Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Second campus of IISc

It seems to be finally official that IISc will get 1000 acres of land in Chitradurga. While everybody would have been happy if the land was near Bangalore, one can understand the difficulty of the government in acquiring such land. Considering the large scale activities planned by IISc in the new campus, I would feel that even 1000 acres would be a little small. But it is a beginning !

What's in a name?

Apparently everything. There has been a considerable demand that IT-BHU be converted to IIT. I had previously thought that students would prefer joining IT-BHU irrespective of whether it was an IIT or not. After all, IT-BHU has been taking JEE students for a long time even before IIT-Roorkee started. However, I do see that the students who have qualified in JEE seem to prefer the new IITs, which have not even started and do not have land, faculty or any facilities, over IT-BHU. Thus, the name of IIT seems to matter much more than even the previous reputation, facilities or anything else of an existing institution.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Biotechnology courses: Already in the decline?

A few years back, biotechnology was a hot area and every Tom, Dick and Senthilnathan, who owned an engineering college, started a B.E/B.Tech/M.Tech course on biotechnology. The IITs also jumped on the bandwagon because of the money available. My alma mater, IIT - Madras, has a wonderful building for biotechnology. IISc, however, did not start such a program. Fast forward to 2008, we encounter an article in Current Science titled "Are Biotechnology courses relevant?". The article by Lakhotia says,

Innumerable private and public institutions joined the bandwagon resulting in mushrooming of biotechnology courses in every city and small town of the country...Given the high population pressure and scant job opportunities, the younger generation and their parents have been easy prey to the belief that, like the information technology, biotechnology will provide a highly remunerative career. In this mad rush, a large number of young students pay whopping amounts as fees to receive, in return, a worthless certificate giving them B Sc/ B Tech or M Sc/ M Tech degree in biotechnology.... It is high time that all school and undergraduate stand-alone teaching programmes in biotechnology bioinformatics, etc. are stopped.

Considering the tenor of the above article, I was eagerly awaiting a rebuttal. However, another article appeared in this issue of Current Science that said "The ‘Opinion’ by Lakhotia minus its pessimism is largely acceptable" and goes on to analyze why these biotechnology courses failed.

I was interested as to how the top students joining the undergraduate degree perceive the programs in biotechnology. With this objective in mind, I looked at the evolution of closing ranks in JEE and AIEEE from 2003 to 2008. There was a considerable drop in the closing ranks for Bio Technology programs of IIT Kharagpur, IIT Madras and the BTech program in Bio Science and Bio Engineering at IIT Kanpur. In 2003, the closing ranks were in the range of 1000-1500 and now it is in the range of 2000-2500 for these branches in these IITs. It is even worse in IIT-G and IIT-R, wherein civil engineering is now closing higher than that of biotechnology. Thus, if you have the word Bio attached to engineering, science or technology, it seems to be no longer the favorite among the top engineering aspirants of India.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Theory vs. Experiment

In an interesting editorial, Professor Balaram wonders about the differences between engineering and science, especially in research and goes on to examine the divide between theory and experiment. He says

In institutions like my own, the Indian Institute of Science, where research is a prime focus, the distinctions between scientists and engineers are indeed blurred. Are there two distinct species of researchers who can be identified, whose characteristics mark them out as decidedly different? I might venture to suggest that a contemporary classification may separate theorists from those who do experiments. Even in the engineering departments which once boasted of large halls full of clanking machinery, the workshops are largely still and silent. The mechanics are largely gone, glassblowers nearly extinct and draughtsmen swept into memory by advancing technology. The lathes stand forlorn and unattended and large structures one used for experiments serve solely to remind us of an era long gone. ...The terms computational chemistry and biology describe an increasing tribe of researchers far removed from the pain, excitement and thrill of experiment.

Three years back, I was asked to investigate the number of thesis (and publications) from engineering departments that had an experimental component. When I reported back with a number of 17%, the administration was surprised because the number was higher that what they had expected (which was 10%).

Three reasons are often given as to why experimental research in engineering is scarce. The first is that it is too difficult, the second is that engineering research everywhere is theoretical and the third is that people switch. I will analyze all the three arguments and present my own argument.

The first argument is that the number of faculty and students who do experimental research in engineering is so few in India because of the enormous difficulties encountered in setting up and maintaining an experimental research laboratory. Even a few people who return from US after doing experimental research for their doctorates find out it is simply too time consuming and difficult to do experimental research in India, take the easy way out and switch to computations.
However, the science faculty in IISc predominantly do experimental research (nearly 70%). After all, the inefficient financial and administrative staff encountered by both the science and engineering faculty are the same. Thus the lack of experimental research in engineering can not be just because of the physical and mental difficulties encountered in doing experimental research in India.

