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?’ The link does not work now.
2. (Accessed on 3 January 2015 19:21 IST)
3.  See an enlarged version here: This has been added to this blog recently.


2 thoughts on “Is there a leadership crisis in Indian science?

  1. Palamudikkilli says:

    I thought Mathematics is the Queen of Sciences and sits on top of the equilateral triangle, with you guys and sisters from Physics parked at the nodes below, no? 😉 Of course you can rotate the triangle to create a false illusion!

  2. Indeed Mathematics is the Queen of Sciences. But, some have pointed out that mathematics does not have postulates that are common with other physical sciences. A theorem proved by a Mathematician remains true forever. A theory by a scientist can change/evolve…. So, be assured, I was not trying to put maths down 🙂

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