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Why can’t India attract research talent?

A few Takshashila alumni and friends Kunal Singh, Varun Goel & Aravind Ilamaran have started a new opinion-analysis portal called Policy Wonks.

I write about how there’s an oversupply of PhDs and research talent in the US and elsewhere, but not enough of them have come knocking on India’s doors just yet:

American academia has been in trouble for the better part of the past decade. Till the advent of MOOCs, productivity has not changed much in higher education for about a century. As a result, university education has seen a high amount of inflation. To keep costs low, universities started supplying ever higher number of PhD students – who can be cheap research and teaching labour as RAs and TAs respectively. Thanks to this oversupply, you have hundreds of talented people applying for each tenure-track position in the sciences, for example. As Ajit Balakrishnan points out in Business Standard, this has led to the creation of a lot of “adjunct” temporary faculty positions in a space considered to be dominated by tenure.

Unfortunately, India has been poorly positioned to take advantage in this acute oversupply of talented PhDs and post doctoral researchers. This is especially surprising given that a significant number of them are Indian or of Indian origin. With the salient exception of a few people and a few Indian institutions, most researchers prefer to eke out a modest living on uncertain terms rather than come back and work in Indian academia.

We witnessed a smaller version of something similar happening when NASA started getting budget cuts in the last two decades, thereby being forced to lay off good aerospace talent – again with a lot of them being of Indian origin. India’s space agency ISRO benefited little by maintaining an insular hiring policy. Quite unfortunate for an organisation whose second director – Dr UR Rao – was wooed back to India by a visionary Vikram Sarabhai well before India had a dedicated space agency.

[Read the full piece over at Policy Wonks]

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In The Hindu: Medicines in India, For India

I write in The Hindu on what it takes to get a drug from the lab to the market. Here is the full piece along with hyperlinked references.

January marked an important breakthrough in the fight against tropical diseases. Researchers at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) in Delhi found a drug candidate that prevented the TB and Malaria pathogens from infecting human blood cells.

This cutting edge research took place not just in India, but for Indian challenges — whose solutions have global implications. Further, Anand Ranganathan and his colleagues did not just find this drug candidate, but also helped develop processes to develop these drug leads. It also happened thanks to a combination of a UN facility set up decades ago, attracting top global research talent to come back to India and work here. And the research was funded not just through international sources, but also a ‘Grand Challenge Programme’ on vaccines set up by the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India. Much of this success is a delayed fruit of a biotechnology push in India that started in the mid 1980s, which has gained in strength over time.

However, the discovery of the drug candidate ‘M5 synthetic peptide’ is the beginning of a long road and not the end. The process of drug discovery here is not yet complete, and has to be succeeded by more research and a host of clinical trials. Here is a plausible set of intermediate steps before a new TB or Malaria drug enters the market from the work of Ranganathan and others.

The ICGEB researchers have attempted ‘rational drug design’, where they have not only found a drug candidate, but have done so while identifying what protein target it interacts with in the body, and the mechanism it uses to prevent disease. The first steps forward for all interested researchers in the field will likely be to study further how the peptide drug candidate works, what its structure is, what the key biochemical interactions are, and how its target proteins behave.

While the drug candidate might work well in a test tube or an agar plate, its efficacy in the human body is an entirely different story. At this stage, whether the peptide can be easily absorbed by the body or be happy in blood, whether it finds the right targets, has no side effects or toxicity, are all unknown. Researchers, including those in private pharmaceuticals, can start developing variants of the M5 peptide that might have more desirable properties and have higher efficacy, and a good number of promising drug candidates might be patented by public sector researchers or pharmaceutical companies, depending on who discovers their utility.

It is after this that pre-clinical trials start on promising compounds, from tests in mammals to finally humans. Phase I clinical trials are typically about testing safety among healthy people, moving to phase II which are small trials of efficacy among patients. The last and the most expensive — Phase III, involves large, double-blind tests to determine both safety and efficacy among large groups of people.

