Friday, July 31, 2009

Pay scales

The issue of revised pay scales in IIT/IISc/IIMs was raised recently in the Rajya Sabha. You can read the complete text here.

Will the Minister of HUMAN RESOURCE DEVELOPMENT be pleased to state :-
(a) whether Govardhan Mehta Pay Review Committee which is looking into the pay package to faculty of IITs, NITs, IIMs, IISERs of the country has submitted its report;
... by when Government is going to implement the report?


The report of the Govardhan Mehta Committee was considered by an Inter-Ministerial Committee. The recommendations of the committee are under process.
The discussion on the above report and the associated allowances has been published in the blog before.

In case one is not aware, questions to the HRD ministry are posed every tuesday. The answers are provided rather quickly and, if the answers are not provided, it is marked as pending question. Questions and answers on brain drain, opening of IIT/IIMs abroad, research students, campus selections are always interesting.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Higher education

In a interesting article titled in search of learning, the author remarks,

IN today’s system of higher education in India, we seem to have ignored such ideas and concepts. Young people generally opt for courses that will ensure a rewarding career. Money is the ultimate determinant. In taking up such courses, students pay scant attention to their own likes and dislikes, their inclinations and capabilities. Till recently, medicine and engineering were the top courses in demand. A medical course is now considered to be expensive and prolonged, with no guarantee of an immediate payback. Because it takes time to settle down as a doctor, more and more students are going in for computer engineering, information technology, management, animation and gaming. These subjects ensure remunerative jobs on graduation.No wonder the traditional arts and science courses have no takers. Students do not want to go in for pure sciences and mathematics. A leading scientist, CNR Rao, has drawn attention to this phenomenon. He has warned that if this goes on, there will be no “science teachers”. This can lead to disastrous consequences not least because science is the foundation of technology and without a sound foundation of science no country can progress. Scientific research can come to a standstill.

In the past month, I have got six emails from students in their final year of their undergraduate program asking me precisely the same question, "If I join IIT/IISc as a student, can I mint money after graduation?" The word used was "mint" and not make enough. I was tempted to reply, "The only way to mint money in India is to join the currency printing press in Nasik."

Seriously, any middle class family person needs to have a job with reasonable security and looks for education as an avenue to get it. As long as a degree in sciences does not promise the same, lesser number of people will take it even if there are several scholarships for studying science. In my opinion, the only to attract people to study science is to ensure a lucrative career after graduation.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Science in India

In an article in Science titled Science in the Future of India, Professor C.N.R. Rao talks about the initiatives taken by the government to promote science in India. An excerpt,

But the human resources essential for supporting an expanded S&T agenda are lacking. Young graduates today are readily attracted to professions other than those related to science and engineering; thus, banking, business, and information technology have become immensely popular. India must now focus on creating a large body of outstanding young people interested in taking up professions in science and engineering. To improve the quality of the university education system, new support is being provided.

Monday, July 13, 2009

ACS goes digital

The American Chemical Society, which publishes several chemistry journals of repute, is all set to discard the print version and go completely digital. The current subscription costs are around $800 to $4700 per year per journal and it costs nearly 90% of that if one subscribes to the online version only. Maybe the savings of going digital will be passed on to the user.

Monday, July 6, 2009


Based on the budget, I looked at the numbers for IISc. Our plan and non-plan budget was at 130 and 91 crores (total:221) for last year. This has now been revised to 75 and 149 crores (total:224) for this year. This is good news, even though the overall budget is almost the same, the plan and non-plan grants have been changed. The reason is that the non-plan budget accounts for salaries, pensions, electricity, water, internet and library subscriptions. Because none of these heads can be cut, IISc had a tough time because more than 120 crores is required just for this and a deficit budget was always projected. With the sixth pay commission scales, this expenditure would have gone up to 145 crores and this money would, at least, enable a non-deficit non-plan budget for this year. However, the cut in the plan budget would entail reducing the growth of infrastructure.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Hard work

In an interesting article titled "Newton, P.I.", Sean remarks

When I was studying for my Ph.D., a fellow grad student and I asked our advisor if he could think of one single characteristic that was common to all of the best scientists he knew. Without too much hesitation, he answered: “Hard work.” That certainly wasn’t the answer we wanted to hear — you mean there isn’t some secret recipe to being brilliant? And of course hard work is not nearly enough to elevate you to the ranks of the world’s great scientists. But now that I have marinated for some time in the juices of experience myself, I see the truth of what he was getting at; there are a lot of smart people out there, so it makes sense that what elevates a few of them above their peers is an extraordinary focus on their work and a great amount of simple effort. So it should come as no surprise that Isaac Newton, the greatest physicist of all time, was a relentless worker. In his days at Cambridge, when he focused on the workings of the natural world, he would spend as little time as possible on anything that drew him away from the researches in his rooms. Over the couple of years he was writing the Principia Mathematica, he took things to extremes, going for extended periods without food or sleep.

