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.