Indian Institute of Science, Uncategorized

Faculty Recruitment in Institutions with Emphasis on Teaching and Research!

I have been planning to write on this topic for sometime and finally the Editorial published in Current Science dated 10 July 2018 triggered me (1). I wanted to write this as there had been a huge response to another editorial I wrote three months ago on conflict of interest in Indian Science (2). I had written some other editorials and several comments in Current Science (3) and these have attracted comments from a few with similar views, mostly from the Academia. However, the Editorial on Conflict of Interest elicited applaud from many and anger from some, in the academia. Many appreciated this for speaking the truth. What surprised me was that this Editorial was also covered by some news media, http://www.dailyo.in (4). Dinesh Sharma titled the news as ‘How conflict of interest is murdering Indian Science’.  I was worried about the news  coverage of academic matters, given that news has to be sensational. Indian Science is alive. Of course, it is not performing to its potential, which is perhaps true for many things in India. Conflict of interest is certainly a factor that is affecting it.

Another unusual comment I had for my editorial follows: “pl do not become a knight in shining armour. The matters are nuanced. You have a large following. They should not go tilting at all the wind mills”. Though, I had disagreed with this comment at that time, I do share some worries. In fact, Saibal Gupta has articulated my worries well in his editorial. (1) His editorial is about ranking Institutions and how all the various numerical indices may not be able to identify great faculty candidates. He goes on to say: “What might the solution be? This is a difficult one, as it involves the ability, confidence and wisdom of our faculty selectors to be able to look beyond ‘numbers’. For reasons not entirely academic, and we must admit, our own transgressions over time, academic decisions that do not conform to the ‘number’ game have become legally open to challenge, and can easily become fodder for a news-hungry media that is ‘looking’ for evidence of academic corruption. We need to convince ourselves that there is space for admitting people who we recognize as good in the fundamentals, and who we believe would be able to think ‘differently’.”

There has been some ‘transgressions’ as Gupta points out and there have been clear cases of conflict of interest as I pointed out. However, one should not forget the fact that many institutions, in particular, IITs and IISc, have sustained quality for many decades. This would not have been possible if the whole system was corrupt. I do believe that there is always room for improvement and perfection would remain a goal, that is never attained. On the other hand, I have also seen that the perception of corruption in India, in every field, may be far higher than the real corruption.  Anyone who is not selected may conclude, there is corruption everywhere. Obviously that number would be large. We do have honest people in every system and India has been surviving and growing thanks to the tireless work of many such people.

I wanted to share with everyone interested some information about how a faculty member is selected. I have been directly involved in this for about a decade now. A committee looks at all the applications and decide whether or not to consider the applicant further. There are many reasons why an application may not be considered further. Our Department does not like to inbreed i.e. none of our Ph. D. students are generally considered for faculty positions in our Department. There are other Departments in IISc and also other Institutions, that may not share our view. Another reason a candidate may not be considered is because the Department may not be looking at some research areas at that point in time. If for example, one theoretical chemist was hired recently, and the Department is not keen on hiring another theoretical chemist, applicants record would not matter. The number of publications, impact factor, number of citations and h-index, none of them may count.  If the research area of the candidate is considered to have significant overlap with that of an existing faculty  member, not just the recently hired ones, that applicant is unlikely to be hired as well.

At any point in time, we may like to hire faculty members in some areas. We do look at the candidate’s record in terms of past publications and future research plan. We do not necessarily go by the number of publications, impact factors of the Journals in which they are published and citations. Particularly, in my field, for example, the Journal of Chemical Physics, has a good reputation though it may have a lower impact factor than the Journal of American Chemical Society or Angewandte Chemie. One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that only a small number of papers dealing with physical chemistry/chemical physics are published in these ‘general chemistry’ Journals. Even among the few papers appearing in these Journals (and also the ‘general science Journals like Science and Nature), most have dramatic conclusions about topics that have huge appeal to chemists/scientists. I can cite two examples that I am aware of. In 2013, Science published a paper on ‘visualizing hydrogen bonds’ and the authors were from Physics and Chemistry Departments (5). It was covered in all magazines and I wrote a ‘Research News’ in Current Science as well (6). Later on a more detailed study questioning this interpretation was published in Physical Review Journals. I can only guess Science refused to publish them. (7) That is only for the experts.

