The Indian Economy Blog

June 9, 2007

Rewarding Research At Universities

Filed under: Education — Karthik @ 9:09 pm

Rediff.com CEO Ajit Balakrishnan, in this edit page article in the Business Standard, talks about his interest in a certain paper by a Professor at IIT Bombay, and his attempts to commercialize it.

Now, the interesting part is, though Professor Soumen Chakravarty gladly agreed to share his research, and be a consultant to Rediff, getting IITB to partner with Rediff almost seemed impossible. The problem, according to Ajit, was “solved” when two of Prof Soumen\’s students joined Rediff upon graduation. \”… seems to be the way R&D is done today\”, he concludes, seemingly happy with the arrangement.

This arrangement is fine from the point of view of Ajit, but what about the Professor, who has hardly been compensated for his research which has been commercialized? What incentive does he have to continue to churn out good and relevant research? Apart from recognition by the industry, and a mention in the papers, what more does he get compared to the professor down the corridor who has been vegetating ever since he was made a permanent faculty?

Pay scales at even our top universities are abysmal (they are linked to UGC scales) and the opportunity cost of being an academic is high, so it is almost essential for the professor to supplement his income through consultancy. Getting consultancy projects should not be a problem for a good professor. However, if the article is believed, the paperwork seems to be a big deal. To quote the article

Getting to engage IIT Bombay in a commercial relationship was to be a near-impossible task. The process for such an engagement is unchartered territory for Indian academic institutions.

Given this kind of a research atmosphere in our universities, where rewarding good work seems extremely tough, what incentive do bright young PhDs have in order to join one of the top universities in India? And if this were to be the case with the IITs, imagine how things could be at other universities!

Several surveys have pointed out the shortcoming of Indian universities when it comes to research. And it is clear that better faculty would definitely help. However, in order to attract them, it is imperative for us to provide them attractive compensation in whatever way possible, both monetarily and otherwise. And the least that could be done in this direction would be to ease restrictions regarding collaboration with the industry.

12 Comments »

  1. Hello Karthik,

    sorry to say, Balakrishnan and most others in industry have been totally blind to problems of Indian universities. Universities (including IITs) produce more research per Rupee than BARC/TIFR or other premier research institutes, even though being provided mostly delipidated facilities and riddled with severe administrative hurdles. Indian industry has never tried to acquire genuine research in the past, only recent companies have begun looking forward to research to solve their problems. I am saying this with direct experience, one to one stories from people…

    IIT Bombay is still better off, even though Soumen Chakravarty is not getting his due, he still receives some fantastic students and liberal atmosphere. I teach for BITS Pilani, and it is much worse off. I even don’t have words to describe what others go through at other universities. Some do okay (one Prof is visiting us and he clearly is better off), but others are bound by clerk-run, draconian administration and out-dated rules.

    For example, even after receiving funds to go for a sabbatical, people (say in BITS) are not allowed to go on sabbatical citing various rules, flouting UGC guidelines.

    We need to rehaul our education system, which includes the higher education (Atanu, you are cited again).

    cheers,
    ashish

    Comment by ashish — June 10, 2007 @ 10:11 am

  2. The bureaucracy at Indian universities and colleges is probably worse than the red tape at Govt offices…I’ve experienced it as a student and I have to agree with u…what holistic environment can be created with such archaic administration? Both teachers and students…in fact everyone involved…ends up losing…

    Comment by Amogh — June 10, 2007 @ 6:43 pm

  3. It is time to put 2 myths to rest for those indians still in india.
    1. Academics are always paid poorly compared to similar work in industry. This happens all over the world. I am faced with the same dilemma…my standard of living will take a hit if I move to get a Phd for atleast half a dozen years compared to what it is now.
    2. There is beuracrazy all over the world. There is red tape here in USA too in the universities. Its all relative to the society. Can I hire a servant to help with part of paperwork here in USA? I cannot. Can I send a peon to gather all the required signatures here? I cannot. Do you think the red tape is trivial here when it comes to grants and funding? Think again. It might be relatively easier here as far as red tape is concerned but also people complain less here.

    Now, here is a fact:
    The CEO of rediff runs one of the most spyware afflicted incompetent websites out of india. The quality of reporting (especially relating to recent bomb blasts in hyderabad..something I am familiar with) is very very bad. I will tell you how bad it is: I rather read national enquirer if not for the fact that they did not cover hyderabad at all.
    Now, CEOs of companies in other places typically provide a grant to universities to help with research….but all we hear here is complaints about how bad it is. Nothing about what he proposes to do about it. The only good thing is his workaround that I found might be useful to me sometime.