We often look at the truly greats like Einstein, Mozart etc. with reverential awe. However, two books “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle; and “Talent Is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin show that the primary trait for success is not genius but to ability to develop and sustain a deliberate and strenuous routine. In an older column called“What It Takes to Be Great,” Colvin showed that the top performers in any field are not determined by their inborn talents but because of practice and perseverance. In this book, he shows that it not just plain hard work, but how you practice, how you analyze the results of your progress and learn from your mistakes, that enables you to achieve greatness and talks about the scientific principles behind this approach.

As an aside, I was reading a book titled "Greatness: Who makes history and why" and the author mentions that not only does Pareto's law of 20:80 work for a wide range of phenomena, but the 10:50 rule also works. Basically, this means that the top 10% contribute to 50% of the output, while the bottom 50% contribute to 10% of the output. He says that law holds in almost all arts and sciences, including scientific research. This is certainly true for the publication output of IISc faculty wherein for the period of 2002-2006, the top 10% of our faculty published 46% of the IISc output in terms of publications and citations. What is one characteristic of these top 10% of the faculty? Hard work.


The h-index attempts to measure both the scientific productivity and impact and has been extensively used in scientometrics. It has become so popular that it has now been used to assess individuals, institutions, countries and journals. Several modifications to the h-index like g-index, h-b index etc have been introduced.

One of the main problems of the h-index is that it does not account for the distribution. Consider two cases: A scientist publishes 20 papers each cited twenty times. Another scientist publishes 40 papers, with twenty papers cited twenty times each and the rest of the 19 papers cited 19 times each. Now, both the scientists will have an identical h-index of 20 but clearly scientist two is better.

How about h-index of batsmen? Bradman, Tendulkar, Gavaskar and Dravid have played 79, 233, 211 and 189 innings, respectively. Their h-indexes are 43, 63,63, 61, respectively. Bradman has scored more than 43 runs 43 times while Tendulkar has scored more than 63 runs 63 times. But the number of innings played by Bradman is much lesser than Tendulkar because, in those days, they did not play so much cricket.

To correct these ambiguites, Gangan Prathap, has introduced a new index, called the p-index or the mock h-index, which is given by (C*C/P)^(1/3), where C is the number of citations and P is the number of publications.

In case of batsmen, C and P will refer to the number of runs scored and the number of innings played. Then the p-indexes of the batsmen listed above become 85, 82, 78,78 respectively.

Because the p-index represents a combination of size and quality, it would be ideal to compare institutions and countries on this index. Going further, the ratio of p/h would yield interesting information of the actual distributions between citations and publications. For example, if the ratio of p to h is more than 1.5 (like Bradman), it means that there is a very small tail and not many papers below h. Similarly, if the ratio of p to h is around 0.5, it means a lot of papers that have not been cited (i.e., long tail).

Friday, July 3, 2009

Higher education in India

There has been some comments on canceling the X exam and also on starting foreign universities in the comments section of my blog and I thought I should mention my thoughts.

As I grew up in a lower middle class family in a small town, my fear of the XII exam was not because of the exam per se but because of the sheer paucity of opportunities thereafter. With only 1750 engineering seats in Tamilnadu of which nearly 70% of the seats were reserved, the dearth of options within the system was traumatic. The number of engineering seats may have dramatically increased in many states and IITs but gaining access to the top institutes where some decent education can be obtained is still difficult. I feel this is more emotionally draining to the student than the actual exam.

Even today, one can pay oneself for an undergraduate education in the USA rather than try to obtain admission in IIT. Of course, if one does not have the money (like the case of lower middle class families), it is not the aptitude of the student towards engineering, science, arts or commerce that decides the course of his/her action, but the need for jobs after graduation that decides what course one should take.

Though only 9% of the school children eventually reach class XII, it is a large number that needs to be satisfied. Irrespective of a single board exam at the end of class XII with or without scrapping the X exam, students will be judged based on the performance of a single exam. Though this exam could be taken multiple times, the final course a student takes will still be dependent on the opportunities to pursue education in a good college. The student knows that unless it is pursued in a reputed institute, there is no life after in terms of jobs or higher education. Thus, there should be a dramatic and significant change in the number of good colleges in all streams.