The entire process of drug development is one of attrition, where a hundred lead compounds might trickle down to one or two medicines. It can take a decade or more, and cost in the order of a billion dollars, or 6000+ crore rupees.

Science is often described in popular retelling in a triumphalist manner, when in reality research involves many misses by researchers, incremental progress, and the eventual success of someone who stands on the shoulders of many giants.

For this process to happen, you need to have a robust research ecosystem, adequate funding, and good pipelines that ensure minimum friction in the development of drug candidates and lead compounds into medicine that you can buy at the corner shop.

The challenge in India is that tropical diseases have often been neglected by big pharmaceuticals because the size of the drug market is lower, with people having lower incomes in tropical countries. Further, companies are uncertain about intellectual property rights on essential drugs, unsure about whether they can recover high sunk costs in this inherently risky proposition. It is no surprise that big Indian corporations have stayed away from pharmaceutical R&D, finding more secure avenues for a return on their investment.

Policymakers in India will need to strike the right balance between public funding, and the role and return on private investment on drug development. Greater clarity on India’s eminent domain and compulsory licensing positions could make foreign-patented drugs more costly for India, but might spur R&D on tropical and endemic diseases in the long run.

Further, the unwritten compact in developed countries on drug development is that a thick layer of public funds pay for the basic research up to and including drug candidate discovery. It is over and above this that private pharmaceuticals come in, patent drugs and develop them.

Indian funding on basic research and drug discovery remains minuscule in comparison, with the entire Department of Biotechnology budget being lesser than 1500 crore rupees in 2014-15, or about 250 million dollars. The Government of India’s spending on drug development is broadly of the same order of magnitude of what is spent by the Gates Foundation and others on drugs for tropical diseases, and both the quality and quantity of public spending has to dramatically improve if we want more drug candidates against TB, Malaria, Dengue, Cholera and other diseases.

One way to increase the funding is to redirect extensive funds that go towards large healthcare subsidies, so that future drugs can be both better and cheaper.

India also has the opportunity to re-examine how clinical trials are governed. While we want ethical and safe practices in clinical testing, American or European regulations have accumulated some extra bureaucracy and regulations along the way. India can also set new standards on transparency so that new research is easy to discover, verify and build on.

Getting 21st century medical solutions to India’s health concerns is a long slog. The new potential cure for TB and malaria gives us a chance to think through how to develop medicines in India, and for India.

Hindu_Feb14_PavanSrinath_MedicinesFromLabtoMarketRead the article in The Hindu on their website.


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The Unhistoric US-China Climate Deal

China and the United States of America inked a climate pact this month and this has been lauded by various corners as landmark and historic. Vasudevan Mukunth quoted me in his article for Scroll.

Here is the full text of my comments to Scroll.

The history of the global negotiations on climate change negotiations has so far shown two things:

One, big emitters have typically employed salami slicing tactics, where they inch up the emission levels they are willing to go down to. Changing the base years and letting the reduction targets slide are commonplace.

Two, any penalty measures used to enforce emission reduction targets have been repeatedly flouted – including by countries like Canada – with no direct consequences.

I remain skeptical of this deal because the size of the Chinese emissions ‘peak’ remains unknown. That gives a lot of wiggle room for China. Secondly, there is no tangible enforcement mechanism presented, nor does one seem feasible. At best, this is a gentlemen’s agreement between the United States and China, and there are no gentlemen in international relations.

Implications for India and other developing countries:

India has routinely done a poor job of defending its record in global climate change negotiations, though it has done far better in substance than the likes of China. There is a risk that India will be painted into a corner, in spite of being a low carbon emitter on a per capita basis, and in spite of significant efforts at home to promote renewables.