Somewhat coincidentally, in 2013 Science had published a paper on the first observation of the ‘Criegee intermediate’ which is very important in atmospheric chemistry (8). Science was not interested in publishing a more thorough work, which provided more accurate and thorough data and that was published in the Journal of Chemical Physics (9). This work was done by Y. P. Lee and coworkers from Taiwan. I was listening to him during the Asian Spectroscopy Conference in Taiwan in 2017. In his talk, he mentioned the following: “We have published several papers on this important intermediate and the significance of these papers is inversely related to the impact factor of the Journal in which these are published” Scientists know the difference and it is what we call a ‘peer evaluation’. This appears as ‘perception’ in World ranking . Peer evaluation, appearing as perception in these ranking should not be confused with what a commoner might think about perception. In judging Science, peer evaluation is not perfect, but there is nothing better.  I just heard from someone that UGC was planning to remove this ‘perception’ in national ranking, and I think it is a bad idea. Most from India may have heard about Vashishta, an ancient saint. To be certified as a ‘great saint’ by Vashishta was considered the greatest of honor a saint could get. In Tamil “வஷிஸ்டர் வாயாலே பிரம்மரிஷி’. Peer evaluation is just that.

Candidates who work on the same areas from Ph. D. to postdoc and have plans to continue in the same area are unlikely to be considered irrespective of the impact factors and citations. When we look at the postdoctoral work, we try to judge if there is any original contribution from the candidate. Candidates have to show and prove that they can think independently. That they can identify an important unsolved problem and know how to tackle it. Once a candidate is shortlisted, (s)he is invited to give a talk based on past work and also a talk on future research plan. All faculty members attend these talks and ask questions. Reference letters from referees suggested by the candidate and also some experts working in related area are sought. These letters play a crucial role. Often, faculty members who have supervised and/or worked with a candidate are the best judges and most provide an honest evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of a candidate. When I returned to India, I have had requests from students with whom I had no interaction, asking for a reference letter. I have always refused. These letters are not to be confused with ‘recommendation’ as commonly known in appointments in India. I cannot recommend a son’s friend or a friend’s son for any job. I can recommend my students and anyone else with whom I have worked based on my observations.

Candidate gets to meet with all faculty members and discuss for about 30 minutes with each, in addition to giving a one hour seminar and 30 minute research plan presentation. There has to be a nearly unanimous view among the faculty members about whether a candidate can be hired. There is very little room for corruption or influence in this affair, if all the faculty members express their opinion. Over the last decade or so, when I have been closely involved in this process, no one has ever tried to influence the selection of Assistant Professors. Is there a possibility that the collective judgement of the faculty members can go wrong? That probability is certainly not zero. However, to repeat myself, no one has tried to influence the selection of candidates for faculty positions in my experience.

References (all the weblinks were accessed on 13 July 2018):

    1. Saibal Gupta “Balancing teaching, research and institutional rankings” Current Science, Volume 115, pages 7-8 (2018). http://www.currentscience.ac.in/Volumes/115/01/0007.pdf
    2. E. Arunan “Is Indian Science Ready to Tackle Conflict of Interest Rationally?” Current Science, Volume 114, pages 1385-1386 (2018) http://www.currentscience.ac.in/Volumes/114/07/1385.pdf
    3. http://ipc.iisc.ac.in/~ea/current_science.html.
    4. https://www.dailyo.in/technology/science-in-india-cv-raman-current-science-indian-institute-of-science/story/1/23673.html
    5. Zhang, J., Chen, P., Yuan, B., Ji, W., Cheng, Z. and Qiu, X., Science, vol 342, issue 6158, pp 611-614, (2013). DOI:10.1126/science.1242603.
    6. E. Arunan “Hydrogen bond seen, halogen bond defined and carbon bond proposed: Intermolecular bonding, a field that is maturing” Current Science, vol 105, pp 892-894 (2013).
    7. https://pubpeer.com/publications/345962A4190EDDB394CDEFB056026E#fb16414.
    8.  Su, Yu-Te; Huang, Yu-Hsuan; Witek, Henryk A.; et al. SCIENCE   Volume: 340   Issue: 6129   Pages: 174-176(2013).
    9. Ting, Wei-Lun; Chang, Chun-Hung; Lee, Yu-Fang; et al. JOURNAL OF CHEMICAL PHYSICS   Volume: 141   Issue: 10     Article Number: 104308 (201)
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Indian Institute of Science, J N Tata, Uncategorized

J N Tata planned the Indian Institute of Science and Swami Vivekananda did not influence it!

