Strengthening the R&D Ecosystem

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Higher education is at the core of the R&D ecosystem in a country. In India, research in universities / institutions has not been supported as strongly as in other countries, and that is one of the reasons why its universities do not compete well globally. I am giving here an article I wrote with Prof. Jitendra Malik, Arthur J Chick Professor at UC Berkeley for Time of India some years back. The article is even more relevant today, as there is a much stronger desire and push to have some of our universities reach the global rankings.

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Ideate and Innovate: The Weak R&D System in India must be fixed if we are to compete in the global economy (with Jitendra Malik), Times of India

R&D in India was earlier not really tied to the economy as the industry did not really need R&D. Now with integration of Indian economy with the global economy, there is dependence of some segments of economy on R&D. And in future, the value of R&D to India will only increase, as countries that have the ability to innovate through R&D will be better placed on tapping new opportunities and compete in the global market place.

Due to this changed scenario, there is a need to strengthen our R&D ecosystem. R&D is globally done in three types of organizations – Universities, Government owned labs, and labs of companies.  The last is outside the purview of public policy (except perhaps fiscal incentives), but the first two are influenced a great deal by the Government policies and investment. The world experience is that out of the two, except for some focused defense, space etc. related R&D, the efficiency and effectiveness of the University is higher. Most research output comes from Universities, and most of the Nobel Prize winners work in academia. Furthermore, besides the direct R&D output, universities also produce PhDs and Masters which forms the main resource for the corporate as well as government research centers (and, of course, for the Universities themselves.) It is clear that universities form the nucleus of the R&D ecosystem, and unless this nucleus does well, it is not possible to build a strong R&D ecosystem in a nation.

In the US, which has the most vibrant R&D ecosystem, importance of Universities was clearly articulated in the seminal and highly influential report in late 1940s by Vannevar Bush, which led to the creation of National Science Foundation in the US. Over the years there has been a dramatic increase in Federal funding to R&D in academia, and now of about $110 Billion Federal expenditure in R&D, academia gets the lion’s share of more than 30% while Government agencies get about 25% (private sector gets about 20%, and rest goes to other categories.)

In India, the critical importance of R&D in academia is not appreciated and the investment on R&D in universities is extremely inadequate – of the Central Government spend on R&D, only about 5% goes to higher education, while government bodies spend about 90% of the expenditure! This lack of research funding to higher education is a key factor in decline of the erstwhile good universities to teaching-only places, and the continued weakness of our R&D eco system. If India is to build a strong R&D eco-system, R&D in Universities must be heavily supported.

Large investments in R&D in universities must be supplemented by methods that will push the Universities to excel. And the best method for this is the competition. Consequently, the second area which needs reform is strengthening of competition at all levels in the R&D setup. It is known, that competition gets the best out of business organizations. It is not fully appreciated that it is also extremely important for Universities. In the US, competition has been built at all levels. There is competition to get good students – all the main universities vie for them and compete to get them. There is strong competition to attract the best faculty – universities go out of their way to get good faculty and vigorously compete, even with corporate research labs (incidentally, universities often win in this competition with private labs). And there is strong competition for research funding. For the NSF research grants both private and public universities compete, and the competition is really tough today – upward of 90% of the proposals are not funded. The situation with DARPA and NIH (the other major agencies for research funding) is not much different.

Contrast with the system in India. There is little competition for getting research funding – the Govt labs simply get their funds, and for research funding to academia, there is little competition for the few places that do decent research, like IITs, IIITs, IISc, etc, as other places are in poor shape for conducing R&D. There is some competition among IITs for PG students and faculty, but there is limited competition from outside. Now with the emergence of corporate research labs in India, an external competition is emerging for recruiting faculty in some sectors.

