COMMENTARY

Honours and Numbers
a Correspondent

C N R Rao’s repeated complaint that the problem with Indian science is the success of computing and information technology has no justification. Computer science in India receives little funding from the government and the IT industry is the country’s only example of technological success. What is needed is the reform of India’s ossified scientific establishment, transfer of funds from underperforming departments like atomic energy to other scientific departments, creation of more opportunities for academic circulation across India and ensuring that heads of institutions and departments rotate at regular intervals.

n the course of 24 years (a long period for any sportsperson) one of India’s most recent recipients of the Bharat Ratna, Sachin Tendulkar, played in 200 test matches and scored 51 centuries, more than anyone else in cricketing history. As if to provide comparative data, newspapers reported that the other recent Bharat Ratna, C N R Rao has so far published over 1,400 papers and 45 books in a career that spans more than 50 years.1 Sports achievements such as those of Tendulkar are very specific and contextual: each century was scored against a particular team in a particular match. Comparison of one century with another (by him or anyone else) may be fascinating but it is also very subjective: everything from the weather and the state of the pitch (among many other factors) must be given as much importance as the composition of the opposition. By comparison, a scientific discovery must be repeatable by others; a paper describing it is then timeless and the results remain scientific facts for all time (or until disproved by a new discovery or theory). To ensure that the claims and results are valid, each paper is subjected to an important test before acceptance by a journal or conference: it must pass what should be rigorous and anonymous refereeing by a few selected peers in the field, from across the world. Scientific Career in India Naturally, a scientist has great interest in seeing how widely the results reported in a paper are used. One measure of usefulness, or impact, is the citation index: the number of publications (by other scientists) that refer to these results. A paper whose results have many citations and over a long time, is very likely to be an important contribution to the field. Metrics such as the H-index and the I10- index attempt to give more detailed measures of the impact.