Further, India’s more immediate focus must be on climate adaptation, but international financing and promotion of mitigation efforts serve to distract domestic policy. For India to get back to high economic growth, India must be willing and able to use all forms of energy — from coal to natural gas to nuclear power and renewables, and use the growth to provide better public goods and build resilient infrastructure.

This deal and its seeming historicity makes it a harder challenge for India to make its case convincing for a global audience.

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Myths from Mars

Debates on space exploration in India have to move from costs to value.

The incredible inexpensiveness of the Indian Mars Orbiter Mission is a myth that keeps on growing. Saritha Rai writes the latest article on the subject for the New York Times, comparing India’s MOM to the USA’s MAVEN:

“Ours is a contrasting, inexpensive and innovative approach to the very complex mission,” said K. Radhakrishnan, the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, or ISRO, in an interview at the space agency’s heavily guarded Bangalore headquarters. “Yet it is a technically well-conceived and designed mission,” he said. Wealthier countries may have little incentive to pursue technological advances on the cheap, but not a populous, resource-starved country. So jugaad, or building things creatively and inexpensively, has become a national strength. India built the world’s cheapest car ($2,500), the world’s cheapest tablet ($49), and even quirkier creations like flour mills powered by scooters. [Full article: NYTimes, February 17, 2014]

Unfortunately, the Rupees 450 crore / $75 million price tag for the Indian Mars Orbiter Mission is very misleading. As I had previously written in Business Standard, reading ISRO’s outcome budget tells us that the accounting cost to ISRO alone is likely double the figure, if not more.

For instance, salaries of ISRO engineers, scientists and top officials are not covered under the Rs 450 crore number – nor is the use of ISRO’s advanced infrastructure facilities such as the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram or the autonomous Physical Research Laboratory at Ahmedabad.

A reading of Isro’s 2013-14 outcome budget tells us why it is inaccurate to repeat the official line that the organisation spent only Rs 450 crore on the Mars mission. Isro’s budget for the current fiscal year is a little more than Rs 6,700 crore, which is spent under 69 expenditure heads – of which Mars is just one. Apart from these heads, the department of space also funds five autonomous institutions.

There are 11 other heads of expenditure under which activities have been carried out either in the current fiscal year or in 2012-13 towards the Mars mission. This includes efforts by Isro’s Inertial Systems Unit, which helped the mission develop navigation capabilities; the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre, which worked on fuelling the mission; and ISTRAC (Isro’s Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network), which is planning and tracking the vehicle’s movement through space.

There are also three direction and administration expense heads, which include the space secretariat, public relations and that of the top administration of ISRO, most of whose efforts over the last few months have been on the Mars mission. [Business Standard]

Indians have long believed that ISRO’s space programme is more cost-effective and inexpensive compared to foreign competitors. This line is fostered by ISRO, as evident by K Radhakrishnan’s and Roddham Narasimha’s remarks in the NYTimes article. Impressive efforts might have indeed been undertaken to reign in costs, but their arguments need to be substantiated with better evidence that is shared with the public.Before the Mars mission came along, many believed that the PSLV rocket was also far cheaper than foreign competitors. On past scrutiny, even this claim did not stand up.

It is easy to draw comparisons between NASA’s MAVEN and India’s MOM, but most are spurious. To begin with, MAVEN was almost double the size and is set to enter a trajectory less elliptical than MOM’s, which are both in its favour. Mars Orbiter Mission’s launch mass is only 1340 kilograms because the launch vehicle could not accommodate more and not because of any cost considerations.

India’s MOM was also not any more fuel-efficient than MAVEN. As Emily Lakdawalla explains, MOM had a more complex trajectory because it had much smaller rockets and thus had to employ many smaller bursts of thrust rather than a large one like MAVEN.

It is high time that we moved the space conversations in India from costs to value. India’s Mars mission should be judged on the scientific knowledge it contributes, the technological ability the mission fosters at ISRO, and the technologies it can spinoff for public benefit. For example, a private company called Decagon innovated to build a soil sensory probe for NASA’s Phoenix Lander mission. With early innovation funded through a space programme, Decagon is now deploying the same technology for use in agriculture back on earth. With a more open culture of innovation at ISRO, there is no reason that the Indian economy cannot benefit from better spinoffs.

