Yes, you can change ACS, TWAS and IUPAC!

It was 21 years ago on this day, I had joined IIT Kanpur as an Assistant Professor. We returned to India from the USA towards the end of September 1994. I was advised by well wishers that I should report for duty first and then take leave if I wanted to visit my family. I had not  visited them for more than 4 years. I had visited India in June 1990 to get married and was returning back for good with my wife and a 7 month old daughter. We decided we would go home, spend some time with both our families, attend some family functions (there are always some) for about a month. I had to decide on a day to start my job. November 7th was close and it happened to be a Monday. It was C V Raman’s birthday anniversary too. I have never looked for an auspicious day or time to start anything. I thought 7th November 1994 would be a good day to start my independent career. Raman had won the Nobel prize working in India, when we were not an independent country. He accepted the Nobel Prize and there was no Indian flag!

I had a dream of building a microwave spectrometer in India. When I joined IIT Kanpur, I found out that one Physics Professor who was working in this area there, decided to go back to USA as it was not possible to sustain. I found another Professor in Kolkata who had spent a few years gaining experience at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with the same spectrometer I worked with. He returned after 3 years and decided that it would not be possible to build such a spectrometer in India. I had used the spectrometer which was already built and had gone through the nuts and bolts in design. I had to rebuild a flow reactor during my Ph. D. as the Department moved to a new building at the Kansas State University. Though, this move delayed my Ph. D., I had some experience in building. I couldn’t count on it for building a  microwave spectrometer, which is totally different. As our people’s President Kalam said, when you  have a dream that doesn’t let you sleep, you can find ways. We built it in our laboratory.

American Chemical Society (ACS)

I became a member of the American Chemical Society during my Ph. D. (1986-91). I stayed in the USA till 1994 and have attended ACS meetings a few times. After returning to India in 1994, there was very little I would get by continuing my membership. There was only one benefit: I would continue to get their news magazine Chemical and Engineering News, which helps me keep track of what is happening in Chemistry. I found out that IIT Kanpur would reimburse 75 % of  membership fees and I had to pay only 25 %. The fees used to be about $100 and it was a significant amount that time. If this was all I had to pay, my share at that time would have been about Rs 1200 per annum and my monthly take home salary was perhaps Rs 7000. But, this was not all. To get my copy of the C&E News, I had to pay shipping charges. By ship, it was $15 per year and for airmail $50 per year. Airmail would take 2-3 weeks in 1995 and shipping would take a few months. IIT Kanpur would not reimburse this amount. I realized I had to pay 50 % of $150 per year to get C&E News. American members of ACS do not pay any shipping charges. I decided to pay and continue my membership.

I moved to IISc towards the end of May 1997. When I had to renew my membership for 1998, I found out that IISc reimburses only 50 % of membership fees and no shipping charges. IISc was better than IIT Kanpur on some aspects but not in perks for a faculty. I had to pay more now but I decided to continue anyway. University of Illinois played a big role in the development of world wide web (the more famous www now) during the early 1990s but I had not followed it when I was there from 1992-94. My first MSc student Shamasundar (currently a faculty in IISER Mohali) came to me one day, excited after going through the web pages of a few Universities in the USA. I had not seen a webpage yet. When I applied for Ph. D. in 1985-86, Universities would send brochures by airmail. It was thrilling to be able to see what faculty members in the USA University were doing sitting in Kanpur.

Within a few years after that, I could read Chemical and Engineering News online, on the day of issue. The print copies that came two weeks later were getting dusted, except on occasions when I wanted to look at a specific article. I wrote to the ACS when I had to renew my membership. I would pay my membership fees but I do not want to receive the print copy. The first response was that a member does not have a choice of not receiving the print copy. I explained to them that the only reason I continued my membership after returning to India was to read C&E News and now I can do it online. I would not want to spend my personal funds of $55 a year for receiving the print issue 2-3 weeks after the issue date. ACS told me that I do not have that choice. I asked them why? The next response was that the advertisers pay charges assuming all the members receive a print copy. I replied to them: If your advertisers want to reach me, let them pay for it. Why should I pay?

The next response from ACS cited its’ Constitution and Bylaws which declare that ACS resolves to send a print copy of C&E News to every member. Hence, I do not have a choice. I asked them how does a member, initiate a change in the constitution? It took some time and I was told that I could propose a change and the council would decide. I suggested that the bylaws be changed to read: ACS resolves to send all its members a printed or online version of C&E News. It took me four years (2004-2008) to convince the ACS.  I was continuing to pay the membership fees plus shipping charges during this period. Finally, ACS yielded. When they did, they became smarter. The next year’s letter for subscription included an announcement: International Members can now choose to get C&E News print/online version and save money!