It is 27th May again! In 1909 on this day, the vesting order for the establishment of the Indian Institute of Science was issued. Last year on this day, I had written a blog about this great institute and the Indian Association for Cultivation of Science and argued that they defined India before independence (1). One of the reasons was the choice in naming these institutions as Indian. Calcutta in the state of Bengal and Bangalore in the Mysore Kingdom built educational institutions named as ‘Indian’, many decades before India got independence. In Uttar Pradesh, Banaras Hindu University and Aligarh Muslim University were established in the following decades. One can still see this difference in the view points of the people of eastern and southern India in comparison to the northern states. Often I feel that there is a huge communication gap between the people of these regions in India for historic and geographic reasons.

This blog is not about the names though. It is about whose vision led to the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). It is become a popular myth that IISc resulted from a stimulating discussion between J N Tata and Swami Vivekananda while on a ship from Yokohama to Vancouver. A recent post in TheBetterIndia mentions that they met on 31 May in 1893 (2). If one is not careful in reading this post, the myth will resonate as a fact. I have written a few blogs about learning history and pointed out how difficult it is to learn history (3-5). I also believed in this myth and have written about this in my first blog on ‘Learning History’ (3) and also a recent editorial in Current Science focusing on conflict of interest (6). I had email discussions with two experts: Dr. Subbarayappa who authored a book on the history of Indian Institute of Science (7) and Prof. P. Balaram, our former Director, who ensured that we will have an Archives and Publications Cell at IISc. I have also been helped by Mr. Sharath Ahuja, who was taking care of the Archives and Publications Cell in the initial years. I am pleased to share the images from Mr. Ahuja, of the Tata statue at IISc and the commemorative stamp issued by the Government of India during our Centenary. You can see the replica of our Main Building held by Tata in his hands! It is a fitting statue for the founder in front of the iconic building shown in the stamp.

The letter written by J. N. Tata to Swami Vivekanada, on 23rd November 1898, offers the most important clue. This is reproduced in the book by Subbarayappa and also the TheBetterIndia portal. This is what Tata says at the beginning: “I trust, you remember me as a fellow- traveller on your voyage from Japan to Chicago. I very much recall at this moment your views on the growth of the ascetic spirit in India, and the duty, not of destroying, but of diverting it into useful channels.” Clearly, he does not mention about any discussion about the need for a research institution. On the other hand, Tata continues this sentence with: “I recall these ideas in connection with my scheme of Research Institute of Science for India, of which you have doubtless heard or read”  (emphasis added).

Prof. Balaram gave an excellent talk on the history of the Indian Institute of Science at the National Centre for Biological Sciences recently. Thankfully his talk is available on YouTube (8). I would encourage anyone interested in the history of Indian Science in 20th Century, not just IISc, to listen to this talk spending the 90+ minutes! Prof. Balaram quotes from primary sources about J. N. Tata’s plans for Science and a research Institution in India years before he met Swami Vivekananda during his voyage to Chicago. Why then, Prof. Balaram decided to include Swami Vivekananda in the commemorative stamp during the centenary of IISc? His talk has some clues as to how this happened. If you are keen, you may listen to the talk.