    Comment by vijay — June 10, 2007 @ 7:59 pm

  4. So who is blame? I think its the universities and the professors. Universites are run by professors ( not IAS or the usual red tape suspects).
    Its time, they introspect and correct the rot.
    Though there are expections, but Indian academia has never really got out of the teaching mode. Research is a whole different ball game. Its shows the mindset of the people involved. History has shown that only free thought can lead to innovation. And this requires the energy of the likes Prof. Chakravaty to question the status quo( its no different from research) They need to change the systems from inside.
    Likes of Mr. Balakrishnan et al. can only bring the issue to limelight its needs an insider solution.

    Its suprising that Amog from BITS thinks the same! I expected private universities to do better. Ancedotal evidence tells me that the new centers such as IIITs of hyd and Blr are more open and easy to work. It would be interesting to know the truth.

    Comment by Vijay — June 10, 2007 @ 8:16 pm

  5. His name is Soumen Chakrabarti, and not Chakravarthy.

    Anyway, I was his student for sometime, and even I have wondered what’s the incentive his ilk have – to produce any kind of research actually.

    There are many, and most of it is not money centric: Reputation, great graduate students, absence of bottom-line-driven approaches, and just sheer aesthetic pleasure of research.

    Why the likes of Soumen, etc. deal with the likes of Rediff is actually for a far more subtler reason. Universities have no data. Big university networks like UC* might, but IIT’s are far from that (even in terms of size). So, the likes of Google, AT&T, Microsoft, Rediff, Netflix, etc. provide data for research. There are some privacy issues which are sorted out by NDA’s, privacy-preservation-research, etc. But data is very valuable for some kind of research, and industry is the best source for it.

    As for compensation – you should check out the Powai campus, Kendriya Vidyalaya school, etc., which come free – and are terrific. But along with those come bad quality housing, etc. But either way, I think some IIT prof.s are happy because they are in India, and they are in a university campus. Some are not, cuz they are not paid that much. They can always choose.

    Comment by tejaswi — June 11, 2007 @ 12:09 pm

  6. Vijay said
    [quote]
    Academics are always paid poorly compared to similar work in industry. This happens all over the world.
    [/quote]

    Compare salary in Wester world:

    my prof’s salary in Canada (CN $4000 per month), salary of an engineer friend in US $8000. My other prof’s salary in US, $4000 per month.

    Comparison in India:
    my (post PhD) salary 19000 per month. my BE student’s starting salary Rs 30000, typical.

    [quote]
    2. There is beuracrazy all over the world. …. Can I hire a servant to help with part of paperwork here in USA? I cannot. Can I send a peon to gather all the required signatures here? I cannot. Do you think the red tape is trivial here when it comes to grants and funding? Think again. It might be relatively easier here as far as red tape is concerned but also people complain less here.
    [/quote]

    come on, you don’t know the scale of things, do you Vijay? Can you explain why some thing is called “Fast Track Proposal Scheme” if it takes more than a year for any response to it? Why do you think a clerk in my university would delay my proposal execution, and would ask me to explain to him why I am spending some money (obtained from the central government) on a fast desktop? Even the red tape of sending files across is not chosen to me, but no one would care a prof’s word. we can just send email notices, if email was a bit more reliable, no?

    all the theory apart, competent people of driven out, and non-competent ones stay put. Some exceptional ones hang around because of other constraints, personal or otherwise. Most of them are not happy, but rationalise it and philosophise their situation. I know so many cynical profs now, totally frustrated and dejected. If Soumen Chakrabarti’s mother would not mind, he would rather be at Stanford!

    And one other misconception: universities are not run by profs. mostly due to severe politics, chamcha’s from government are chosen and they run the show. also student bodies interfere everywhere. There is corruption at every level.

    Indian education system has severe flaws, and those in teaching positions have been made helpless by total apathy by general populace. We need to change this.

    Comment by ashish — June 11, 2007 @ 3:22 pm

  7. Well I also wondered at Kharagpur what was the motivation for some professors who were really godlike. But on an average faculty at my IIT was just average . Most professors can’t come out of teaching mode and those who come out put more emphasis on publishing paper with minor modifcations ( what is called evergreening in patent parlance ) than doing some substantive resarch. Most of industry sponsered projects at our college were by Govt. Ministries & PSUs. It doesn’t mean that people are not capable of doing good quality research but Indian companies are still not much interested in putting money in R&D. When they are compelled to innovate by their foreign competitors they find an easier way in acquiring some company abroad for thier technology rather than investing heavily here & wait endlessly for results.

    As far as salaries are concerend much maligned Nehru may be on this forum but when IITs were established their salry structure was indepedent of UGC norms & was quite high in those days but somewhere around 1972-73 third pay commission pegged it with UGC standards thus shooing away qualfied but commercially minded faculty.