Third World Academy of Sciences

Prof. CNR Rao had become the President of the Third World Academy of Sciences perhaps in 2003. When I heard this news, as a Fellow Indian and Scientist from Bangalore I was happy. However, I didn’t like the name. I sent an email to Prof. Rao congratulating him on becoming the President of TWAS and asked him. Why is it called the Third World Academy of Sciences? Others can call you third world or third rate! Why do we have to call ourselves with such derogatory names? Prof. Rao met me next day by chance, behind my Department and told me: Arunan, I received your email, for what we have been doing, we should actually be 10th world! But, let me look into it. Of course, he was upset with the way we do things here. However, he did look into it. The name was changed to Academy of Developing Nations, TWAS after some time. They wanted to keep TWAS as it was widely known. More recently, the name was changed to The World Academy of Sciences. I was more happier than I was when Prof. Rao became the President.

International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry

In 2004, Prof. S. Chandrasekaran organized the IUPAC Council meeting in Bangalore. He invited all the Chemistry faculty members from IISc for a dinner. I have seen some Indian scientists who are very protective about the visitors they bring to India. They would not like others to meet with the visitors and discuss. Prof. SCN was different. I usually inform all my colleagues and arrange for them to meet with the visitor(s) if they choose to.

We had just published our first microwave spectrum recorded in our laboratory with the home-built spectrometer. It had unambiguously showed the structure of C2H4-H2S complex to be hydrogen bonded. The conventional wisdom is that water (H2O) can form hydrogen bond and H2S cannot, and that is why H2O is liquid and H2S is gas at room temperature. H2S has van der Waals interaction. When we submitted this paper, one referee had commented: The work is well motivated, experiments have been done with care, paper is written well, but do not call it a hydrogen bond. We agreed to change the title at that time to :Bridging hydrogen bonding and van der Waals interaction. This was the first paper we published after taking lots of funds from DST. It was five years already and we were publishing our first paper. I was in no mood to argue with the referee.

The referee comments are very useful most of the times. The peer review process is, in my view, one of the important reason Science has its dominance today. Referee has nothing personal against the authors or the manuscripts (in most of the cases) but raises questions. I was intrigued by the comment. I started reading the literature spreading over 100 years. I met with the Chairman of the Physical and Biophysical Chemistry Division in IUPAC when he visited Bangalore. I suggested to him that IUPAC should come up with a new definition of the hydrogen bond. He told me that IUPAC already had one. I had seen that earlier and did not like it at all. We met the next day and I showed him the existing definition and gave my reasons for disagreement. He suggested that I submit a project to IUPAC for redefining the hydrogen bond. I wasn’t expecting it. I asked him how do I do this? He said I should contact experts from all over the world. Form a task group. One should not include his/her friends and collaborators as IUPAC wouldn’t want to spend funds on friends getting together. I took these words seriously and contacted 13 other experts from all over the World. I had no prior interactions with any of them. They all agreed.

When we started the project, some had told me that the experts won’t agree to one definition. I had formed too large a task group. After two meetings (first in Pisa 2005 and next in Bangalore 2006) and many email discussions, we produced a definition in 2007. I sent it to IUPAC and the committee said they cannot accept it and we should write a big report justifying the definition. It took time and efforts. I was a co-author of another paper written by three groups and it appeared like stitching together three different style of writing. I decided I would write the complete report and first have it read by a core group of five. Take input from them and revise it. Then it was read by the 14 members and every one’s comments and suggestions were considered. I submitted a comprehensive report which included the definition to IUPAC in 2009. It was returned to me informing that the technical report should not include the definition!

I removed the definition and made it an independent Recommendation. Rest of the report became a Technical report. There was some discussion about the title and finally the titles I gave were accepted. These were refereed by 20 experts all over the world. IUPAC gave a 6 month period for any one interested to send comments.  A typical manuscript is refereed by 2 experts. I wrote down responses to all these comments and had all the Authors go through them. Finally in 2011 two manuscripts were published in Pure and Applied Chemistry. One was titled ‘Defining the Hydrogen Bond: An account” Another was titled ‘Definition of the Hydrogen Bond” Around the same time, IUPAC formed another task group to define a halogen bond. It closely followed our work. IUPAC finally accepted only a short paper on definition and the last I found a technical report was yet to be published. IUPAC must have learned something in the process and decided to publish the recommendation without insisting on a technical report which could delay the process.

When I started my career on 7th November 1994, I could not have imagined what was possible. Asking questions, having perseverance and not taking an immediate ‘No’ as the final answer were all important. As one says in India, it was possible to play ‘a squirrel’s role in Ramayana’ and make some changes in American Chemical Society, Third (The) World Academy of Sciences and the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, sitting in some corner of Bangalore!


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