Tata in his letter went on to say the following: “I am of opinion that if such a crusade in favour of an asceticism of this kind were undertaken by a competent leader, it would greatly help asceticism, science, and the good name of our common country; and I know not who would make a more fitting general of such a campaign than Vivekananda.” Tata clearly wanted Swami Vivekananda to lead the Institute. In his book, Dr. Subbarayappa mentions that Swami Vivekananda’s reply to the letter by Tata could not be traced. However, an Editorial was published in April 1899 in Prabhuddha Bharata, a magazine started by Swami Vivekananda. The editorial is not signed and perhaps was written by the Swami. It starts with this sentence: “We are not aware if any project at once so opportune and so far reaching in its beneficent effects was ever mooted in India, as that of the post-graduate research University of Mr. Tata. The scheme grasps the vital point of weakness in our national well-being with a clearness of vision and tightness of grip, the masterliness of which is only equalled by the munificence of the gift which is ushered to the public”. The scanned image of the editorial can be seen below:

J N TATA AND SWAMI VIVEKANANDA001.jpg

Clearly, Swami Vivekananda recognizes IISc as an outcome of a project mooted by Tata and was very enthusiastic of this project. He was invited by Tata to be the first head of the Institution. However, it is clear that Indian Institute of Science was the result of J. N. Tata’s vision and this vision was not influenced by any discussion with Swami Vivekananda. J. N. Tata not only planned IISc, he also built steel and power plants to help India become what it is today. One cannot celebrate IISc or India, without celebrating the great J. N. Tata.

  1. https://earunan.org/2017/05/28/indian-institute-of-science-iisc-and-indian-association-for-cultivation-of-science-iacs-defined-india-before-independence/
  2. https://www.thebetterindia.com/127599/swami-vivekananda-jamsetji-tata-chicago-conference-iisc/
  3. https://earunan.org/2015/04/02/learning-history/
  4. https://earunan.org/2015/04/11/learning-history-ii-and-happy-new-year/
  5. https://earunan.org/2015/04/14/learning-history-3-birthday-new-year-and-so-on/
  6. E. Arunan, Curr. Sci. (Weblink: http://www.currentscience.ac.in/Volumes/114/07/1385.pdf )
  7. B. V. Subbarayappa “In Pursuit of Excellence: A History of The Indian Institute of Science” Tata-McGraw-Hill 1992.
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=horcEiRiHh0

 

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Indian Institute of Science, Uncategorized

Jawaharlal Nehru and C. V. Raman: Nehru’s vision is more important for Science in India, not Raman’s!

Some of my friends had forwarded articles from the Swarajya online magazine now and then and it was clear to me that the articles that were sent to me by my friends had an agenda and truth would be left out if the agenda would be in danger. So far, I never thought I should respond to them. It is impossible to respond to everything written whether you agree with them or not. Once in a while, I have posted my views in Facebook and rarely in Twitter.  A recent article published in Swarajya titled “The Double Life of CV Raman” (1), which claims to show how Indian Science should be funded, finally triggered me enough to write this blog. At least for those who care to know, some facts must be given. This article mentions Raman’s great contributions to physics for long and at the end mentions two incidents to prove Raman had a better vision than Nehru. I am surprised  that the author thought Raman had a vision and quotes these incidents to prove this.

The first incident is from a biography of Raman written by Uma Paramaeswaran. Raman criticized Nehru’s plans to start CSIR laboratories and insisted that funds should only be given to individual scientists and not for national laboratories. This is wrong on many counts. Also, this clearly shows how blind one can become when they are committed to an ideology. National Laboratories are not some ‘socialists plan’. Every country in this world irrespective of their ideology have them from the USA, France, UK to Russia and India. Supporting individual scientists and national laboratories are not an ‘either or’ choice! This should be obvious to anyone! Of course, not for some one whose only aim is to discredit Nehru.

Nehru not only formed CSIR laboratories with an objective to promote technology in India, but also started IITs to promote individual excellence where faculty and students pursued their blue-sky research. Our founding fathers had vision for the country and Raman and the author of this article do not. Under Nehru’s leadership, India not only started CSIR and IITs, ITIs were started. Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) was established in 1958. Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) was established in 1962 and Nehru’s close aide and scientist Vikram Sarabhai headed it. This became ISRO and the rest is history. After blaming 7 decades of misrule, among the first things Modi did as the PM was to come to ISRO and watch the successful launch of Mangalyaan. Physical Research Laboratories, established under Department of Space, in Ahmedabad has not perhaps shined as the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Los Angeles, but it has provided crucial support to ISRO. Several state Universities have done outstanding research before and after independence. especially in the first three decades. I personally know Scientists from the National Aerospace Laboratory in Bangalore who have worked towards ISRO’s needs. As I had pointed out in another article, a recent DG-CSIR, who was consumed by the number game, had told some of them to stop doing that and do something that can be published. That’s certainly not Nehru’s fault.