The second reason is that engineering research everywhere is predominantly theoretical. I tried to investigate whether engineering research is also theoretical in US. However, when I did an analysis for the top 20 universities (based on their publications), I found that this was not so. However, I did find that a disproportionately large number of Indians worked in theoretical research groups in USA.

The other argument that I am told (half-jokingly) is that many engineering faculty are good in math that they can switch to computations much more easily than science (especially chemistry and biology) faculty. Therefore, engineering faculty switch from experimental work to simulations while science faculty do not. However, I do not think so. I think it has largely to do with the training of the faculty during their graduate school and people do not switch fields entirely and be productive in that field.

I think the problem of not having good faculty in engineering who do experimental research is the following. What has happened now is that professors in engineering who do theory and simulations control the funding as well as recruitment of new faculty. Naturally, they are able to judge their own ilk better and often unwilling to take the risk of recruiting faculty who do experimental research. The start up funding required for a faculty who does simulations is restricted to a server costing less than Rs. 1 million while it can run into several millions for a faculty who does experimental research. Therefore, the argument is that even if a mistake is made in recruiting a faculty who does no research after joining, the cost of failure is not large!

I am reminded of Tesla's statement, "Today's scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality."

I think this problem is going to get aggravated in the future. Last week, I had visited a "reputed" engineering college. Their mechanical engineering students had not seen a lathe because workshop was an optional subject in their curriculum ! We have started a new IIT and admitted students but we have not identified even the city (let alone the land or building) in which it is going to start. We have started several more IITs and IISERs which function from a small building. Faculty for all these institutions had to be recruited in a hurry because we admitted students before we recruited faculty. All these institutions preferred to recruit faculty who do computations because there was no way that faculty who do experimental research can be recruited into institutions that have only one small building. Ultimately, these faculty who do theoretical research will recruit other faculty and the problem is going to even more acute.

Therefore, I think if some one is really keen to enhancing experimental research in engineering, it has to be done in established institutions like IISc and the old IITs. Of course, they are several ways to do this but it can be only accomplished if one is interested in doing this.

Science Funding - Is it conservative?

There is an interesting article in NY Times on letting scientists off the leash so that they can work on interesting problems. The author argues that professors require to get funding in order to survive because the salaries of the faculty are paid from these grants. Therefore, the author argues that faculty essentially do incremental research and that science and innovation are being stifled.

Contrary to what the author of the article thinks, I think NIH and NSF do fund interesting science. It is ultimately a peer review system which would recognize and differentiate between good and bad science. Of course, as in many funding organizations, senior faculty normally get much better grants than young scientists. Considering that many top institutions require at least two R01 grants to get tenure, it is not surprising that the majority of young investigators spend enormous time writing grants. I think this should be fixed rather than changing to a model wherein the institutions will pay the salaries of the faculty in the hope that will do interesting science. In India, for example, the salaries of the faculty as well as the graduate students are entirely borne by the government, but I do not see great ideas emerging !

Darwin's 200

Nature has a special issue on Darwin 's 200th anniversary. Though Indian's school text books seem to ignore Darwin, the impact of Darwin on biology is as much as Newton had on physics. While Newton's theories tell us how the world we see works, evolution teaches us who we are, how we evolved.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Research tools for collaboration

An article in CIT that discusses the online tools for research collaboration says, "Faculty who find themselves outgrowing the ‘external links’ page on Blackboard, or constantly emailing new websites and/or web articles to your students, might want to take a look at two technologies created specifically for gathering and sharing web resources: Google Reader and Diigo."

However, my experience has been very different. I often use google reader but that is for updates on news and blogs and not for scientific collaboration. I had used Zotero extensively, especially because it can be used as a plug-in in Firefox and it can automatically save the full reference information for the item in the correct fields. Zotero stores the author, title, and other metadata in a publication and I can export it as a formatted reference elsewhere. However, Zotero stores the information on the local computer. Because I use search engines for searching scientific literature extensively from home as well as at work, I had difficulty combining the two.

Then came 2collab, developed by Elsevier. I was involved in it from the initial stages and got it for the IISc library as a developing partner with Elsevier. Unlike Zotero, the bookmarks are stored on the server, which I can access from anywhere. I can now store, categorize, manage and share the bookmarks. I can import bookmarks from Firefox or from any other bookmarking sites like delicious and connotea. More importantly, I do most of my searches from Scopus and I can directly bookmark these. I can export these references in the format I need. I also send or share these bookmarks to various research groups.

I am aware that the number of databases available with 2collab is much smaller (at least for the moment) than that available for its competitor, CiteULike, but because I use scopus extensively, it suits me. Your mileage may vary.

However, for collecting reference data and generating formatted references in a wide variety of styles and putting it in Word etc, I used a free software called Biblioexpress.