Is there a leadership crisis in Indian science?

To borrow from the answer to a question ‘Is Mathematics Science?’, the short answer is yes and the shorter answer is no (1) However, the leaders of yesteryear’s, who are unwilling to go either out of genuine concern for the future of science in India or for personal gains, believe otherwise. Extension seems to be the norm rather than exception with a standard ‘no one suitable could be found’ reason. Even for some who criticize this situation when they are young, it comes in handy after getting a leadership position.

Leadership cannot be equated to scholarship or h index or the funds brought in, if one does not have the ability to carry an organization together. A leader must have empathy and not apathy. A leader cannot be selfish. A true leader will avoid being surrounded by incompetent cronies, except perhaps for Shining In Contrast, a SIC principle as pointed out by a colleague. A leader will have a vision for an organization. There isn’t anything new here, isn’t it? As Thiruvalluvar says in his famous Thirukural in Tamil: “இடிப்பாரை இல்லா ஏமரா மன்னன் கெடுப்பா ரில்லானும் கெடும்” a king who does not have any one around him to point out his flaws, does not need others to spoil him (and of course, it had to be kings those days, though it applies equally to the Queens).

Why do we have this talk about the lack of leadership time and again? Favouritism and nepotism have been a serious problem in India, both real and perceived. While the real favouritism brings in incapable leaders to some organizations, the perceived one makes other organizations unwilling to cooperate with the chosen leaders. Anyone can find a statement issued by employers in USA including all Universities about being an EO/AA employer. Though equal opportunity and affirmative action are contradicting, even the number one nation in the world realizes the need for both. However, affirmative action does not mean an undeserving person should be chosen to lead an organization. It means, everyone should be given opportunities to rise to any level they are capable of. Obama did not become President of USA because he was an African American. He did because he was the better of the two candidates.

One can find a statement such as ‘University is committed to non-discrimination on the basis of race, color, ethnic or national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, age, ancestry, disability, military status, veteran status, or other non-merit reasons, in admissions, educational programs or activities and employment…’ (2) In India, one can safely remove the ‘non’ in the statement above as we are used to discrimination on all these basis and any other basis that may be discovered from time to time. In India, one also needs to add caste and language to the list given above.

The committees appointed to select leaders are not just looking for the best candidate for any given position, but are looking for ‘the best candidate within a group to lead’. When the leader is from a given group, most in the group are happy whether we have progress or not. Typically one group stops complaining even at grave blunders and the other group looks at every opportunity to complain. Affirmative action throws in unexpected leaders but often they end up facing an unwilling organization. When such leaders appoint people, instead of correcting the past anomalies, they end up looking for candidates from a different group and the cycle continues.

We also rise generations of people who are not allowed to question elders initially and as time progresses they lack the courage to question, whether the elders are right or wrong. As it was with the old joint families, grandpa was always right and one should not do anything that may displease him even slightly. We can see this extended to our political parties and religious organizations. We have blind followers who are convinced about the leadership qualities of those who get such positions by some heritage. Unfortunately, the same attitude is seen even among the scientists including in elite institutions here in India. Their leader can do no wrong, no matter what happens! The consequence is that Indians mistake an individual to be an Institution.

People of my age and older would remember the slogan ‘India is Indira and Indira is India’ which eventually led to a blot on our democracy in 1975, declaration of emergency. The same persons occupying a position for too long is not good for any organization, be it a government, sports academy or an academic institution. The hue and cry about the 100th hundred of Tendulkar in front pages of newspapers pushing the defeat of India to Bangladesh to the last page recently is a great example.