ISRO has shined from the beginning. Are the CSIR and DRDO laboratories and state Universities doing great today? Most of them are not doing that well. Nehru started all of them and some have succeeded and many have failed. Blaming Nehru’s policies for the failure of some is obviously motivated by a political agenda. Did Raman have a different policy, which India could have followed and succeeded better in Science? He is quoted as shouting ‘fund me and individuals and don’t start CSIR’? At best, it sounds childish to me. This article does not describe any other policies of Raman that India could have followed. I doubt if Raman ever had any such policy. For those who would like to have a complete picture of Raman, I would suggest a book titled ‘Dispersed Radiance’ written by Abha Sur, a Ph. D. in Physical Chemistry who became a social scientist later (2)

Raman has been a typical example of how scientists in India have behaved in independent India as he seems to have mentioned. “He (Raman) felt Nehru had allowed Indian science to be hijacked by self-serving people who were given control of policy making.” Now let us look at some facts. Meghnad Saha invited Raman to work with Congress before Independence and help form scientific policies for an independent India. Raman refused and felt his job was to just work on his science and not help the future Government. To his credit, Raman kept to himself from the Government before and after Independence.  When he did not get what he wanted, he shouted.

The second incident quoted, based on a personal conversation with Raman’s grandson, is difficult for me to believe. The article mentions about “Raman ‘picking up a bust of Nehru that stood on the shelf and hurling to the ground’, breaking it into pieces”. Was he that immature and consumed by anger? It seems like many Indian scientists have followed this ‘throwing tantrums’ to achieve their goals. In a matured democratic society, it should not work. However I see this working even today in my own Institute. Some professors think, they are so great and they can shout and abuse anyone from a Director to a clerk. . Raman probably did it in his house. Some scientists today do it in the work place. They are following the bad example set by Raman.  In a civilized society, such an act should be a punishable offense!

Raman was invited to become the Director of the Indian Institute of Science and he started in 1933. He could not survive as the Director for long and he was asked to step down within a few years. There is a book on the history of our Institute titled ‘In pursuit of excellence’ written by Subbarayappa (3) and those who want to know his side of this episode can read the book. Irrespective of whose fault it is, Raman had to resign as the Director of IISc, much before India became Independent and Nehru became the Prime Minister. Many others have served as the Director of IISc admirably, including his successor, Prof. Jan Chandra Ghosh who took over in 1939. He excelled as the Director of IISc and was asked to start the first Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur. He did that and then he was invited to be the Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University. When he was to leave IIT Kharagpur, the students went on strike asking him to stay. Raman did not have such quality as a leader of science. He was an individual who excelled in Science and I doubt if he ever had any policy for Science or Nation!

There was a controversy between Raman and Born as they had different views on lattice dynamics. This is almost typical and nothing unusual. What was unusual in this controversy is that Raman was unwilling to listen and discuss. He nearly became a believer and went to the extent of forcing his students to prove his theory right. At least during this episode, he did not seem to have promoted independent thinking which is essential in Science. He rejected papers having a different view when he was the Editor of Current Science. Eventually, his theory turned out to be incomplete if not incorrect. For Indians, hero worship is in the blood. For me, whether it is Nehru or Raman, learn about what all they did and come to your own conclusions. Be wary of authors like the ones who wrote in Swarajya claiming Raman’s plans are better than Nehru’s without even mentioning any such plans! It would be easy to spot them.

References:

  1. https://swarajyamag.com/amp/story/science%2Fthe-double-life-of-cv-raman (Accessed on 4 March 2018)
  2. Abha Sur, “Dispersed Radiance” Navayana Publishers (2011).
  3. B. V. Subbarayappa, “In pursuit of Excellence: History of the Indian Institute of Science” Tata McGraw-Hill Publications (1992)
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