Wednesday, July 23, 2008

No exit -- neither graceful nor partial

The title of this post borrows from my friend and colleague Sunil Mukhi's recent post about an attempt to bridge the gap or dichotomy between universities and research institutes resulting in an artificial separation of teaching and research. It's impossible for me to summarise this discussion with its 60 odd comments so do read it if you feel strongly about this issue. In order to provide yet another forum for people to take potshots at, and to submit my take on this issue, here is a proposal that tries to unify the idea of a university department and the research institutes. The main criticism has always been that this has created in Indian science a set of 'haves' and 'have not' - people who have excellent facilities, whether they work or not and those who have precious little and have to work really hard in difficult and deprived circumstances to do their research. My proposal to close this gap is the following: (please note that this is not a 'finished product' and the point of this post is to get constructive comments to flesh out whatever lacunae may exist in these suggestions) I offer the following proposal that combines the strengths of both the university departments and the research institutes, keeping in view the fact that, as the system exists today, nobody can be fired -- i.e every faculty member is tenured. Every research institute must be part of one or more university departments. Thus a purely physics institute or the physics part of a larger institute would be part of a physics department of some university. Every member of the institute would be a member of the physics department, but, and here is the crucial part, not vice versa . Members of the institute would typically have slight lower teaching responsibilities -- say one course every alternate semester instead of one every semester. (These numbers can be fine-tuned later). Institute affiliation would typically be given to those members of the department who are young active researchers, in order to provide a kind of "breathing space" during which to consolidate their research output and hence their standing in their field. In a few years, typically not more than five, the faculty member would revert to the department and would be expected to participate in whatever teaching and non teaching duties the head of the department assigns. In extremely rare cases, for truly brilliant scientists, the five year limit would be relaxed. However, the very fact that the person is substantially above average would, if anything, be cause to 'expose' him/her to the students in the department and therefore such extensions of the 5 year tenure should be few and far between, if at all. The research institute could (in fact should) continue to be funded by agencies other than UGC as it is now -- say DAE, DoS, etc. However the facilities like the library and computer labs would be available to all members of the department. What are the advantages to the department? There are many. The addition of a reasonably large number of faculty members working in the institute would substantially reduce the teaching load of all members of the department, even if the institute members teach half as much the department members. The facilities of the institute would be fully available to the department members and they would not have to depend on the usually poorly funded and managed central libraries and computer infrastructure of the whole university. Since the department as a whole would now have young active scientists on its payroll, it would over the years develop a significantly high scientific profile. Finally, and most important of all, the existence of an 'upper class' and 'lower class' of scientists (those who have every possible facility and those who have next to nothing) that have bedeviled relations between institutes and universities would be a thing of the past. Any member of the department who is reasonably active would have the possibility of spending upto 5 years in the institute in order to do some unfettered research without the strains of teaching and administrative duties.(Something like a long term sabbatical in the same place). However eventually all members of the institute would revert back to the department thus removing any possibility of creating haves and have-nots. The fact that the institute would be funded by an external agency like the DAE instead of UGC would guarantee to a certain extent that basic facilities for library and computers and laboratories are reasonably well funded. Since all members of the department would be eligible to use these facilities (other than personal laboratories of faculty members) basic support structures for the whole department would be guaranteed. This is very different from the situation existing now in many university departments where even such basic needs for research are not fulfilled. The advantages to institute members are also multi-fold. By virtue of being part of a full-fledged department, the institute members would have access to a larger and more diverse pool of students to choose from. Being part of a university system would allow them a fuller and richer intellectual atmosphere where they would also interact with faculty and students from disciplines far removed from their own. Even in their own department they would be able to interact with people in sub-disciplines very different from their own. Such interactions automatically have the advantage of broadening one's physics perspective. Classes they teach would have say 20-30 students rather than 4-5 which is common in research institutes, leading to a more vigorous discussion of ideas and concepts. They would also have access to a vast array of ancillary facilities that are common in most universities -- playing fields, tennis courts, swimming pool, theatre workshops and other such entertainment options, things which are not viable for smaller establishments like institutes. One issue that usually crops up is whether people in the institutes should get higher salaries. This has always been a sticky issue in India where it is considered 'dashed bad form' to conflate research and other intellectual activities with sordid issues like money. I think this is plain hypocritical. The institutes should offer substantially higher salaries to attract the best minds not only from here but from abroad. Needless to say, the salary will drop when they revert back to the department but I don't see any problem with that. One can look upon it like having spent a sabbatical abroad for some time where invariably one gets paid more than the Indian salary but one eventually returns to one's old job back home with a rupee salary. The point I want to stress here again is that anyone in the department can aspire to this position within the department provided their research output is of high caliber (in fact this would act as an incentive to higher performance). Thus, one has, in one fell swoop demolished the 'caste system' that is believed to permanently confine university and research institutes members to different levels.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

