Thursday, April 26, 2012

Academic Science

In an excellent editorial on academic science facing public scrutiny, Professor Balaram analyzes several recent editorials and talks truly like a person who moves uneasily between that of a laboratory scientist and academic administrator,

Ponderous committees, and the unending search for consensus often facilitate ‘decisional paralysis’ in our own institutions.
The suggested prescription is to ‘identify and expand  areas…which are already doing well rather than starting small institutes from scratch’. This is a route that has been pointedly and deliberately ignored in India, especially in ‘hot funding areas’ like biotechnology and nanotechnology.
Institutions in India also struggle with internal constraints, historical inheritances which show no signs of disappearing, that contribute substantially to widespread inefficiency in coping with the volume of work generated by greater spending.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Teaching Research

Professor Balaram writes on teaching research,

Brushing aside the temptation to tread familiar ground I decided to address two issues that are matters of concern to many young researchers, beginning careers as independent investigators in India – research facilities and teaching. Everyone I have met (or almost everyone) seems to want more of the former and less of the latter. For those with an insatiable desire to accumulate sophisticated research facilities. I turned to Richard Hamming: ‘It is a poor workman who blames his tools. The good man gets on with the job, given what he has got and gets the best answer he can.’
Science, as taught today, can hardly enthuse a new generation, which is fortunate enough to encounter an ever expanding range of career options. The excitement of science and the pleasures of research can only be communicated by exposing students at the earliest opportunity to laboratory work, in which outcomes are not always anticipated.

Professor Balaram's point is valid and important. However, in a system where tap water is scarce in university laboratories and getting a simple chemical involves an arduous procedure, how can the joys of a laboratory be communicated? This has resulted in undue importance given to theoretical research, especially in engineering, even in premier institutions. Workshops have been replaced by Acad; distillation columns have been replaced by Aspen. Both the researchers and administrators (Professor Balaram is an exception to this) feel that theoretical research is better and certainly less stressful. The institute represented by both researchers and researchers-turned-administrators do not have to worry about infrastructure (space, power, water etc) and maintenance. This has led to the situation that 70% of the doctoral thesis produced in engineering in IISc (and possibly in other IITs) are based on theory/simulation.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Indian Science Policy

An interesting article on Indian Science Policy.

It is not enough for the prime minister to resort to platitudes by saying (as in his recent speech) that “things are changing but we cannot be satisfied with what has been achieved”, or that we should make “scientific output more relevant”. He and his advisers must ask themselves if there are underlying causes for this lack of satisfaction and relevance. Until then, no amount of bankrolling, populism, bureaucrat bashing or whistle-stop tours by prominent Western scientists will help.

 In this part of the world, age is blindly equated with wisdom, and youth with immaturity. This facilitates the continuance of the status quo. Geriatric individuals with administrative and political clout reinforce their positions so well that we are unable to eject them. So we hail scientists in their eighties, film actors in their seventies and cricketers in their forties.

These variants of corruption — along with general indifference, absence of incisive introspection, old-boys' networks, administrative vindictiveness, vagaries in research funding and studied silences — conspire to create an atmosphere that lacks innovation and creativity.