How can we change this situation? The committees responsible for appointing leaders should think beyond their own interest and think about the future of an institution, our nation and science. The appointed leaders should strive hard to avoid groupism and rise to the occasion. They should prove by their act that they do not have any of the biases indicated above. Can it happen? Yes, it can. It is happening in India today in many fields and as I had pointed out in a recent article, science and journalism are two fields yet to come out of the stranglehold of the elite. (3) I am confident that, it won’t be long before it changes.
1. I had seen this quote in the internet as answer to the question ‘Is mathematics science?’ http://www.bydesign.com/powervision/Mathematics_Philosophy_Science/PVPAGE12.html The link does not work now.
2. http://ap.washington.edu/eoaa/ (Accessed on 3 January 2015 19:21 IST)
3. http://cs-test.ias.ac.in/cs/Volumes/100/01/0021.pdf  See an enlarged version here: http://ipc.iisc.ernet.in/~arunan/doc/indianscience.html. This has been added to this blog recently.


The more zeroes you have to your name, the better scientist you are!

(Written on 10 February 2012)

Obviously, I am talking about the number of zeroes that follow any of the other nine digits in the research funds one apparently brings. Coincidentally, Balaram’s editorial on ‘new year reflections about science in India’ (1) and Zare’s correspondence on ‘research impact’ (2) have appeared around the same time there were news paper reports about massive investments in science/technology in India. While Balaram has made pertinent points about the futility of using blind statistics for increasing funding in any area, one news report precisely gives a blind statistics as reason for massive investment. Obviously, a news report cannot include more details and one hopes that the funding agency has looked into every aspect before making the announcement.

The eminent physical chemist, Richard Zare of Stanford University states that his Department does not look at the funds brought in, h-index or any of the numerical indices but asks what has the candidate done?2 Several experts are asked to comment about the candidate’s contribution to the given field and their comments have significant influence in the tenure process. In India we do have problems in finding adequate number of experts in any field. There is also a perception that large funds go to people based on who they know and not on what they know and the evaluations tend to get more subjective, rather than being objective. However, the suggestion of Balaram (1) that ‘Administrations must follow the policy of benign neglect with respect to high performers even while turning a blind eye to the significant deadwood accumulating in our Institutions’ might appear rather as an admission of inability and/or unwillingness to act. Is this the best one can say welcoming the new year?

While the country is certainly ready to invest big in science and technology, leaders of Indian science have failed for the most part. It is still common to find extension being given to top positions with the usual claim ‘no one suitable could be found’. If we do not have any leaders today, whose fault is it? India would do well to not accept such explanation. A young inexperienced person would be much better than an old outdated person, if one is worried about long term returns. If we do not replace the old now, when we finally do that due to circumstances beyond our control, the young would not have any experience yet and the ones chosen would be older than now.

As I have written earlier (3), the analogy with cricket is always interesting, given the Indian context. While Mr. Gavaskar condemns the rotation of top 3 batsmen in the current Australia tour, most have appreciated this move by the Indian Captain Dhoni. Gavaskar’s main motivation appears to be ensuring that Tendulkar plays in every match, future of India can wait. (4) It is important to give the young players more playing time. Who knows what would have been the result if more young players went for the test series. It certainly could not have been worse. However, they would have gained valuable experience which will serve India well in the future. Interestingly, after all the old players returned, Dhoni led the young Indian team to win the T20 world championship. He was humble in admitting the contributions of the seniors to Indian cricket and just pointed out that their presence could not have done anything better than what the young team had achieved, winning the championship.

Delaying the induction of young, independent scientists into leading positions now can lead to a situation which can be worse than what we have now. However, our leaders of science have rarely worried about the future of science or the country and they are only keen on keeping their position as long as they could. They are not different from leaders in other fields in India and it is saddening.
1. P. Balaram, Curr. Sci. 2012, 102(1), 7-8.
2. R. N. Zare, Curr. Sci. 2012, 102(1), 9.
3. E. Arunan, Curr. Sci. 2010, 98(8), 993.
4. http://www.deccanherald.com/content/225599/tendulkar-should-play-all-matches.html


Indian Science: Catch up with India, then worry about China.