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Economic growth and luxurious narratives

Faltering economic growth provides an opportunity for fresh ideas on energy policy and climate change strategy.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a seminar on ‘Low carbon growth strategies for Karnataka.’ Here is a collection of my thoughts on the topic and the discussions that took place at the seminar.

India and most of its states enjoyed 8+ per cent annual economic growth for the better part of the last decade. This growth was quite prolific and for many non-economist observers, it appeared to be chugging along on its own steam. A whole host of narratives sprung up from different corners on how sacrificing on a few percentage points on economic growth could help promote their cause and lead to better outcomes overall for India. In the process, there was a certain instrumental maligning of economic growth that was not always evidence-based.

The UPA government’s narrative of inclusive growth is perhaps the dominant narrative of the time – essentially saying that many Indians were not able to enjoy the fruits of economic growth and this required a rights-based, redistribution-led approach to make it ostensibly more inclusive. Other narratives in the environmental space include ‘(ecologically) sustainable growth’, low-carbon growth and many more, which while acknowledging that growth was necessary, wanted the growth to have a far lower ecological cost or much lower carbon emissions, even if it sacrificed several percentage points.

With annual economic growth lower than 5 per cent today, many of these narratives feel anachronistic. These “growth-modifier” narratives were only possible because the Indian economy was enjoying a high growth rate. Apart from creating fiscal space in the short run for entitlement and subsidy programmes, high growth also created the narrative space that could house such ideas. This space has rapidly vanished over the last two years but various organisations and campaigns have failed to adapt to changing circumstances. Low-carbon economic growth is one such.

A low-carbon growth strategy for Karnataka appears superfluous for a second reason. It is far from clear whether Karnataka has a growth strategy at all. As The Transition State previously showed, Karnataka has grown more slowly and alleviated less poverty both compared to the national mean and to other higher income states in India. The new government in Karnataka that was formed in 2013 has failed to articulate an economic policy or bring about any large reforms thus far. Advocating for low-carbon growth strategies in the absence of a basic growth strategy seems out of place.

Poverty and Growth - Higher Income States

There is also a false equivalence between low-carbon growth and renewable energy-led growth. Low-carbon growth essentially focuses on climate mitigation and ignores adaptation (this blog would advocate for exactly the opposite,) calling for sectors like energy, transport and agriculture to adopt policies that reduce emissions. Ignoring international climate negotiations and India’s position for the moment, these low emission options are further constrained by misconceptions.

Nuclear energy and LNG are two prominent energy options that are both low-carbon but non-renewable. LNG produces less than 40 per cent of the emissions that coal does per unit of electricity generated and will likely be the leading reason for the United States reducing its carbon emissions over the next decade and more. On the other hand, nations like Germany which are trying to phase out nuclear power have already increased carbon emissions as a part of its Energiewende strategy, instead of decreasing them. The larger battle for climate change cannot be won by taking nuclear energy off the table, even if it is politically correct to do so. Evidence be damned.

Finally, most narratives on energy debates ignore the Indian context. High income countries are mostly those whose energy demands have plateaued, and thus “either-or” questions on energy options are justified. Coal or LNG, nuclear or renewables, wind or tidal, and more. All have associated trade-offs, and nations can choose based on domestic considerations and global pressures.

India’s energy demands are growing as the economy grows, and millions of Indians still do not have access to adequate electricity for domestic use. With an energy elasticity of growth at 0.9-1, it means that a doubling of India’s GDP will require us to nearly double power generation capacity. This is inescapable. So instead of an “either-or” debate, we must ask how we can increase power generation from all sources. How public policies can be designed such that it is easier to do business in the energy sector is an important question. It takes years to set up and operationalise all types of power plants, with bureaucratic and regulatory hurdles lengthening the process significantly. This along with growing political risk have to be managed far better.