Competition among universities can be strengthened considerably by having independent and rigorous evaluation of Universities on a regular basis using proper frameworks that compares Indian Universities and their departments with each other, as well as with universities across the world. Rigorously done independent evaluation (with perhaps rewards like government grants tied to it) will generate a sense of competition between the universities, and if done in a proper manner, can also provide universities some directions for improvement. Establishing a center like the Center for Measuring University Performance in the US can be a major step in this direction.

It should be clear that supporting competitive spirit among universities will necessarily require them to have much more autonomy and control – an organization cannot compete if it does not have basic tools like deciding compensation, incentive structure, etc.  (Here the argument that since the government provides most of the funding and hence must exercise control does not hold – universities in US, Europe, Singapore, Australia etc are heavily funded by the government, yet they are very autonomous in deciding their salaries, their incentives, and processes.)

It is essential that we build a large and vibrant R&D eco-system in the country. This requires universities to be at the epicenter of the research eco system, which requires a large number of research universities that are autonomous and are well funded for R&D. It also requires an independent and rigorous evaluation framework be built for assessing university performance, which will push universities to compete and provide the much needed drive for improvement.

Jitendra Malik, Arthur J Chick Professor, University of California Berkeley and Pankaj Jalote, Director, IIIT-Delhi. Views are personal.

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Some Life Lessons from IIIT-Delhi’s Journey

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Recently I completed my second and final term as Director. In my last last convocation (7th for IIIT-Delhi) speech as Director, I talked about the decade long IIIT-Delhi journey, and some life lessons from it. While they were directed at graduating class, I am sharing some more general ones here. Full text of the speech and video of the report and speech, as well as speeches of the Chancellor, Chairman, and Chief Guest, are available on the convocation webpage. (For information – I continue in IIIT-Delhi as Distinguished Professor, and will soon be on Sabbatical – hope to be able to write more then.)

Focus on creating / generating value. I have always believed that organizations and individuals are valued by society and people based on the value they deliver. At IIIT-Delhi, we maintain a sharp focus on delivering value in whatever we do. In courses, we ensure that there are good conceptual learning as well as actual engineering capability development, in research we focus on publishing in good quality venues and impact, in our infrastructure management we ensure that things like STP are actually working, etc,

It is an easier path to just work without focusing on outcomes, or just manage the perception by talking loudly about whatever one has done or even not done. But in the long run, the focus on value delivery will always pay. For IIIT-Delhi, this focus has already shown good results – our graduates get good opportunities in jobs as well as higher studies, our faculty is highly respected, and now we have been included in BRICS rankings as well.

So, the first life lesson from our journey is that you must always deliver value to the organization you work for, including your own start-up. Never lose sight of this, and more importantly never rely on short cuts for “managing the perception” of value, which are inevitably short lived.

You can achieve a lot. There is no doubt that at IIIT Delhi we have achieved a lot in 10 years. Let me highlight some;

  • From one floor in library building in Dwarka to a campus that Hon’ble CM said is of one of the most beautiful he has seen
  • From an intake of 60 to more than 600 this year overall.
  • From 1 program to 6 programs of Btech, 8 specializations in MTech
  • From 1 faculty to over 75 including visiting
  • A strong Phd program with over 160 scholars, bigger than even the older IITs in CSE

When I look at IIIT Delhi today and what we have, it is quite remarkable actually. If you ask me whether this is what I had imagined – absolutely not. In all honesty, if I was asked that this is what we have to build in 10 years – not clear I would have taken up the challenge. I suppose the same is true for all colleagues who joined in early stages. We all had a vision of creating an institution that is globally respected for research as well as education and some plans, but the actual achievement was done through steady contribution year after year towards the vision.

So, the second life lesson is that you keep chipping away, keep contributing, keep growing, and over the years you can achieve a lot. Actually a lot more than what you can imagine today.

