Archive for the ‘Science and society’ Category

Physics and political correctness

November 24, 2011 Leave a comment

I have been meaning to write this since I saw the excerpt from Lubos Motl’s post in Peter Woit’s blog, but for reasons pointed out in an earlier post, I was unable to connect to and read Motl’s post in full. I did manage to read the post today, but (apart from a confusion between 10^(10^100) and the headquarters of Google, Inc.) what interested me was already in that quote:

I think that all the people are being bullied into not criticizing the junk written by other people who are employees of the academic system, especially if the latter are politically correct activists. And be sure, some of the authors of this nonsense are at the top of it.

I would guess, from the experience of occasionally reading his posts, that by `politically correct activists’, Motl means people whose political beliefs are left of center, support liberal positions including feminist and climate-control positions. Thus he seems to suggest that if physicists who are politically on the left write junk, most of their colleagues are `bullied into’ silence.

I would be very surprised if people like Witten, Strominger, Polchinski or Sen (to name a few) could be `bullied into’ silence. And on the flip side, I would consider myself as much on the political left in my beliefs as any leading physicist, and there has been no shortage of criticism of my work even if it was not `junk’. A likelier explanation is that political beliefs are not very important in the criticism or the lack of it.

Bhagavadgita in IIT

November 14, 2011 Leave a comment

It seems that in a thermodynamics class at IIT Kanpur, the teacher referred to the Bhagavadgita — a reversible process is apparently what the book had in mind when it said `do your work without any hope of benefit’. Shouldn’t that be an irreversible process?

UGC Faculty recharge programme: much ado about nothing

May 28, 2011 35 comments

I was going to title this post `What were they thinking?’ but then decided against that because I could use that title so often that it should really be a category or a tag.

The UGC has come out with a programme called the Faculty Recharge Programme, which was advertised in national newspapers yesterday, and has appeared on a dedicated website here. They plan to appoint assistant professors, associate professors, and full professors in Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Biology and `Engineering and Earth Sciences’. The new appointees are expected to be at the forefront of research, and be willing to teach six hours a week — presumably at both undergraduate and post-graduate levels. The expressed hope is that this will raise the level of scientific research at the universities with the side effect of attracting students to a career of research.

In order to attract `talent, the new appointees are promised salary at par with the central universities no matter where they are. But they can be posted at any university in the country, although they do say that the location of the new faculty will be through `harmonization of their own preference, response of the host Institution and availability of infrastructure’.

On the face of it, this sounds like the seed of a new IES — Indian Educational Service, which was originally instituted during British rule (J.C. Bose, P.C.Ray and P.C.Mahalanobis had been members), but is this really going to attract people?

What I find disturbing is the sentence Initial appointments at each level shall be for a period of 5 years, extendible through peer evaluation by successive 5-year terms. This is understandable for Assistant Professors, who are at the beginning of their careers, but Associate Professors and Professors are going to be people who are required to have done a reasonable amount of research and publish regularly, so these people already hold jobs at research institutions or at teaching institutions with some freedom to do research. But those jobs are permanent jobs, not five year positions. And they are also likely to be of an age where stability is important. They are likely to have families, who are settled down, or settling down, working, going to school, wherever they are. So why will they up everything and (very likely) go to a different part of the country, in a job which,   following a peer review, […] may be terminated, extended or elevated to the next higher level. Associate professors have a chance of being `elevated’ to the next higher level, but professors do not have even that. So why would anyone sensible, anyone who is doing some research and some teaching, be interested in a Professor’s position?

Any of the research laboratories pay allowances etc at the same rates as the central universities, and at the levels corresponding to associate professor and professor, pretty much the same salary. People already at universities, even if they are not central universities, get the same salaries, possibly with some lower allowances. But universities give their faculty time to do research, and the stability of a permanent job. There is no real incentive for any of these people to move to a five-year position, which is very likely in a different part of the country.

Then the only people who will apply for these positions are those in colleges where they are unable to do good research, or people in post-doc positions. While there are admittedly some people in colleges who could do better research at universities than what they are doing now, such people are not many in number. And even then, would they opt for the instability of a five-year position, unless they are at the very beginning of their career?

If they really want good people to join, they should remove the 5 year stipulation, at least from the higher positions. Otherwise this service will be filled with only those who cannot get a permanent university/research institute position.

IITs not world class — but just how good are they?

May 24, 2011 Leave a comment

`IIT faculty are not world class’  said Jairam Ramesh, Minister of Environment. Ramesh, himself an IIT graduate, also mentioned the IIMs together with the IITs, and his  lament was about the quality of research done at these places. He believes that the IITs do not do good quality research, and thus does not attract the best people.

I decided to take a quick look at the research record of the IITs, as measured by the Web of Science (subscription required). The way I did it was to search for Kharagpur in the Address box, then refine it by Institutional Affiliation to the IIT, and break the search in two parts, one for 1986-2000 and the other for 2001-2011.

I was slightly surprised by the results — about 4500 papers for the first lot, and 9500 papers for the second lot. So the number of papers has doubled. The citation count was about 24k? for the first lot and 37k? for the second lot. And the h-index for each lot is about 60. This was somewhat higher than I was expecting, but perhaps not that high, given that IIT Kharagpur has about 470 members of faculty — so 9500 in 10 years is about 2 per faculty per year, an acceptable number. But I am not sure how to interpret the number of citations or the h-index. I would have expected somewhat lower figures for a `bad’ research institute of this size and age, so perhaps it’s not that bad. But how good is it?