Proponents of renewable energy also have a chance to shift from advocating for subsidies to make renewable energy work, and instead think of what policy changes can make it easier to deploy wind turbines, solar farms and more. Faltering economic growth is providing an opportunity for fresh ideas on energy policy and climate change strategy. And the cost of squandering them will be very high.

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Openness in Space – more bang for the buck

India can get more value out of its earth observation satellite programmes if ISRO embraces a culture of openness.

Praveen Bose in Business Standard reported yesterday that a second Indo-French climate observation satellite is being planned between ISRO and CNES (National Space Agency of France).

India and France jointly launched the satellite Megha-Tropiques in 2011 to study tropical weather and climate. Equipped to profile radiation, humidity, atmospheric water content and more, the satellite passes over a huge swathe of tropical atmosphere every day and uses four different sensors and sounders to collect data. With a planned life of five years, the two nations are now contemplating a second satellite that would serve as a replacement starting in about 2016. This replacement will be essential as a lot of value from climate data comes when it can be generated for longer periods that capture interannual and decadal climate variations.

Megha-Tropiques is neither the only nor the first such tropical climate monitoring satellite. NASA and JAXA’s (Japan’s space agency) Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) has been running since 1997, and its replacement, the core Global Precipitation Mission (GPM) is set to be launched in February 2014. These are apart from a host of other Earth Observation satellites from around the world that tell us a lot about how complex earth systems work.

By all accounts, the sensory systems on Megha-Tropiques is of comparable quality and technology to NASA’s climate missions. But Megha-Tropiques takes a big hit in research impact because of the closed nature of the data it generates. While NASA has a high commitment to open access and open data, Indian satellite missions remain opaque and closed. For example, the TRMM website contains various rainfall-related datasets, products and visualisations that are open not just for principal investigators at NASA and partner organisations, but also open to any researcher in the world. Megha-Tropiques on the other hand has a website built by the French that provides a bunch of technical information and stops there.

Tropical climate science is a public good – where everyone is benefited by making the data and knowledge public. The good news is that the planned Indo-French satellite will contribute to the GPM network by complementing the data collected by NASA and JAXA’s core mission. Unlike the standalone Megha-Tropiques, the second climate mission is more integrated into a global effort. However, data sharing policies for the proposed satellite still looks opaque:

The data products are made available to the principle investigators of international announcement of opportunity for validation activities, according to ISRO. As the first of Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) constellation of eight satellites, Megha-Tropiques data would contribute to the global scientific community to study and understand the dynamics of climate system, ISRO added.
[Full Article – Business Standard, January 23, 2014]

While deigning to open up the data to select international researchers for validation, there is a lot of value lost because of the lack of a more public audience and use of the data. This is a standard feature of most national Indian research activities, from ISRO to the Indian Meteorological Department. Data access is restricted to a select few who have a monopoly or oligopoly over publishing research papers.

There are three broad reasons one can decipher for this lack of openness. First, government agencies have had a historical mandate of serving their parent department or ministry, and not the public. Some of this stems from colonial establishment of many government agencies, which were designed to serve a more extractive state under British rule.

Second, the lack of openness often stems from an insecurity of government-funded researchers. Many fear that they may not be able to complete globally if the information they had access to was made public. Government agencies do provide workarounds for other research institutions to access their data, but this if of a form and style that has huge search costs and transaction costs. Also, what ought to have been a public good ends up getting shared through a patronage network.

Third, there is a fear of commercial use and resale of the data. This is extremely shortsighted and is misguided about the idea of private profit. What matters with climate and other information is how it can be used to derive maximum societal benefit. This benefit can arise from both government use of that data (like with say the IMD) and with private use of the same, say in the form of weather channels using publicly generated data to send out public alerts. Private agencies should also be allowed to legitimately sell publicly produced data where they add sufficient value. While there may always be unscrupulous companies that repackage public data and try to con people into paying for it, the solution to this is more openness and not less.