Regarding pay, I stand by what I said elsewhere (I really should write this up in a better form): faculty members, whether in institutes or in university departments, should be allowed to include a salary component in grant proposals to augment their pay (as in the US). The "basic" pay can be the typical government scale, both in institutes and in departments, and what you make on top of that should depend on you. Already some augmentation happens via fellowships like Swarnajayanti, J C Bose, Ramanujan, and in other ways. Why not via grants, which should be regarded as the basic requirement of research?

Other than that, I agree with a lot of what you say.

Anant said...

Rahul: you once wrote to me thus in an email, ``Prolixity, my dear chap, is a besetting sin of all Indians (so indeed
says Amartya Sen too who also suffers from it).'' I guess this inclusive remark would also have to, unfortunately, apply to your post. While I like the general drift of your arguments, I suspect that there are many important things in what you are saying, I (with my limited intelligence) am not able to grasp the most important points. Could you please give an abstract and summary?

There are some minor points to be taken up at the moment: (1) I think it was only you who said in the comments that Sunil's post was the "p" word. While others may or may not have expressed such opinions, there were no real comments that said this, except that of AMOK who said it (as always) in a tongue in cheeck manner. (2) I think that the baggage of mixing up intellectual work with sordid issues like money has been long given up, as can be seen in fellowships and awards that carry plenty of moolah with them.
The issue then is not about money, but about inequitable distribution of resources and inequitous salaries. It is not about money. It is about the lack of money, n'est ce pas?

Rahul Basu said...

Anant: Yes this post is a bit prolix - but we are addressing matters of great moment, aren't we! But seriously, since this is a new proposal, various aspects need straightening out hence the prolixity.

Abstract and summary: Make all institutes part of university departments (example ITP StonyBrook -- yes, alas, one is always a prisoner of one's past -- in India Delhi School of Economics and Patel Chest etc.). Details of who belongs to the department and who to the institute is addressed in the post and is totally different from what is followed in the above examples.

Rahul S; Yes, we can augment salaries from grants -- I don't see any problems with that. At the time of applying for the grant one can specify the salary augmentation component of the grant which gets reviewed by appropriate committees as is done now anyway. Post docs and students salaries are anyway paid from grants.

I think in India the resistance to this is the belief that salaries should follow strict structures like basic, DA, ADA, CCA, XYZ etc. that the IAS babus have decreed. By your methodology you might get a salary higher than the Chief Secretary or Cabinet secretary - horror of horrors!!

The J.C. Bose, Swarnajayanti exceptions have been allowed because they are perceived to be very exclusive. Opening up grants for this will make it available to the aam janta which is a no-no.

Sunil Mukhi said...


This is a worthwhile proposal. It's simple to understand and, in principle, to implement.

It has the key virtue of the "graceful exit" idea (that working in a research institute isolated from teaching becomes a temporary, rather than permanent, privilege except for a tiny fraction of scientists). I do worry that it may turn out to have some of the key defects too, as I'll explain below.

One clarification: presumably in your framework a research institute would need to be physically located on the campus of a university. If so, what of the existing institutes which are not thus located? Perhaps one solution would be to convert them gradually into universities, with the original research-institute core remaining within this as per your idea?

Now here are some practical concerns. You say, a little too quickly, that the separation between "upper class" and "lower class" would be a thing of the past. Lovely thought, but I don't know how it would happen that easily. At any instant there would be definite people "in" and "out" of the privileged centre. Moreover the research institute - and its funding agency such as DAE - would have all the power over deciding who goes in which place and when.

Power, particularly in our country, is seen as central. Would a University agree to cooperate with an entity in its midst over which it had no power? Even if it did so to start with, under some leader who saw things your way, it seems like an easily destabilised situation.