Effort and Support from Colleagues and Family. But to do this – you have to put in the requisite effort, and you also need support from colleagues and family. There is no gain or achievement without effort. Yes, luck matters, but the main determinant which is in your control which influences the outcomes is your effort. You have to put in solid effort on an ongoing basis to achieve success – and you have to seek support from colleagues by leading by example. For the first many years I routinely worked at night from home and over weekends – it is only now that I had started reducing my effort to allow me some time for my innings after the current one as founding Director of IIIT Delhi gets over. And I know many of my faculty colleagues often put in 10 to 15 hour days often. Our team involved with campus construction and running often put in long hours.

Clearly this is not possible without strong support from your family. In my case, it was clear that my mindshare for family matters had reduced considerably. Once when I noted that I am usually home at night, my wife rightfully observed that “while you are physically here, your mind is in IIIT-Delhi”.

The third lesson is, that effort matters hugely. Do not rely on luck – rely on your effort. Hopefully, luck will also come as the famous quote by Jefferson says “The harder I work the more luck I have”. And seek support from your family and colleagues.

Innovate in your sphere – there is always room.  In 2008 perhaps a dozen new Institution started by Govt. At IIIT Delhi we have perhaps innovated the most. Let me give some examples:

  • Admission – while we adopted the common exam JEE, we innovated by recognizing achievements beyond a single exam by having the framework of bonus marks. This has worked very well and is something that I hope can get replicated.
  • In our course design and teaching – we have added post conditions, expected outcomes, etc, to make education learning focused rather than teaching focused.
  • We championed the much needed interdisciplinary programs at BTech level – the only Institute in the country to have some CS+X programs (e.g. CS+Applied Maths, CS+Design, CS+Biosciences, CS+Social Sciences).
  • For faculty we have system of yearly feedback, tenure, etc, to help them achieve their potential
  • We were perhaps the first govt institution to actually hold full faculty selections overseas
  • Our campus management has many innovations – e.g. using FMS, BMS, etc

The point is that we are also within the same overall environment as other institutions – but we have innovated in many aspects. And let me assure you that innovation is badly needed in higher education in our country.

So, the fourth lesson is that regardless of what is your job or the environment, there is always scope for innovation and we must innovate. In this fast changing world, those who will not innovate will not survive long. And individuals who will drive innovation will be valued more and more.

In Search of Excellence

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Pursuit of excellence is an integral part of Academics. I had written an article in Times Of India editorial page a few years ago. I am giving that article below. Many years have passed since that article and during this period much more attention has been given to (lack of?) excellence in our country – largely due to the absence of Indian Institutions in the global ranking of universities. There is a stronger desire to have some Institutions globally ranked and respected. As global ranking is largely based on research excellence and impact, there is a need to better understand the reasons behind why excellence often eludes our institutions. I am writing a followup note on this topic – in the process I found that the article I wrote a few years ago is still very relevant. Hence am sharing it here.

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Think of the names of the best-known scientists in India, and examine their resumes. Inevitably you find that, besides being great scientists and researchers, they were heads, directors or chairpersons of various committees, advisers to ministers/the prime minister, etc. It will be very hard to find a well-known scientist in India who did not become an administrator particularly in the past few decades. (In an exercise we did, a few PhD students were asked to list the Indian scientists whose names they knew and then check their CVs all 21 scientists listed had held significant administrative positions.)

Now let us look at the best researchers in the scientifically advanced countries. Of the 27 Nobel laureates in physics of the last 10 years, only seven hold any major administrative post.

This reflects a basic difference in how science and scientists are viewed in our society and how they view themselves, as compared to the situation in the scientifically advanced countries. We still remain a very hierarchy and title conscious society, where power and title are regarded more important goals than anything else (except money perhaps). When a scientist does good work and is recognised globally, the best way the government and the civic structures seem to reward the person is by giving an administrative title and role, so he becomes a ‘big administrator’ who will rub shoulders with the ‘powers-that-be’. Not only is the thinking of administrators and government like this, this is the nature of thinking of scientists and academics also after an individual has achieved some name in science, he starts looking for ‘elevation’ as an administrator.