(Part of it was published in Current Science vol 100, page 21 (2011))

Click to access 0021.pdf

In the last few years, there have been several comments that compare the scientific output from China and worry about India lagging far behind. Arunachalam has pointed out that the average citations per paper appear slightly better for India than for China, comparing the highly cited papers from both Nations. (Curr. Sci. 99, 738 (2010). This conclusion appears meaningless when one realizes that the total number of papers published from China is about ten times higher than that from India. Giridhar and Desiraju (doi:10.1038/nindia.2010.156) have looked at all the papers published and pointed out that the average citations have remained more or less the same in the last several years and so China’s increase in quantity has not been at the cost of quality and hence, India is way behind. Balaram has written several editorials cautioning against the use of scientometrics going to the extent of calling it a dismal science (Curr. Sci .95 431 (2008)). I have earlier pointed out that over-emphasizing of these parameters have led to many of our scientists working on problems that can be published and not on problems that need to be solved (Curr. Sci 98, 993 (2010)). This has led to the situation that India does not care about her scientists much.

Tata announces the plans to build the cheapest car in the world and builds it. ISRO announces the launch of Chandrayan and does it successfully. According to the book by Bagla and Menon titled ‘Destination Moon’, it appears that the main contribution from the premiere institution in the country (Indian Institute of Science) to the programme is the suggestion that India should not go ahead with this programme. Other contributions from the Indian Institute of Science, if any, are not taken cognizance of either in the Institute or by ISRO or by the Nation. Considering the fact that the first Chairman of ISRO happens to be the then Director of the Indian Institute of Science, Prof. Satish Dhawan, one wonders what happened in between. Chandrayan not only helped in exciting the Nation, the youth in particular, it also led to an important scientific finding: the presence of water on the moon. Naturally, the nation celebrated the ‘scientists’ from ISRO who were part of the Chandrayan mission and the real scientists from the academia feel upset with the attention ISRO deservedly gets.

The negative thinking evident from the suggestion about the Chandrayan programme seems prevalent among many scientists in India today, including some leaders. They are convinced that nothing useful will come out of any of our attempts and it is all right to continue to do the small things sitting in some corner. If an individual comes to this decision and does what he/she can do best, a system is not affected. It could actually benefit the system. If the leadership in Science has this conviction, it can affect the system and many working scientists realize this problem today. These leaders seem oblivious to the fact that it is often the small dreams and positive thinking that leads to solving problems that are considered impossible to solve. While the Scientists are busy nitpicking about who has a larger h-index (as Balaram pointed out, often in the lower end of the spectrum, Curr. Sci. 99, 857 (2010)), India has been progressing leaving Indian science far behind. Indian scientists seem to be living in an imaginary ivory tower with opaque windows. We need to catch up with India before we can worry about matching China.
The problems plaguing Indian science is well known and many have written about it. In essence, independence is condemned and nepotism is rewarded. We have many scientists who are critical about the system privately, but do not have the courage to speak up when it matters. Not only nepotism, often silence is rewarded too. Several committees making important decisions are chaired by people who have been retired for decades. While the system should enable those capable of doing good science to continue beyond retirement, it is not clear why those who have retired even during service should continue to chair committees making important decisions post official retirement. In-breeding is avoided in the best of the Institutions worldwide. Mere mentioning of such an opinion is opposed in meetings here even by those who may personally agree: “That influential person does not like this mentioned”. Indiscriminate in-breeding is still practiced in some premiere institutions in India. Those who oppose do not seem to realize that familiarity breeds contempt, eventually.

While personal ego is not confined to Indians, we take it to the extreme. Some leaders of science are so consumed with their personal agenda that they can not be bothered about the future of an Institution or Nation or Science. They are so proud that without them the Institution can not run, not in the least realizing that history will eventually judge them to be poor leaders. Such uncontrolled inflated personal egos can lead to statements which would be difficult to comprehend anywhere else in the world. An example that comes to mind was made by a minister recently: ‘I will be happy if the commonwealth games fail’. It does not matter if the country is shown in poor light. It is more important for the person to say ‘I told you so’. We have many scientists behaving exactly like this. If I am not in the centre, let the Nation/Institute/Science go to hell. Thankfully, today’s India does what needs to be done to these individuals: ignore them and carry on with the progress.

