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Research Institutes: An(other) inside view

Saw a couple of interesting blog articles, at Not Even Wrong and Backreaction,  discussing a couple of articles in Nature, one on the Perimeter Institute, and a review of a book/memoir by the first director of that institute.

The Nature articles are for subscribers only — I could have accessed it from work, but didn’t get around to actually reading them — firstly because all my students needed to see me today, and secondly because I am not particularly interested in the Perimeter Institute itself. But I read with interest what the bloggers and commenters had to say about PI, its mission of  supporting `unusual’ or `anti-establishment’ research, and apparent notions about research institutes in general.

Having been in a research institute for some years, in a country that is increasingly putting all its research effort in institutes and out of universities, I have my own perspective to these issues of originality and mission of research institutes.

The research institutes in India are, without exception as far as I know,  better funded and better equipped than the universities. Institute pay is better, libraries are (generally) better stocked with both books and journals, a lot more money for travel and research, including for students, and very few fixed duties. They also have a more rigorous hiring procedure, at least in principle, as hiring is based much more on research output than on records of examinations from 10 years ago. Both of these together tend to attract and retain (with some exceptions of course) the best researchers in the country, especially those who wish to come back from a stint abroad and resettle in India.

However there is a downside to this story. Since these are research institutes, there is no requirement of teaching. All the institutes admit students, experimentalists can always use another pair of hands and eyes, and many theorists need students to help them calculate things or to run programs. And yet, in my experience, very few scientists are willing to teach courses. Some would teach about only what they work on, and some others would teach only their own students. The result is an annual outflow of  PhDs who know only about what they have themselves worked on, but not what it is based on, often not even the basics of the subject. Never mind a broad knowledge of physics or chemistry or whatever science primarily covers the  said research.

The faculty and the students also get used to the idea that there is little or no accountability for the money they spend, as long as they are producing papers. So many if not most prefer to stick to the problem they have always worked on, never quite managing to move on, and thus never really expanding the horizon of research in the country. And these attitudes perpetuate, through generations of students who are then `placed’ in other institutes and then become research supervisors themselves.

The universities on the other hand become less and less attractive to good scientists, as they pay less and have a higher teaching  load — sometimes much higher — which cannot be refused. And as the number of good scientists at universities dwindle, so does their ability to attract good students. So the good students go to the institutes, where no one cares to teach them anything beyond their thesis problem, and they end up being shadows of what they had hoped to become. Good scientists do come out of this system, but they are the rare exceptions.

Another problem is the narrowness of the institutes themselves — the absence of the faculties of humanities and the social sciences, and even the sciences which are not well-represented at a particular institute, leads to a very skewed view of the world. I cannot help but feel that in a university a scientist (or anybody else for that matter) is forced to realize that what he does is not the only important pursuit in the universe, that others are working just as hard to understand things which are as unlike his own research as can be.

I think the research institutes in India are white elephants and should be abolished forthwith. The research they produce is not of a very high quality, as very few new ideas appear inside closed spaces, and they also fail to prepare a next generation of scientists who can take over. As for research institutes abroad, I have seen only one (in the US) from the inside well enough to comment, and I think that is beset with similar problems. I am not very surprised if PI is not living up to its promise of originality and `off-the-beaten-track’ research — I think such things come from having a large student body, good teaching program, and a sufficiently broad-based faculty including the humanities and the social sciences.

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  1. October 11, 2009 at 6:53 am
  2. December 25, 2009 at 5:11 am

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