    Comment by Anshul — June 11, 2007 @ 3:53 pm

  8. Looks like the article isn’t linked above – I believe this is it.

    http://www.business-standard.com/opinionanalysis/storypage.php?tab=r&autono=287032&subLeft=2&leftnm=4

    Off to read garlands in the hands of a monkey now :)

    D.

    Comment by Donna Kidwell — June 12, 2007 @ 5:58 am

  9. @Ashish

    Not being allowed to go on sabbatical after getting funds cleared is absolutely ridiculous.

    Another major problem facing Indian academia (including the IITs) is quality of graduate students. IITs and BITS get good undergrads, but can’t say the same at all about graduate students.

    The problem with that, I think, boils down again to the quality of faculty. There might be two, or three, good faculty in a department, but there will also be a dozen average ones and a couple of rank bad ones. So you would rather “play safe” by going abroad than risk getting one of the worse faculty. And in the process the better faculty lose out.

    @Amogh
    From my personal experience, I found the administration at IIM Bangalore quite competent. And I learnt that a few years back there was a major overhaul of the administration there and a voluntary retirement scheme was instituted, and the admin became much better after that.

    But yeah, in general the admin is pathetic. Huge problem.

    @tejaswi
    interesting funda about the data part. however, i’ve experienced the reverse. large centrally funded univs (such as IITs and IIMs) have subscription to major databases which are otherwise damn expensive. and it’s peopel in the industry (ok at the lower levels) comign back to their alma maters for data!

    @anshul
    I saw the same at Madras – mostly average faculty, a largely teaching mindset, “delta papers” and mostly consulting for govt institutions (though I know a couple of departments do excellent work in industrial consultancy). And I didn’t know that the IIT salaries had been de-linked earlier. Hoewver, thinking of stuff like UGC scales and stuff, i’m more inclined now to support atanu’s deregulation of education…

    @krish
    it seems you love me. don’t you? you want to take on my every post on your page? go ahead, old boy. have fun.

    @donna
    i didn’t get what you said. the day I posted this finding the article on the BS website seemed to be a pain so i linked to ajit’s blog. thanks for the link.

    Comment by Karthik — June 12, 2007 @ 10:57 pm

  10. [...] On the Indian Economy blog Kaarthik asks, This arrangement is fine from the point of view of Ajit, but what about the Professor, who has hardly been compensated for his research which has been commercialized? What incentive does he have to continue to churn out good and relevant research? Apart from recognition by the industry, and a mention in the papers, what more does he get compared to the professor down the corridor who has been vegetating ever since he was made a permanent faculty? [...]

    Pingback by DesiPundit » Archives » So Who’ s Telling The Truth? — June 14, 2007 @ 6:07 am

  11. @Karthik
    —————–
    Not being allowed to go on sabbatical after getting funds cleared is absolutely ridiculous.
    ———————–

    why so, Karthik? in a teaching research position one is burdened by teaching, with 2/3 courses in a semester. it is a normal policy all over the world to allow for increased load in one semester, and allowing for a year-long sabbaticals to accelerate research. what i pointed out, was less incentives offered outside the IITs, lower payments, lower research emphasis and increased admin responsibilities. IITs are much better off than private competition in all these regards.

    even so, IITs can not compensate much to Soumen Chakrabarti. All blogs have responded to Balakrishnan by saying that IIT has mechanisms to allow for industry-academic tie-up. Sure, on paper there is much to show. Does any one know the actual time and hardships involved in making such a tie-up profitable and workable? From my experience so far in acad, formal arrangements are more difficult, always (“avoid the clerks” is the policy).

    just an anecdot on similar lines: IISc held a conference in 2004-05, where a venture capitalist from Meryl and Lynch (i think) gave a speech outlining the use of IISc research to fund companies around Bangalore. he suggested that his company could fund such start ups (bring in $1 bn). at the end of the talk, he was attacked by IISc faculty for “corrupting the young minds” in the research fields. he left shaking his head in disbelief.

    with this attitude at the top, what hope is there for young ones to step into research fields, esp. in engg fields? this archaic attitude prevails all across the education sector, where influential scientists have marked their boundaries on the pie of govt funding. they will defend their turf…

    Comment by Ashish — June 26, 2007 @ 11:30 am

  12. Recently at NSIT and earlier at IITB, I probed for an answer-why the faculty is defensive about their research which is giving them insights in the state of art, aiding their learning and thereby making them better teachers. Possibly, terming their R&L (research and learning)projects as R&D projects (at the behest of funding agencies!) makes them vulnerable as assessment of outcome would be on marketability of their `D’ rather than improved teaching. I am a great admirer of Indian faculty and applaud the work they are doing and certainly wish they will have more free time to pursue their academic interests.

    Comment by A.S.Rao — June 27, 2007 @ 9:55 am

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