ISRO has a chance at being a leader in overturning decades of government policy of keeping taxpayer-funded data open to only a select few. It has already made a beginning with projects like Bhuvan. The proposed new climate satellite can lead the way in a new approach to research and data sharing. It can even begin with simple things like making the byzantine MOSDAC data sharing website more user-friendly.

2013 was the year that ISRO realised the value of proactively engaging the Indian public, including using social media. With luck, 2014 can be the year that ISRO embraces openness and open access to data.

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In Business Standard: Running the space marathon

I write in Business Standard this week on how we must not put too much stock into the 450 crore rupee price tag on the Mars mission and spend what it takes to have a successful space programme:

A reading of ISRO’s 2013-14 outcome budget tells us why it is inaccurate to repeat the official line that the organisation spent only Rs 450 crore on the Mars mission. ISRO’s budget for the current fiscal year is a little more than Rs 6,700 crore, which is spent under 69 expenditure heads – of which Mars is just one.

Apart from these heads, the department of space also funds five autonomous institutions.

There are 11 other heads of expenditure under which activities have been carried out either in the current fiscal year or in 2012-13 towards the Mars mission. This includes efforts by ISRO’s Inertial Systems Unit, which helped the mission develop navigation capabilities; the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre, which worked on fuelling the mission; and ISTRAC (ISRO’s Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network), which is planning and tracking the vehicle’s movement through space.

There are also three direction and administration expense heads, which include the space secretariat, public relations and that of the top administration of ISRO, most of whose efforts over the last few months have been on the Mars mission.
[Full article: Running the space marathon, December 15, 2013]

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India from space

A small step for ISRO, a giant leap for building consensus around space exploration in India.

India MoM Image of Earth

Humans have looked up at the stars even before language was invented, and the lights above us have always been a part of human imagination and curiosity, be it in religion, philosophy, science or the arts. What changed in the last century is that not only could we look up, but humanity got the ability to go up high and look down. The photograph Earthrise by astronaut William Anders is easily among the most iconic images to date, where a blue earth rises above the scarred lunar surface.

Exploration in general and space exploration in particular have always excited and inspired people in a manner that few other ideas could. Organisations like NASA figured out early on that beyond any scientific or utilitarian purposes, beautiful images from space have immense value in and of themselves. With human spaceflight, astronauts could take photographs manually. But with improvements in photography, image processing and visualisation technologies, even satellite images can now have great aesthetic and communicative value.

Anyone who has glanced at Google Earth or seen any of NASA Earth Observatory’s exquisite pictures already knows the value of visually observing the earth from space.

ISRO and the Indian space programme have been quite slow in realising the same and acting on it. Though India has been sending satellites to space for over three decades now, there are hardly any memorable images one can think of. Rakesh Sharma in his cosmonaut suit comes to mind, and the other is of space launches. Little from the satellites themselves. While several Indian satellites have imaging capabilities of various kinds, they have been put mainly to technical and scientific uses and almost never for public consumption.

India’s Mission to Mars providing the above simple and elegant image of the Indian subcontinent is the latest step in establishing a culture of communicating with the public on the national space programme. Compared to NASA’s high quality, you can see that the image is far from perfect – the clouds are overexposed, the image has been rotated and cropped, and resolution is sub-optimal. But instead of descending into snobbery, we really need to appreciate the increasing effort ISRO is putting in doing this. Earlier in the year ISRO provided some stunning images of the Kumbh mela and the disaster at Kedarnath. Nothing illustrates the changing mindsets at ISRO better than the contrast of these examples to the rather lacklustre photograph of the earth from Chandrayaan – shared below.