India is progressing in every other field: sports, cinema, arts, writing, commerce, industry, etc. In these fields Indians are competing with the best in the world and winning. Viswanathan Anand is the number one Chess player in the world. Sachin Tendulkar is the only active cricketer to be named in the all time greats recently. In any case, Mahendra Singh Dhoni becomes the most successful cricket captain India ever had. Abhinav Bindra becomes the first Olympic Gold Medalist from India. Saina Nehwal won the 40th Gold Medal in the Commonwealth Games, which the Minister desperately wanted to fail, and took India to the second place in the Medals tally inching ahead of the Nation that led to the Commonwealth. The Khans not only rule the bollywood, they top the charts internationally. One Mr. Rajni Kanth, a Maratian settled in Bengaluru as a bus-conductor becomes the undisputed super-star of not just Tamil Nadu but India. His recent movie Enthiran/Robot, directed by Shankar, is an example for thinking and achieving BIG. It is a technological achievement equaling or bettering Hollywood. A. R. Rahman wins both Oscar and Grammy awards. Indian Authors are winning Booker prizes more regularly, winning two out of the last five (Kiran Desai and Aravind Adiga). Indian ladies have won Ms. World and Ms. Universe. IT industry has done India proud contributing significantly to the GDP, a fraction of which the Scientists are eager to take, often without accountability. Tata is not only making Nano now but has also acquired Jaguar and Rolls Royce. Mallya not only owns an IPL team but also a Formula One team. D. Udaya Kumar, from a small town Kallidaikurichi, Tamil Nadu, an Architecture student of Anna University and IIT Mumbai, comes out with a marvelous design for the Rupee symbol. Not surprisingly, these are fields in which merit and only merit matters. Not so in the closely guarded scientific institutions of India, where defining merit is, not so easy. Often the joke is that, you choose the candidate and then fix the qualifications accordingly.

Thanks to the rapidly increasing economic power of India, today the country is willing to invest big in Science and Technology. We do not seem to have enough scientists willing to ask the big questions and address them. As many have pointed out, most everyone is happy doing incremental science. Many active scientists today are convinced that we can not do difficult experiments here and so are not even willing to try. Even those who learn state-of-the-art-experiments during their training abroad, end up looking for safe alternatives after returning to India. Why struggle? It will take longer to publish and promotion may be delayed. When the experts can do no better than what an elementary school kid can do (count numbers), why bother about wasting time attempting to solve a problem that may take longer. Often solving big problems require meaningful collaboration cutting across disciplines. However, in India collaboration is encouraged only on public stage and not in the board rooms discussing the promotion of individuals. Being an experimental physical chemist, I have mentioned about doing difficult experiments. However, I must point out that this applies equally to both experimentalists and theoreticians cutting across all the fields in Science and Engineering. Not many are willing to take up challenging projects.

Science and may be journalism are still waiting to see such growth seen in the other fields. Rajdeep Sardesai has pointed out that 31 out of the 50 gold medalists in the Commonwealth Games are from rural India, Jat men and women (Deccan Herald http://www.deccanherald.com/content/106478/cwg-success-shows-indias-deprived.html.) He points out that investment in the sports academy in the smaller towns and cities have led to the rise of India in sports. He also points out that Journalism is still practiced mostly by some elites and naturally the talent pool that a diverse India can offer has not contributed to the growth of Journalism yet. This is certainly more applicable to Science. The problem with the elite is that, for them solving mundane problems, however important it may be for the Nation, is not exciting. Their dominance has ensured that very few laboratories building equipments and doing challenging experiments survive in India today. Infosys founder Naryanamurthy has pointed out recently that Indian scientists are not interested in solving problems of interest to the Industries (The Hindu, http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/interview/article855303.ece). The problem can be best summarized by the quote by John W. Gardner, who was Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson: “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water”. Indian science not only needs excellent philosophers but also excellent plumbers in the Institutes and the scientific community will learn to respect them both equally for their survival.