As a concrete example, when it comes to hiring, can the institute ever have someone work there on a long-term basis who's not a member of its surrounding department? If yes, then it can slowly isolate itself from the Dept. If no, then the Dept has de facto power over the institute. Either way somebody is likely to have problems.

Perhaps this can be avoided if (it's all the same money after all) funding for the institute came from the same agency as the Dept, or from peer-reviewed grants as R. Sidd suggests.

AMOK said...

Rahul, you have put forward an excellent vision and approach, the hallmark of a real leader. This is a major advance over some recent narcissistic approaches to this issue. Your worthy commentators, under your leadership, have offered good comments.

I would like to add some (possibly) additional dimensions. One is the overall state of the Universities in India. Recently, Dr. Manmohan Singh spoke out against these with promises for improvements. Therefore this discussion must be limited to a very small subset of Universities/Institutes that could benefit symbiotically. Further, the work of the University professors that is not research, such as teaching and other educational activities, must be seen as valuable and be rewarded by The System. There would be such a thing as excellence in teaching and associated grants. Students would be viewed as valued future colleagues and citizens as opposed to a millstone around the neck or shall we say researcher’s brain.

There are many challenges to actually bringing about real change. I would like to understand from the discussants and the discussion leader if the next steps from here could lead to a real, formal proposal, to say have TIFR or IMSc have an associated sister-University? If so, when, and could we invite such a prototypical partnering University professor to join these discussions so bridges can be built?

Naturally there will be no room for the p-word or the n-word. The “caste” system will only disappear when activities at a University are recognised as valuable in themselves, rewarding personally and rewarded monetarily and institutionally. Thoughts about actually bringing a practical action to the table would be fantastic. It may even transform me from anonymous to onymous.

Anonymous said...

Some of the TIFR departments started out functioning the way you suggest. For example, in the late 1950's the School of Mathematics was the department of mathematics of the (then) Bombay University. How did this relation-ship change? Without analysing the answer it may not be clear how to make your scheme survive.

However, that is not the main point of this comment.

Your post largely subscribes to the dictum:

Those who can --- do; those who can't --- teach.

This explains your idea that "truly brilliant scientists" should teach at lower loads.

I think that this dictum is flawed. Research requires far less of a broad understanding of science than teaching --- especially teaching undergraduates. A typical undergraduate teacher cannot say, "I can only teach analysis, someone else will teach all the algebra and probability courses." However, graduate teachers often get away with that. Thesis advisors need to know nothing about the subject except the actual problem being worked on!

It is important that the best scientists interact with the youngest and the most impressionable young people. The fact that the society and the students look to their teachers with some respect and perhaps even hero-worship often has a positive effect on the students. Let me explain this some more.

In most places like MIT, Princeton, etc. and in graduate schools like TIFR, IMSc, the faculty is considered more valuable than the students they teach --- by the society at large and by the teachers and students themselves. These programmes are mostly thought to be a success.

In most Indian under-graduate programmes it is the reverse --- the career expectancy and the social standing of the teachers is far poorer than those whom they teach.

This "inversion" has a detrimental effect on all aspects of the programme.

Research (= re + search) should be about learning the subject with such depth and clarity that you can explain it to "anyone". Only the best scientists can do that.

Finally, just in case someone says this is only about the bright students, I would like to add the following. According to the last estimate there are about 10,000 students every year in India who should be getting an under-graduate education on par with the best universities anywhere. It is no one's case that they are in fact
getting such an education and a number this large does not qualify as an "only".

Sunil Mukhi said...

Kapil: I don't think it's fair to suggest that Rahul's post subscribes to "those who can't do - teach". That's also the interpretation that was given to my Graceful Exit blog, but - whatever the deficiencies in my original presentation - it simply isn't the right one.

It's a generally accepted principle that younger researchers can benefit from a somewhat reduced teaching load in order to carry out an enhanced level of research. Conversely a crushing teaching load - as some of my younger colleagues who have recently taken up IIT/University jobs can confirm - tends to wipe out much of one's research activity.

Another relevant factor is that at the time a scientist is deciding whether to settle in India or abroad, she is likely to be young and at the peak of her research activity. Having the reduced-teaching option at that time can be a valuable inducement to decide in favour of India.