Space exploration is a very public affair – for better and for worse. It is exceedingly difficult to hide success or failure from the public eye, and one has to constantly address questions of poverty while spending public monies on space. Visually engaging the public is essential if ISRO wants to think bolder, aim higher and go farther.  One picture from above can help people understand floods or urban growth or complex natural phenomena like no amount of explaining can.

The good news is that NASA has already paved the way for ISRO, and they could also possibly help the latter in setting up a team in-house which can work on a visual exploration of India from space. Below are a curated set of images of India from space, taken by various NASA spacecraft and satellites. Here’s to hoping that their tribe grows larger.

Follow Pavan Srinath India from NASA’s eyes on Pinterest

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A Noble Pursuit

My colleague Nitin Pai started an interesting discussion on twitter this morning by asking the question: “Why does India have fewer science Nobels than Trinity College?”

Late as I was to the conversation on twitter, here is my long form answer to that question. To begin with, there can be no targeted efforts at winning Nobel prizes, nor is that end in itself a useful objective. Any pursuit of science honours and awards has to be placed within a broader pursuit of research excellence. This cannot be limited to individual research groups or institutions either. There are at least six areas that need attention for us to get anywhere near a Nobel.

First, the research talent pool is global, and it has been so for longer than in most other fields. The best talent needs to be recruited in order to get top-notch research done, and they have to be paid accordingly – but linked to outcomes. For example, Singaporean universities have done extremely well over the past decade or two in recruiting talent from across the world, often out-bidding other universities. While IITs and other Indian universities have slowly started wooing Indian researchers studying or working abroad, this needs to be extended to people of other nationalities as well. Recruitment is currently limited to entry-level assistant professor positions. Given our limited funds, more innovative ideas can also be explored – such as inviting established professors to open second laboratories in the country.

Second, much of cutting edge research is interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary. Many of the breakthroughs in Biology in the past 50 years have come from physicists and chemists working on biological problems with unique tools and perspectives at their disposal. Even if individual star researchers exist in some of our institutions, they cannot do much. Successful research institutions are those that bring many talented people together so that in collaboration, they can work wonders. This means that walls must be broken down between departments and institutes, intellectual silos must perforated before they can deliver.

Third, Nobel-winning research is made possible not just by brilliant professors, but by equally talented doctoral students and post-doctoral researchers. In almost all PhD research, there comes a time when the student knows more about his or her project than the professor. This won’t happen if the best talent decides to go abroad. Students can be encouraged to stay back in the country through improvements in many things including pay, benefits, mentoring, etc: but most critically through better career prospects. PhDs by many Indian institutions are thought of very poorly by the same institutions. The biggest disadvantage for an Indian researcher to get a tenure-track faculty position in a top US university is having an Indian PhD. This can change only when universities decide to invest in their doctoral students rather than look at them as cheap, bonded labour.

Fourth, while India needs to spend a lot more on R&D, incentive and advancement structures in India require a serious re-think. Academic tenure is a late-19th century concept that was created to encourage freedom of independent opinion among academics, by giving them job security for life. The utility of tenure is quite limited in science/tech fields, and comes at the cost of removing many incentives for professors to perform after they have received their tenure. While the concept of tenure is still in place in the US and other countries, it has become weaker in practice. For example, if a synthetic chemistry professor cannot win competitive funding sources and his lab runs out of money in a US university, the professor is effectively out of a job even if he or she has tenure. This is far from the situation in India. Tenure is not a luxury that Indian academia can afford. Something new will have to be thought up – a system that better incentivises performance, while at the same time keeps research careers in India attractive enough.

Fifth, there is a dire need for administrative reform in Indian research institutions. Researchers in India cannot compete with their foreign counterparts if it takes a few months for them to purchase basic ingredients and consumables. As Shilpa Anand mentioned on twitter, procurement policies need to be greatly simplified and the role of tendering needs to be re-examined. Decentralisation is key.

