Thursday, May 26, 2011

Eureka? Please???

This has been an interesting week for a news junkie.

First, Pakistan almost lost an air base to a bunch of suicidal maniacs who crawled in through the sewer pipes, proving the point I have always made -- the Pakistanis should eat more fiber and less meat. It keeps the sewage pipes busy, and keeps the terrorists out of air bases. I am pretty sure that our news industry, given its deep infatuation with things that exit the gastrointestinal tract, was going to spend more time on this story.

But suddenly, there was talk. All over the ether. About a critical comment made by Mr. Jairam Ramesh, India's environment minister, about the sorry state of research conducted at the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs).

In case you want to know the specifics, read on. Mr. Ramesh was speaking to a bunch of journalists, on why the government institutions in India have a very bad track record of succeeding at anything they do. And, why the IITs and IIMs are miserably ranked, compared to many other institutions elsewhere, as far as research goes. Mr. Ramesh, being a graduate of one such IIT, is apparently better suited to make such a remark. But, if you look at the graph below, you will see that you don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out where India's top institutes are, in terms of research. (You can read more of this story, published in The Telegraph, here)

I found something even stranger. The erudite faculty members of the IITs, suddenly started shouting from the rooftops on why Mr. Ramesh should mind his own business. But, most people, who have studied at these institutions, have actually come out and supported Mr. Ramesh for calling a spade a spade.  Mr. Ramesh and I share a common bond. We both have been forever scarred by the IIT system as undergraduates. We both expected much more of our professors, when we studied there.  And we both got very little, specially, in terms of the motivation one needs, to be a researcher, in a country such as ours. It goes without saying, that we both decided to pursue our graduate studies elsewhere.

Many years have passed since I wore that diploma-hat, but I don't think the educational standards in the IITs have changed much. Indian scientists and academics have debated a lot on why the IITs have not ended up as world class research institutes. I have heard various reasons, such as, the low pay that the faculty members make compared to what they can make in the private sector, the lack of independence, and plain old-fashioned lethargy, that kicks in around the first week of May, and continues till the last week of April. Every year. A famous Indian scientist, Dr. Mashelkar, even attributed the poor quality of research to Indian scientists being too reverential -- supposedly, it is a cultural thing we Indians have!

I have always wondered if it is possible to take one technical institution in India, and make it "world class".  Just one would be fine. You don't need to call it an IIT, call it anything you wish. For example, you could call it the "Desi Babu Institute of Advanced Technical Research".  Give it the freedom to choose its research agenda, do not impose the "quota system" in admissions, hire the best academics from all over the world -- and pay them market wages, comparable to what they would make elsewhere. In short, give this institute all the ingredients of success, and watch what happens.

Is the government willing to do such a thing? Maybe! Is the government able to do such a thing? No! 
Any popularly elected government in any democracy has certain constraints it has to work with. In India, these constraints are --  reservation quotas for student admissions, low pay for professors decided by bureaucrats and  hiring unionized workers with terrible work culture as administrative staff. Plus, most IITs have now become political tools for politicians. In the old days, the emperor in Delhi used to hand out bushels of grain and herds of cows as reward for loyalty. Unfortunately, nowadays, a local politician gets rewarded with an IIT in his state. And hence, new IITs end up being located between the mustard fields of Sukhwinder and the wheat fields of Rajwinder. "Out in the sticks" is really a superlative expression for such choice locations for the new IITs. 

So, Mr. Ramesh made a very simple statement. He said that excellence cannot be achieved in a government setup. So, perhaps, it is time that we established world-class institutes, outside the sphere of influence of the government.

And, all hell broke loose.  He was called a self serving loudmouth. He was called a loony libertarian. And, many academics at the IITs called him extremely unreasonable.

The famous Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw is known to have made many a witty remark. One, that has always appealed to me as a scientist and an engineer goes like this -- "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

I think we just need a few more unreasonable men like Mr. Ramesh. And, we will do just fine.


  1. Desi Babu, not just IIT profs but even hyperactive news anchors like Arnab Goswami started to shout from rooftops, condemning the minister.

    But your point is taken.. Well justified.

  2. Most people from the hallowed institutes seem to support the minister. Another opinion here....

  3. Heck. I agreed with Jairam Ramesh when he said that (from my seat in front of the idiot box), but I disagree somewhat with you here..."excellence cannot be agreed in a government setup" it isn't exactly impossible :)
    or rather, not disagree, but simply to add on:
    Somewhere, we need to motivate students to go to IIT because they want to become engineers... not investment bankers.
    And as for government/private setup... Well, ok, privatise, but it will still require huge subsidies (donations have this tendency of opening up super corrupt channels in india... our existing private institutes r examples). Else very few will be able to afford higher education... n we'll lose out on talent from poorer sections.
    And about location of IITs... IIT Patna just got functional :), but somehow in India, higher educational institutes don't really create the silicon valley effect. Am with you on this one.

  4. The trouble exacerbates when unreasonable people are ordered to shut up.

    1. I've been trying to subscribe to your blog, to no avail. Help, no.
    2. Is there a way to subscribe to the comments on blogspot, so that I know my plea has been answered?

  5. @Janani: Agreed, Arnab needs to shout less. :-)

    @Soumya: I read that Churumuri post, very nicely written! Swalpa spicy indeed!

    @Ruhi: Is the reference to IIT Patna supposed to be a sponge padded nudge to the "babu" from "desi" land? :-)

    @Priya: I thought you could subscribe to the RSS feed of my blog. If you would like something else, please let me know, and I will enable it on my blog. Being new to the "blogosphere", I am not fully familiar with all the available options that make accessing the blog easier.


  6. I don't agree that it is impossible to do good research in a government setup. What I hear from a professor in an american university (himself a graduate from IITM and collaborating with researchers at IITM) is that the research output of IITs is much better than that of IISc. According to him the problem is that IISc gets too much funds just for the asking. While faculty at IIT have to work on a shoe string budget and hence end up doing very innovative work or collaborating with industry and doing relevant work. I think the issue is that we have not managed to set up a good system of governance for research organizations. Appointments still tend to be politicized. How to fund research effectively is a question even the american establishment hasn't handled well - it tends to put all funding into a few baskets whereas research results are unpredictable, its better to try out ten times more ideas with one tenth the funding for each. I think the teaching load at IITs is probably too much because of the increased intake and that will have a negative impact. However I have seen some really good young faculty enter the IITs over the last decade and the impact of their research will be seen over the next decade. Reservation has impacted standards - I have spoken to faculty who say that they are forced to lower bars because they cannot fail students from reserved categories nor can they have different standards for them. As always there is much to be hopeful about and much news that causes dismay. And my personal experience 17 years back was that some teachers were very inspiring and did have a positive impact on me.