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Posts Tagged ‘research grants’

Chinese competition

August 13, 2010 Leave a comment

Apparently the Dept. of Science and Technology has sent out a question to all the research institutes under it — how can India be more competitive with China and Japan in science and technology. Apparently this was a question asked in the parliament.

To many, a big part of the answer is obvious, dedicate more resources to school and college education, open more universities, and do not concentrate finances in research institutes. But the research institutes will not say this.

A smaller part of the solution is to support Indian science journals.

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Spending without a research grant

June 6, 2010 Leave a comment

We all get to hear stories about how research grants are spent or wasted. Recently I came to know about another channel of flow. Every research institute buys instruments from research grants, but also outside research grants. This comes from the institute’s `research budget’, which is usually finagled out of the total budget by the Director. This usually means that there is no money for other things,  whether it is a students’ hostel, or library subscription.

In some places, or perhaps some cases, the allocation of money to buy instruments (or computers) from the institute’s budget follows a procedure similar to a grant application in which a detailed budget has to be made by the principal investigator (PI) and the research proposal has to be defended in front of a committee. Usually this committee is not as strict as the grant committees of the national agencies, but still, there has to be a defence.

A few days ago, I saw some figures for one of the smaller research institutes in the city. In the last five years, this institute has spent about Rs. 100,000,000, mostly in foreign exchange, to buy instruments on its own. Yes, that is 10 crores. On average 2 crores a year. This is without taking into account the instruments bought from sponsored grants, but that figure is not comparable. In other words, granting agencies did not agree to give similar grants to this institute for buying instruments. And I was told that in many cases, these instruments were paid for by the centre because the granting agencies refused to.

The annual maintenance of all these instruments is more than a crore. The support expenses, due to power, air conditioning, and consumables, is probably of the same order. Which is less than what it would cost to promote all the scientists there to the highest pay grade. But that procedure requires application, CV, letters of recommendation, and an interview committee. Why should similar amounts of money be spent without any checks?

Someone suggested that it is because cut money is involved in the purchases. I do not wish to believe him, but I do not have a satisfactory answer either.

Spending the research grant

December 1, 2009 1 comment

I heard some stories, which I wanted to share with the world. While these stories were told by individuals, some were corroborated by other individuals.

One story is about a multi-crore rupee grant, which a professor in a Southern Institute received sometime ago and used to buy a top of the line supercomputer, among the fastest in the world at that time. The machine arrived, and the professor retired soon after, without putting much of a strain on it. No one else at the institute seems to have any use for the machine, so it lies there, barely awake, its cooling system drawing enormous power to keep it at its sepulchral temperature against one of the warmest climates in the country.

Another is about a similar sized research grant, which bought a leading branded supercomputer, for the purpose of doing lattice QCD calculations. That computer was used for producing two or maybe three papers, and now is being upgraded for another several crores. One person told me this was at a neighbouring institute (the last one mentioned here) while another thought it was at an institute right across the country. I know that one institute upgraded its supercomputer, and that neither has produced much that required heavy usage of these computers, so possibly my informants are both correct.

But along with these, I heard another story. Those who were discussing these things preferred to call the previous stories examples of corruption, while I preferred to call them examples of stupidity and bad planning. But then one of my friends turned to me and told me about scientists who had their travel agents give them receipts for full-fare air tickets while they actually paid discounted prices. Not only for domestic airfares, but also for international airfares. And submitted those receipts for reimbursement.

That of course is a clear case of corruption.

Indian Science Journals

November 19, 2009 2 comments

Why are science journals published from India so bad? Here is a list of impact factors of Indian science journals. That list is from the year 2000, but the situation has improved only marginally, as this report about 2008 shows. Of course, impact factor may not be a very good measure of the importance of a journal, since it has more to do with immediacy than lasting impact, among other things. But even by other measures, Indian journals are ranked very low.

One could of course say `Who cares?’ So what if Indian journals are not very good, as long as the work produced by Indian scientists, published in foreign journals, are rated highly? Is the place of publication of journals relevant if the contributions are good? I do not have a good answer to that, although I would like to put the counter-question that since science progresses through good research, why do we care about who did that research? In other words, why do we care if Indian science languishes, if good science is being done somewhere in the world?

In any case, the quality and importance of research done in a country seems to have some sort of positive correlation with the quality of journals published from there — we should count Western Europe (minus the UK) as one country for this purpose. The evolution of such quality with time also seems to be correlated with the publication of better journals, as in the case of Singapore or China in recent times.

So if we agree (as many do, including myself) that India needs to publish better quality research journals, we should find some way of getting better quality research into the journals published from India. Our famous scientists, many of whom often shed crocodile tears for Indian science, refuse to publish any of their good quality work (in many cases, any work) in Indian journals. It is not clear to me why, since electronic archives such as this ensure that any paper (in almost all fields of science except medicine)  is seen all over the world even before publication. Research papers would be read from the archives and cited, regardless of where they are subsequently published.

But these scientists cannot be coaxed into publishing in Indian journals that easily. And if they do not publish there, these journals are not going to grow in stature. So I have a suggestion, one similar to what used to be the rule in post-WW2 Europe:

Any paper written using a grant from an Agency of the Indian Government must be published in a journal published in India. If a research grant is given jointly by an Indian and a foreign agency, a predetermined fraction of the papers written using it should be published in Indian journals.

If the Indian funding agencies follow this rule, Indian journals will start looking up again in a few years, be competitive in the world, and attract good research from abroad.

Money down the drain

November 17, 2009 2 comments

As I mentioned earlier, Hindustan Times filed an RTI to learn about CSIR’s expenditure related to patents. In the last ten years, CSIR spent Rs. 228.64 Crores on filing patents, while gaining Rs. 36.8 Crores by selling/licensing them. Of course it is not fair to interpret these figures solely as some kind of failure on CSIR’s part, it does take a while for a new patent to be successful, and many patents do not get to sell very much at all. Further, many patent violations do not get caught unless an agency is employed, which the CSIR may not have done yet.

In any case, this brought to my mind a different expenditure, one that is not included in these figures. I am talking about the expense of the research itself, the infrastructure, the salaries, and most importantly, the equipment and supplies. Most of this expenditure comes through the budget of the institutes, and a fraction (usually not large) comes from the grants obtained by the scientists.

The budget thus allotted to experimental science (also to computational science, but that is a different kettle of fish) amounts to several crores every financial year at any institute — this budget has increased manifold over the last 10 years, with focus on nano-bio-material science.

Now, two stories from two different institutes. At one, every experimentalist gets an unlimited amount of money for `contingency’. This includes buying chemicals. Unlimited amounts, no questions asked. Just sign the bill. And people do spend mind-boggling amounts of money on buying chemicals. (It seems that along with chemicals one can buy utensils to store the said chemicals, and — according to unconfirmed reports, and highly suggestive statements from some of the experimentalists, places to keep those chemicals — read furniture.)

At another institute, several labs are replacing their perfectly working instruments, with new equipment of the same make and model, because they have to spend the budget allocated to them before 31st March (end of financial year).

I think these examples are not exceptions, such criminal wastage of public money is quite common in several institutes of our country. Someone ought to do an audit, of a different kind from the one usually done, on the usage of things bought from the research expense account of each institute. At the very least these institutes should have  committees, with one or more external experts, in front of which these prodigal scientists can produce and justify a budget for their own experiments. Then at least a modicum of oversight can exist.

Research Institutes: An(other) inside view

October 6, 2009 2 comments

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.