We do not seem to have reached a state of evolution in our scientific community where science and research can be ends in themselves, and not a means to a ‘higher’ end. To be fair, a good scientist or a researcher starts with intentions of doing great science/research. However, slowly after a decade or two, often he starts facing the ‘what next’ question. Rather than striving harder to reach a higher level in science and research, either due to complacency which over the years sets in as it is systematically encouraged, or due to lack of recognition or visibility as compared to administrators, or some other reason, remaining a scientist no longer seems sufficient. The senior scientist then starts aspiring for administrative positions with power.

This situation is not likely to change unless there is pride and satisfaction in being an academic or a researcher, and unless there are icons in society that are academics and researchers. In the last two decades, people like founders of companies such as Infosys have created new icons. This has put entrepreneurs and business people on a high pedestal you can see that they no longer feel ‘below’ the bureaucracy but treat them, and are treated as, equal (or sometimes even superior as they are rich).

Similar icons need to be created in academics scientists who are held in high esteem and are ‘stars’ not for the position they hold but for the science and academics they did and contributions they made to the furthering of science, research and education. And the way the government should support them is by giving them labs and grants, awards, monetary rewards, naming buildings, roads and the like after them, promoting them in national and global forums as icons, etc, and not merely by giving them administrative posts.

The management of scientific and academic institutions also needs to change. They have to imbibe the value system where an administrator feels pride in what scientists and academics have done rather than what he as an individual has achieved. And instead of feeling dwarfed by the fame of a scientist working ‘under’ him, an administrator ought to see that as a sign of his doing a good job that should be rewarded.

Unless we reach a stage where the stars are the scientists, and the administrators are understood to be good only to the extent they provide support to create such stars, we should not hope for much excellence. Excellence in research cannot be achieved by half-hearted commitment to the pursuit of knowledge. We must develop a value system where a star scientist wishes to remain a scientist and is respected and admired for the science and research he does.

It should, however, be added that a scientific establishment, if it is to achieve any levels of excellence, must be headed by a scientist/academic of decent calibre who understands excellence and what is needed for it. Putting an average scientist/academic or a bureaucrat in charge can be a recipe for disaster, as such a person is likely to surround himself with average people (“An A hires an A, but a B hires a C”). But the administrator must support the value system in which he is mostly a facilitator for getting good science and research done. The limelight rightfully belongs to the brilliant scientists and researchers doing excellent work.

Assessing Students for Research Internships

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Recently I participated as a member of committees which were to select candidates for summer internship for two major collaborative sponsored programs. Though the number of internships were decent in each, still the number of shortlisted candidates were about 10 times the number of internships – indicating the strong demand for such internships. Other members of the committee included Senior professor from the US university, some senior academicians from Institutions in India, and senior members of scientific organizations. Given the volume of applications, each application had to be assessed quickly. The discussions clearly indicated that all members were looking for some features in the application. Based on these discussions, I noted down a few important aspects which experts were focusing on, and then briefly reviewed them with the members of the committee. I am sharing these here so student readers have an understanding of what such committees often look for. This can help students prepare suitably, and perhaps also to assess if research is a career that is suitable for them.

  • Academic Preparation. In any such research internship, what is being assessed is the potential of the student to do research. Clearly, for such an assessment, academic preparation is of great importance. This is largely assessed first by the grades of the student, and the standing of the institution where he/she is studying. Normally, it is expected that for research internships the student should be in the top few of his/her batch. It helps if the student is from an Institution which is respected for its research capabilities and focus.
  • Projects and internships. The next important factor is the projects the student has done. Generally projects beyond the course work, e.g. those done as independent study, BTech project, internship projects, etc are looked at more carefully. If these projects are research oriented and are challenging assignments, it strengthens the case. If internships/projects are far removed from research (e.g. internship in a bank), it can be negative as it indicates an interest in a business oriented career.
  • Publications. If some project done by the student has resulted in a publication in a decent forum (international journal/conference), this is a huge plus as it is a strong indicator about the capability to do good quality research and take it to completion. Submission to good quality forums also counts favorably.
  •  Aspiration/Goal. Often the applications will require some statement about what student aspires to do in future. This is often looked at carefully – and it is for the students to convince that they are indeed interested in pursuing a research career. It is best if the statement is brief, concise, consistent, and convincing.