Sixth, we need independent research boards that are in charge of granting funds. Currently, it is the Union Department of Science and Technology, Department of Atomic Energy and a motley collection of government departments that are in-charge of disbursing science funding. What we need instead are research boards which can disburse grants in as objective a manner as possible, with double-blind peer reviews and good processes to select the best research proposals. While the Government of India has set up a ‘Science and Engineering Research Board’ to serve a function similar to the American National Science Foundation, there are no signs so far of this board getting empowered with sufficient funds, autonomy and power to make any tangible difference.

And finally, individual laboratories are institutions too. They require the same kind of careful nurturing larger establishments do.

To India’s credit, there are a few islands of excellence in scientific research that have been created over the past two decades. (Which, for better or worse, have little relation with the far more numerous ‘Centres of Excellence’ that have been created.) But scientific research is far too important to be left only to the scientists. It’s time that the rest of us started introspecting as well.

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Surveying Opinions on Scientific Issues

Last week, I wrote a short post on how someone’s combined views on climate change, nuclear safety and GMOs are a good indicator of their scientific temper and ideological biases. Subsequently, my colleague and fellow blogger Karthik Shashidhar ran a short online survey on the same three questions to solicit responses. Survey participants were given five choices ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree.

Karthik has analysed the survey results on the RQ blog that I would urge all readers to check out.

Firstly, we will look at the individual responses to each of the three questions:

…this shows that opinion in favour of global warming is fairly strong.

While a majority of the people believe that health risks from nuclear power have been exaggerated, the opinion is not as overwhelming as it is on the global warming front. There still exist a significant number of doubters of safety of nuclear energy.

When it comes to GM crops, however, public opinion is largely divided. As many people agree that GM crops are safe, as do people who believe they are unsafe. [RQ on INI]

The survey was designed to be quick and dirty – participants were largely those who found the survey on Twitter and Facebook and essentially selected themselves into entering the survey. Ergo, there are no claims made here that these responses are representative of any ‘universal’ population.

Taking a venn-diagram approach to analysing the survey responses, I was able to generate the chart below. I divided the 5 options for each questions into two categories: neutral or disagree, versus agree or strongly agree. Therefore, all those who have either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that 20th century climate change is anthropogenic come under the orange coloured ellipse, and all those who haven’t come outside of it. Note that the ellipses in the venn diagram have been drawn in proportion to the number of respondents who fall under that category.

Scientific Temper

The largest set of respondents (29 percent) are those who, according to my metrics, can be classified as “left wing”, those only agreeing to the climate change question while disagreeing with nuclear or GMO safety. The second largest (23 percent) is a curious set: they do not think that GMOs are safe, but agree both on nuclear safety and climate change. Without commenting on ideological biases, it is possible to look at this set as a people who are “climate change realists” – people who understand that we do not have the option to burn dirty fossil fuels endlessly, and that nuclear power has a role to play in reducing our fossil fuel dependence.

Some 19 percent of the respondents are those I would consider as being most sensitive to scientific evidence, but readers can feel free to disagree with me on that. About 10 percent of the respondents are classically right wing – the notion that ‘most environmental fears are overblown’ can explain their stance on all three questions.

About 9% agree that climate change is anthropogenic and that GMOs are safe – but are not convinced about nuclear safety. They form a subset that I find rather curious. In a sense, there is indeed a connection between the two topics. GMOs form an essential tool in retaining and improving agricultural productivity in the face of climate change and uncertainty – not just in creating drought and flood-resistant varieties, but also in converting C3 plants into C4 plants, the latter of which are far superior at tolerating high temperatures and making use of increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. It is difficult to comment, however, that  this knowledge indeed informs their opinions.

The initial hypothesis was that asking for opinions on anthropogenic climate change, nuclear safety and GMO safety would broadly give us three categories of respondents: left wing, right wing and those “biased to evidence”. When tested, it gave us four or five major categories of people, including those who disagree only with nuclear safety, or only with GMO safety.

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