For both reasons, it would be great if talented young scientists can be given several years of liberal funding and reduced teaching.

However after a few years (5? 9? I don't know) of relatively unhampered research, it is reasonable to demand of such a scientist that she teach at a university. Today, by contrast, this simply doesn't happen for those who have permanent jobs in research institutes.

So rather than being about failed researchers becoming teachers, it's really about research institutes being reconfigured to provide only a partial break from teaching, typically at a young age, rather than a total break from teaching for life.

One can debate about the very very few who depending on your view, may - or may not - deserve a lifelong break from heavy teaching because of their exceptional research ability. Personally I think these people would be too small in number to be the central theme of the discussion.

I can't presume to speak for Rahul B. but from his posting I think he might subscribe to similar ideas as what I've written about, and has a slightly different - and valuable - way of trying to implement it.

Anonymous said...

Rahul, Sunil: If your point really is something like:

Eminent scientists should teach undergraduates instead of sitting in boring committee meetings

then I am all for it! :-) ... and I apologise for putting the TWCDTWCT dictum interpretation to your writings.

This would resolve the inversion issue even better.

I am not completely convinced about the young researchers bit. On the one hand, I agree that we need to give fresh Ph.D.'s some time to find their feet. At the same time, they are less likely to become narrow specialists if they are required to teach. Finally, I have found that the less the age difference between teachers and students, the less inhibited the interaction.

Rahul Basu said...

Whew -- 7 comments and its not even a day and a half!

Let me try some answers - with the caveat that I don't have answers to everything -- this is just an idea which need substantial work to see it through (if ever).

Sunil: Yes, funding agencies will always have power over policies. However, in most of our institutes, selection committees have virtually no representatives from DAE and in that sense I must commend DAE for letting us be autonomous. I was wondering if we could have a similar set up where basically the HOD and the institute Director set up a committee of academics to decide on appointments. Of course there are always possibilities of the HOD and/or Director having hidden agendas and sabotaging the process or try and bend the process more towards one side than the other. Therefore in some sense one would need forward looking Directors and HOD to have a working system. Easier said than done, of course. About funding being from the same source -- I am not sure it would work simply because the Dept. may have subjects like spectroscopy, Atomic physics, non destructive testing, in which DAE or whichever funding agency may have no interest. (Please don't take the examples literally - they are just that, examples - for instance if DOS were funding it, I can imagine little interest in funding HEP). Of course I realise this means two funding agencies acting in tandem which is no mean task -- but these are things which will need straightening out.

Kapil: I think Sunil has answered exactly you admirably. Young faculty might like a slightly lighter teaching load in the initial years to get a little extra research done. I think that is fine. Note that its not a zero load nor is it for perpetuity (which is what is happening now).

AMOK: Yes, its time you became 'onymous'. Of course teaching should have its 'rightful place'. In fact that is precisely what I am suggesting (as did Sunil earlier) to remove the artificial dichotomy between researchers and teachers.

Whether TIFR/IMSc will actually become part of a university -- alas AMOK I am not so powerful, it depends on the bosses -- we are just trying to present some options. Hopefully if this can be sold to the higher ups, we might see this happening.

Which brings me to Sunil's point exactly -- what about present institutes. I cannot see many of my colleagues giving in to this without a fight, in view of the attendant extra teaching load that will come with it. I have no immediate answer but hopefully by the time any of this even sees a glimmer of daylight, we will have figured out the details.

Update: Even as I type I notice Kapil has sent an addendum! But I don't think I have much more to add to what I (and Sunil) have already said about it.

AMOK said...

Here is an example where a high-level design change will help. The "Who will bell the cat?" question is still open.

AMOK said...

Analysis paralysis seems to have taken hold here, with eminent bloggers contributing. The previous bloggers have moved on to self-important blogging of topics like gourmet cooking, clean desks and sophistry.

None on this blog appears connected to Directors, Boards or other bodies that can facilitate and drive change. Brilliant thoughts but no connection to real outcomes. Perhaps it is more worthwhile, relatively speaking, to work on string theory. Your take, Sire? When will we see experimentally testable outcomes?

Dileep said...

Just wanted to give a link to my rather longish comment on Sunil's blog on this issue.