It is well known that while academic preparation is necessary, to do well in research (or any career for that matter), motivation and drive is extremely important without which not much can be achieved. Most of the factors above not only indicate the academic credentials of the student, but also indicate the drive and motivation of the applicant – that is why committees look at these, and other such factors. I also believe that committees are able to assess whether the student is just claiming interest in research or is truly interested in it. Consequently, I feel that if a student is not interested in research as a career, he/she should perhaps not apply for these internships, leaving them for those who want to pursue research and for whom these internships can be truly a turning point in the career.

 

Report on PhD Production in Computer Science highlights the Opportunity for PhDs

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On behalf of ACM India, I conducted the first survey on PhD production in Computer Science in India. The report has been published and can be found, along with the background, here.

As the report clearly shows, while the number is not as low as one thought, it is still about 125. And if you consider PhDs from only the top 20 institutions in the country, the number is in two digits. And the projections are that this number will only double in about 5 years.

This study actually highlights the tremendous opportunity for those who are doing PhD in CS in India. Academics is growing rapidly with so many new IITs, IIITs, and other Institutes coming up. Even if you consider each such Institute will need about 5 faculty members each year, 50 upcoming Institutes can easily consume 250 PhDs. Then there are at least 20 research labs in many software companies, including the large software companies which seem keen to expand their R&D capabilities rapidly, and various other companies that can consume PhDs. Overall, the private sector can also consume about 250 PhDs per year. There are other opportunities in Govt sector also. In a nutshell, the supply is significantly lesser than the demand. And this gap is likely to increase as demand is set to increase.

Due to this mismatch in demand and supply, and the growth of academics, the compensation for fresh PhDs is now very good. Companies will often pay a package starting from Rs 15 Lac to Rs 25 Lac or more for a fresh PhD. Academic packages are also quite good after the sixth pay commission – an Asst Prof can have a yearly compensation of Rs 8 to Rs 12 Lac. Compare this with the starting package for software jobs – except for a few multinationals, the starting package tends to be around Rs 3.5 Lac for the large and medium sized software houses (which is where 90% of the software jobs are), and Rs 4 to 6 for the niche players. Even if one counts for the 4 to 5 years that one has to spend in getting a PhD, compensation wise, a student who does a PhD will clearly come out ahead.

And then there are the really strong benefits of doing a PhD – the main reasons why people preferred this route even when the compensation was not good. And that is, the freedom to explore and chose your own work agenda, the non-repetitive and challenging nature of work, the culture of R&D, lack of hierarchy, being a member of the global community of researchers, etc.

Overall, while the PhD production report does not have too much good news for those who want to recruit PhDs, it is good news for those who are considering doing PhD.

What Young Faculty Should Do to be more Productive in Research

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At IIIT-Delhi, after the yearly review of all faculty members, the Director meets with each faculty member and discusses the review of the individual faculty’s yearly performance. Generally, the meeting will also discuss what support the faculty member needs for his/her work. Last year, I posed two specific questions to each faculty member.

  • Q1 – What do you need to do for you to be more productive.
  • Q2 – What does the Institute need to do for you to be more productive.

In this note, I will discuss the general summary of feedback on Q1. As almost all the faculty members are talented and bright young Assistant Professors (all have PhDs from fine Universities/Institutes across the world), and as the focus was primarily on discussing research productivity, the summary of the feedback may be taken as a reflection of what young faculty should do to be more productive in research. (Caveats – the faculty in IIIT-D is mostly in CS and EE, and hence some of the views may not be applicable to other disciplines. Also, the comments, even though are from the perspective of what an individual should do, may not be relevant to other Institutes and situations.)