The setting up of several IITs and IISERs is thus a much needed step though the modalities of setting them up without infrastructure and faculty could be questioned. In this context, one can revisit the concept of foreign universities in India. Despite the competition and exclusiveness of the best in India getting into these institutions of elite, why do none of these institutes even appear in the top 100 rankings of the world's best? This is partly because we are comfortable comparing ourselves with the best in the country and this can partially attributed due to the government's protectionist policy in higher education.

Before the private banks ventured into banking, the state of public banks was pathetic with practically no concept of customer service. With the advent of private banks, the quality of public sector banks has significantly improved. Similarly, the quality of cellular service in India has improved with the advent of private players. Unless universities and even elite institutions like IITs face off against well-established universities abroad in India, they will not be able to raise their own standards of education.

In a recent article on higher education in India, How to get decent colleges in India, Somanathan, who is Professor and Head of the Planning Unit at Indian Statistical Institute says,

Our higher education system is under-performing in many ways. University education is rigid, outdated, under-funded and bureaucratised. Even the best institutions have problems. A partner in an IT firm and a professor of computer science independently told me that the quality of IIT students has got worse over the last two decades. They are burnt out by the time they get in because of the entrance exam. Students have to suffer years of incredibly stressful and mind-numbingly stupid exams and coaching to enter college.

We need to implement these two features of the American system. First, allocation of research grants in the sciences, engineering, health, the social sciences and humanities should be mainly by peer review. (The allocations themselves need to be massively increased, however.) Second, we should remove the regulation of university salaries and fees and other aspects of administration by the University Grants Commission (with one important exception spelled out below). Let universities pay what they like and charge what they like. This will force them to compete for the best researchers and teachers and this in turn will motivate teachers and researchers to do their jobs well. The improvement in academic atmosphere and salaries will attract better-qualified people into the profession, pulling back emigres and young people who would have gone into the private sector.

To protect the students who cannot afford high fees (and its own budget), the government can take the money it now pays directly to the universities to cover salaries and other costs and instead pay it out to low-income students as grants. Every student below a suitable cutoff level of family income (verified by tax information, car ownership, etc) can be given a fixed grant that can be used at any college. A poor student who cannot afford the higher fees at the best colleges can be given a loan for the necessary additional amount, to be recovered over the years through additional income taxes. This will ensure that even poor students that are funded by government grants will avoid colleges that are bad value-for-money.

Rich students will pay for themselves rather than have the government pay for them as happens now. Many of them will be happier because they will get to go to better-funded and decent colleges in India rather than pay enormous amounts to go to America. And the poor will get greater access because the government money that now pays for rich as well as poor students will go exclusively to low-income students.

Crossing the digital divide - IIT helps

In an interesting article titled, "How to cross the digital divide, Rwanda style", the author explains how Rwanda is emerging in the IT field with the help of IITs,

Rwanda sends 300 students at a time to Indian Institute of Technology to develop skills in hardware, software and telecom they can bring back to their home country. When one kid graduates, another one gets to go. Why IIT? It?s cheaper than Western schools, just as good at training engineers, and has a better understanding of the challenges and needs of emerging markets, Bakuramutsa says. In addition, Rwanda hopes their kids will pick up some of the Indians entrepreneurial spirit. (Pay attention here, US: We're no longer the education destination of choice for the emerging world.)

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Wifi at airports

Was travelling to different places in India in the past few days and it has been a good time to respond to all emails using offline Gmail, read the literature and even upload papers ! I used to dislike carrying my old laptop (Compaq laptop bought in 2002 for Rs. 29,999) because of its weight but, last year, I bought the Samsung NC-10. With Windows XP, office 2000, sumatra pdf viewer, 7-Zip and google chrome as the only softwares loaded with 2 GB ram, the computer is fast and I routinely get 7 hours of battery life with the Wifi on and the screen brightness set at low.

It is nice to see free Wireless (wifi) connections in many airports. In the Bangalore international airport (BIAL), you have to send a SMS to 56677 to BIAL and you get a password. You can then login with that password. It is valid for one hour. If you run out, like I did because the flight was delayed, you send the SMS again and you get another password. In the Hyderabad airport, Tata indicom provides you free wifi for 45 minutes. You just open your browser and the tata indicom site opens with a form. You fill up the form with your mobile number and they send you a SMS with the username and password. Other airports follow a similar procedure. Airtel provides you with free wifi in the airport terminal 1D in the Delhi airport. There is no wifi in Pune or the Mumbai airport.

Faculty quota

The MHRD minister has clarified that the faculty quotas are applicable in IIT/IISc. “Faculty reservations in IITs are a fact. Any attempt to exempt them is infructuous,” Sibal told directors of the Indian Institutes of Technology at a workshop organised by the human resource development ministry to help prepare eight newborn IITs for joining India’s premier engineering school brand.