortunately, that research is not aimed at freeing humanity of its bondage, removing the veil of mystery from the deepest puzzles of life or nature, or providing health to the millions of infirm in the world; it is aimed at publications that improve your h-factor, citations, or whatever it takes to line up medals. So, where is the need for any vision for the Institute, its articulation, persuasion of colleagues, relentless effort for its execution, etc. The result is for everyone to see.

    IISc is not doing badly, but it is far from what it should be doing if it has to justify its vaulted position it enjoys in India. It will not be unfair to say that neither the 21st century nor the responsibilities associated with 21st century’s India have yet arrived at IISc. IISc falls short, far short, on showing leadership, defining a new path in higher education for India, infusing freshness in its approach to R&D, setting directions for India’s S&T, defining problems facing India that need S&T solutions, finding ways for mass education of quality science, reaching out to public on major scientific issues of general interest (through regular scientific communication for the public), etc. Any Director who stops thinking about his own research and thinks about the role that IISc must play in India, will have to work 30 hours out of 24 everyday! There is just so much to do. For that, you need energy. You are not likely to have that energy at the fag end of your career. If your biggest worry is that nothing untoward should happen in your regime, and somehow your reign should pass through peacefully, you should not take up the job. Today, IISc needs a Director who is willing to figure out how to get the main building to be upside down, if that’s what it will take to set a new path and serve India better.

    So, you have got it right, spot on; the IISc Director has his/her role cut out, irrespective of how you look at it — from outside as you do, or from inside as I do.

    • Yes, I learnt that on March 29th the decision would be made. I am still hoping that some miracle will happen and a young, dynamic director would assume office. But if that’s proven wrong, then I’d be very disappointed. That’d send a signal that the scientific establishment in this country is not willing to change and experiment, even when we’ve reached at a tipping point!

  6. Scientists,researchers and science reporters have their wish-list from the new director,but what do students and their parents expect? No one is bothered about that.Students need more information about prospects of the courses offered at IISc in terms of job-prospects,money,scholarships offered,campus life,experiences of the students in recent years and a hassle-free admission procedure similar to BITS,Pilani.

    Its a flat world. Students of class 8th and 9th in village like towns of Bihar are accessing websites of HBS and MIT either to read experiences of people like Orit Gaddish about life after HBS or learn basics of Physics from OCW run by Walter Levin.Why can’t our great professors, some of them are second to none in the world in teaching skills, run similar courses for our students and market them properly?Perhaps the answer lies in the system of incentives and disincentives prevalent in our Institutions.

    Ma’am, essence of our wish-list is that brand value of the courses offered at IISc should increase and IISc should market itself among the students and parents(yes!parents do decide their child’s college) in the meaningful way so as to attract the best talent first as students and then turn them into researchers,professors and scientists.

  7. Seema, Reflecting on your last sentence, “He can always start…” So, you are assuming that the new director will be a man. Why not a woman? Why don’t we have women leading scientific institutions? Is there a dearth or it’s simply glass ceiling?

    • TS Rao: I’m afraid I’m assuming that the new director will be a male scientist. That’s simply because there are hardly any senior women scientists in the country for this administrative role. And we don’t really have a tradition of grooming leaders in this country, in any field. Call it the glass ceiling, leaky pipeline, or what you will, but women scientists/engineers are missing from the leadership roles.

  8. A Senior CSIR Director says: -#1

    “I agree to some extent with Professor Padmanabhan’s comment that IISc
    is largely self propelled. However, without a sense of direction and
    purpose even the best institutes can fall by the way side in a matter
    of a couple of decades. Conversely, even ordinary institutes can
    become extraordinary when they work with a sense of purpose. And
    there is no person better than the Director to articulate that sense
    of purpose and provide the leadership towards its fulfilment.

    Quality research in engineering sciences has eroded in the Country. I
    hope the next Director will be an engineer and he/she will devote time
    to this issue.

    I am all for basic research that is truly basic. But research of a
    routine nature undertaken in the name of basic science, with impact
    factor and citations as supporting evidence, should be discouraged.
    Instead, IISc should make the best use of its talented students and
    aspire to become a more innovative organisation. Its IPR strength must
    be there for all to see.”

  9. Very good suggestions and hats off to your courage to put this down. Wish mainstream media was raising these issues and running debates. But I guess they are all too busy with politics and business.

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