Though a number of issues were raised, interestingly two points emerged very strongly and most people mentioned that as something they should do to improve their research productivity. These two points were: R&D Focus, and time management.

R&D focus was expressed in various ways: Focus more on the projects at hand before moving to other projects (i.e. pick a few projects/problems and take them to completion before moving on); focus on limited or fewer things or problems rather than having a very wide agenda; focus on right things (i.e. prioritize what are important problems/projects to work on and then work on those); concentrate more on R&D; be more aggressive or ambitious on research.

Time management issue was also expressed in various ways: balance between teaching and research (i.e. balance the time spent between the two and do not end up spending most of the time on teaching); reduce time in non-academic tasks; learn to say no to students and others; better email management so as to avoid being reactive or responding to email all the time; better delegation to save time; spend more time in office and on research.

Other issues that were expressed by some, though not that commonly are: managing personal issues, increase awareness of value of contributions, improve writing, train/better handle the PhD students and their constraints and work habits, learn to better handle Indian constraints, limit teaching to a few courses.

I believe that the two main points that came out – research focus and better time management – are indeed the most important issues which if young faculty members can address well can help make them more productive. Lack of focus on R&D is undoubtedly one of the most important causes of insufficient achievement levels in India – if one is not focused on R&D, as often is the case with faculty members and young researchers in various institutions, clearly the quality and quantity of research output will be low. There is no short cut to being a successful researcher – like success in anything else, it requires dedication, sharp focus, and hard work.

The second issue highlighted is also extremely important as faculty members, unlike their counterparts in research labs, have many more responsibilities and commitments – teaching, serving on various committees within the Institute and outside, interaction with students and external people, etc. So unless the faculty member manages time well, it is very easy for him/her to spend most of the time in teaching related tasks, discussing in committees and meetings, interacting with students and others, etc. If faculty members can spend more time on academics in general, and devise effective personal methods to address these issues on how to effectively manage the time so less is “wasted” so more is available for research, they will have much better control of their time and be more productive.

Constraints in Research Grants

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I recently wrote an article in TOI on research funding in India, highlighting three specific changes which can incentivise research as well as make research funding a potent tool for driving the research agend. The three specific suggestions are:

  1. Allow for some “summer salary equivalent” to be to given to the PI, as is done in US. This will create a huge incentive for researchers.
  2. Travel budget should not distinguish between domestic and foreign travel
  3. Overheads given to Institutions should be increased to a reasonable level (from the current levels of 15-20%), so it creates a strong incentive for Institutions to encourage research

The full article can be found here.  Since its publication, some colleagues have provided some other information and have raised one point in particular, both worthy of sharing.

  • It seems that countries like China and Korea now allow the PI to take some percentage of the grant (5%, I am told) as personal compensation.  This is much more direct method of providing PI incentive, and gets around the technical problem of providing “summer salary” type support when a faculty member is on a 12 month salary. It can also be limited like the summer salary, if desired, but stipulating that no more than some fraction (say 50%) of the yearly income can be earned through the grants. China has repeatedly shown that it is capable of taking bold steps to improve its research – this is one such example. A move like this in India can also change the scenario dramatically, and will provide granting agencies the power to influence research direction through funding, which is currently not as strong as not many scientists are vying for grants.
  • Many younger faculty members pointed out another area where change is highly desirable :  the level of transparency in the whole process of proposal processing. Often the process itself is not fully clear to the submitter, and no status information or technical feedback is provided on the proposals. The system of research funding will benefit immensely if the entire process from submission till approval and disbursal of funds is clearly explained, and systems are established for online proposal submission, tracking, reviewing, etc. A move like this will make the granting agencies more professional and dramatically increase the respect the young scientists have in these agencies.

Commentators often focus on the level of funding of research, and have not given sufficient attention to these factors which can help motivate researchers to do more and higher quality research.