Perhaps I’ll do the same search for the other `old’ IITs and try to find some meaning in the figures.

With all the caveats about indices, of course.

Indices again

April 23, 2011 1 comment

Via Nanopolitan: Current Science carried a letter by Diptiman Sen and S. Ramasesha, two physicists at the IISc, pointing out that the h-index is not a good `scientometric’ index. Unfortunately, the arguments they have used to establish that are not all equally good. In particular they suggest that the Nobel Laureate V. Ramakrishnan has a low h-index. This was picked upon by two other scientists who point out the actual figures are not particularly low. And in between poor arguments and rejoinders, many other important arguments against using the h-index got lost.

Some of these other arguments were given here and here, and many more can be found all over the cyberspace and blogosphere. My arguments against scientometric indices in general, and h-index (and journal impact factor) in particular, are similar to those given in these links, but also try to take into account the conditions special doing science in India. These are, not necessarily in any particular order, are the following.

1. Most (or all?) such indices are based on only the number of citations (total or per year), so no matter how a metric is designed, it is only the number of actual citations which enters the metric — so any of these metrics is ultimately calculated from only one parameter. Or perhaps two, since the rate of growth of citations may be included. Some metrics would include the number of papers (total or per year) as well. That is another parameter, but the number of citations is not completely independent of the number of papers, and the number of papers is usually not a good measure of their quality, so including that number does not improve the quality of the index either.

2. Even if different ways of using the citation count (and paper count) lead to qualitatively different indices, the standard indices are still numbers associated with only one individual (or one institution), the one being evaluated. This cannot make any sense, since high or low values may be systemic. For example, mathematics has fewer papers than  medicine, than even specialized branches of medicine like oncology, and consequently fewer number of citations as well. So any index that can be applied to both mathematics and medicine will have to take into account its behavior specific to that field, and thus require some sort of comparison within the field. This is never done as far as I can gather, either in the construction or in the usage of these indices.

3. Even if we can make a comparative index, for example by taking ratios or percentiles within a field, that is not likely to hold up against historical data.  That is, given some index — h, g, or whatever — for some string theorist, we can come up with a `normalized’ one by taking its ratio with the same index for Witten, but the same normalization is not likely to make any sense for Born or Einstein, say. Of course they were not string theorists, and neither is `normal’ a word one should use for any index related to Witten. Still, the explosion of citations is a relatively recent phenomenon, and related to the explosion of papers, so the variation of any index with time — for individuals as well as within fields — need to be taken into account.

4. Many scientists work across disciplines, many more work across subfields. It makes no sense for such people’s work to be evaluated by a single index, as the index may have different ranges in the different fields or subfields. For example, someone working mostly in mathematics and occasionally in string theory may end up with an index which is low compared to string theorists and high compared to mathematicians. How should something like that be used?

5. Indices are used for different purposes at different career stages. So it does not make sense to use the same index for people at different stages of their career.

6. There may be `social’ factors in the rise of citation count of specific papers or individuals — some are obvious and `nearly academic’ ones, like the popularity or currency of a field or a problem — the bandwagon effect. Then there is the `club’ effect — I cite you, you cite me, friends cite friends — which can work wonders in small subfields. There may also be less academic and more career-oriented reasons — it is very likely that papers cite probable referees more often, so that a paper does not come back for revisions simply because `relevant literature was not cited.’ I would not be surprised if this mechanism gets reinforced for people with many collaborators — a paper might be rejected if it did not cite the papers of the referee’s collaborators.

There are also several issues special to Indian science, which have to do with how appointments and promotions are usually effected in India. As noted by G. Desiraju in the letter to Current Science,

it was possible, in the days before we had scientometric indicators, for committees of wise men to simply declare an incompetent as an outstanding scientist.

Unfortunately, it is still possible. But that is another discussion.

Academies eat Brinjal pie!

October 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Found a nice article by Pushpa M. Bhargava, the former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology on bt-brinjal (eggplant), more specifically the report of the science academies, which I had mentioned earlier. (Scroll down to below the first article by Shanthu Shantharam, who represents the pro-GM crop industries.) Bhargava discusses the scientific demerits of the report much better than I have, and it is a must read for anyone interested in this debate.

I also discovered another interesting fact, that Bhargava had resigned his membership of all the three science academies in 1994, because he considered them, among other things, “intellectually sterile” and “instruments of personal gratification”. What he did not mention was that these days, IITs and various institutes pay an additional Rs.25000 per month to any faculty who is a member of two academies. Since one can become a member only by being nominated and then elected, the academies have also become `instruments’ of corruption in a more conventional sense. The members can `help’ the appropriate people to get about a 25% increase in salary.

I knew that Richard Feynman became so exasperated [at the National Academy of Sciences] that he resigned his membership, saying that he saw no point in belonging to an organization that spent most of its time deciding who to let in. I did not expect anyone to have said anything similar in the Indian environment. My respect for Puhspa Bhargava just went up a notch or two.

Awards and grants

October 7, 2010 Leave a comment

“X does not have any award, is not a member of any academy, X does not deserve a grant.” — Referee’s report on a grant application to the DST. Of course, awards and memberships of science academies are given only to those who have received grants, so I guess X can stop thinking about all three.