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 A young inexperienced person would be much better than an old outdated person, if one is worried about long term returns.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

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