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Progress in a scientific career, especially in India, can be predicated on the number of publications: a certain number is needed to cross each threshold. The highest credence is given to publications in prestigious foreign journals and conferences which act as clearing houses for scientific information in the field; Indian journals and conferences are usually of lower ranking. Publishing a paper abroad is seen as an affirmation of its standing, with publication in India taking second place. Not surprisingly, fake journals and conferences have been created abroad, and in India, for those unable to publish a paper by any other means: for a fee, they will accept any paper submitted to them, without any meaningful refereeing. It is not always easy to isolate dubious citations and publications: a paper by a senior scientist with many students may receive dutiful citations in all of their publications and these can contribute to the citation count. Though not strictly the same as self-citation (referring to one’s own papers), it can vitiate the value of the measures. With increasing importance given to citations, there is greater temptation to treat publication as a game and increase the citation count by a variety of artificial means. Playing the Game Indian science has learnt to play this game as well as anywhere else. Before a paper is even submitted to a journal or conference, the head of a group will often insist on having his or her name added to the list of authors, whether or not there was any actual contribution to the research or to writing the paper. The top echelons of Indian scientific circles are so small that editors of Indian journals are well known to heads of research groups: so are the referees (however anonymous they may pretend to be) and this leads to a mutual understanding about not standing in the way of publications from known authors and groups. With enough publications in tow, and some cultivated support, fellowship of one of the national academies of science (the Delhi-based Indian National Science Academy, the Bangalore-based Indian
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Academy of Sciences and the Allahabadbased National Academy of Sciences of India) follows fairly predictably. There are other opportunities for dilution in quality. When an important new experimental scientific technique is devised and published, it is the first few results that have seminal importance. Later, anyone with the right equipment can use the technique and mass-produce further results (often in hundreds) that just fill in small gaps in predictable ways. The head of a group with a large number of research students is well placed to exploit this and build up an impressively large list of publications. This is self-perpetuating: students will flock to such group leaders as a long list of publications will also help them in their future hunt for jobs. Added to this is the worry of plagiarism. There are cases of plagiarism from many top Indian institutions as indeed in other parts of the world. However, in India the scientific establishment has resisted any penalty for those involved, who are often at the highest levels in the institution:2 such plagiarism has been described by them as “a lapse in judgement”,3 “small oversight”4 and having “done no harm”.5 In all these cases, a research student was blamed for the copying while the senior authors claimed innocence. The national academies of science appear unconcerned that any of their members may be responsible for plagiarism. The problem is part cultural and part structural: similar manifestations can be found elsewhere. In Japan, for instance, research students will never argue with or contradict the opinions of their seniors; in China, plagiarism is even more rife.6 There have been celebrated cases of plagiarism in other countries, e g, in Germany7 and in Italy.8 While blind agreement may be less common in India (pace the “argumentative” Indian!), what dominates the research environment here is the almost feudal hold that a group head exercises over the team. Let us not shy away from noting that this is the same control a tribal chieftain would exercise in less-developed societies. Most research institutions here are governed by a director who controls all the important activities, and is advised by a body of senior scientists who head
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research groups. This may be offered as evidence of internal democracy but that claim would be more valid if leading a group were not a virtually permanent position. A person selected (often by the director) to head a group keeps that position until retirement or some other form of termination. The head is thus often the oldest member of a group, the patriarch perhaps, but not necessarily the wisest: arguably also the least likely to be innovative, the keenest to resist change. It may be impressive to read that someone led an institution for 10 or 20 years but this is also a clear sign of institutional fatigue. For scientific vitality, it is essential to have constant regeneration and revitalisation, as elsewhere in the world. Static Institutions There could still be mitigating circumstances if the composition of Indian scientific institutions were less static, if scientific blood circulated more among institutions. That happens rarely: once appointed, a scientist almost invariably remains in the same institution, rising in predictable steps to higher positions until retirement. Periods of sabbatical leave, if any, are spent abroad and never in another Indian institution. Look through the lists of faculty at leading institutions like the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the Indian Institute of Science, the Institute of Mathematical Sciences and the Indian Institutes of Technology and see how hard it is to find anyone who has moved from one Indian institution to another. Once in the institute of choice, or of destiny, a scientist pitches tent and either stays for the rest of a working career or at some stage moves abroad (often in frustration). The provision of research money is not an incentive for moving to another Indian institution. Science in the top institutions in India is well funded, without competition or the need for collaboration; more research money is available than asked for by credible grant applications. Compare this with research funding in the UK or the US, where the total research money sought in each funding round can be 10-15 times what is available for disbursal. Getting a research grant there is fiercely competitive and depends also
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on the quality (not just the quantity) of the publications from previous grants. The major providers of money for scientific research in India do not even insist on collaboration between institutions. In the European Union, ESPRIT grants go to support multi-institutional, multinational teams taking up challenging research programmes and this has facilitated the movement of scientists and ideas across Europe. Similar provision in India would provide some stimulus for inter-institutional collaboration, for research to rise above the subcritical levels where it lingers today. It would also increase the possibility of interdisciplinary research, something that scientists in India have shied away from. There are numerous examples of what collaboration and academic circulation can achieve. For example, the structure of DNA was discovered through collaboration between James Watson and Francis Crick of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge and Maurice Watkins of Kings College, London (all three shared the Nobel prize for the discovery), with considerable support from Rosalind Franklin. Watson was an American who studied in Chicago and Indiana Universities and did further work in Copenhagen before coming to Cambridge; he later moved to Harvard and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Crick moved from Cambridge to the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. Franklin had moved from Cambridge to Paris before working in Kings. William Press, immediate past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and member of President Obama’s scientific advisory council, was professor of astronomy and physics at Harvard before moving to the University of Texas in Austin as professor of computer science and integrative biology. The success stories of Indian scientists who moved from India to work abroad are legion. Only Example of Success There is a great deal for the Indian scientific establishment and the bureaucracy in scientific government departments to do. C N R Rao’s repeated complaint that the problem with Indian science is the success of computing and IT in India9 has no justification. Computer science in
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India receives little funding from the government and the Indian IT industry is the country’s only example of technological success: it provides employment to over three million and contributes over 7.5% of the gross domestic product. In fact, a large part of the science and technology budget goes to atomic energy, about six times as much as for energy from renewable sources, and this has resulted in creating less than 6,000 Mw of nuclear power capacity compared to over 22,300 Mw from renewable sources.10 C N R Rao’s complaint of a general shortage of funds for science in India may have some validity, as observed in Nature,11 but it is not far from what is available in other developing countries. There is less basis for his demand that the Indian IT industry must contribute to the growth of science in India. He fails to note that the IT industry does make available substantial funds to support computer science research projects and students: unfortunately, too few suitable candidates apply to do research in computer science and most prefer lucrative careers in industry. We live in a world where, given a choice between a well-paid job and a research career (in any field), young people will go for the money. Diminishing the achievements of the IT industry will not help in recruiting more research students to science. William Press uses the work of Robert Solow, Nobel Prize laureate in economics, to show that exponential growth in an economy comes from positive feedback: from technological progress that arises from research and development (R&D) investments.12 The Indian IT industry has over the years invested substantially in creating the assets (a trained and mobile workforce, high technological competence) that led to its outstanding growth over the last two decades; accelerated growth will require greater investment in R&D than made so far. The next steps for the IT industry should be to increase its own R&D investment, not to donate funds to be used elsewhere. Ossified Establishments So perhaps the solutions to C N R Rao’s repeated complaints lie closer to home, in reforming India’s ossified scientific
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establishment. In transferring funds from the underperforming departments like atomic energy to other scientific departments (this is surely something the Scientific Advisory Committee to the prime minister can recommend); create more opportunities for academic circulation across India; and ensure that heads of institutions and departments rotate at regular intervals. It should be made a requirement for each head to groom one or more successors. The government is trying to enforce similar rules in sports bodies: why not also in scientific establishments? Finally, each of Tedulkar’s centuries was scored in full public view, with tens of thousands watching in the stadium and millions on television. Each stroke is recorded, analysed, praised and criticised: no room for “a lapse in judgement”, or “a small oversight”. He does not have the luxury of sending out a trainee to face the heavy stuff and walking in at the end to hit the final boundary and claim the century. How many senior Indian scientists can state, hand on heart, that they have actually done the research and written every paper for which they are author or co-author? When a leading Indian scientist claims to have written over 40 papers

and one or more books every year, on an average, one must also ask what was achieved by this barrage of publication. Even Nobel laureates do not find it necessary to publish at that rate! The 2012 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Robert Lefkovitz, publishes only a modest eight to 10 papers a year, less than one a month. C N R Rao’s hero, Linus Pauling, published over 1000 papers and books in a 70-year career; two thirds were on scientific subjects,13 or around 10 a year. Pauling was awarded two Nobel prizes.
notes
1 India Today, 16 November 2013. 2 See http: //www.geocities.corn/physics_plagiarism/ for a report on plagiarism by the vicechancellor of an Indian university. 3 Current Science, 25 May 1995. 4 Nature, 24 February 2012. 5 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_plagiarism_in_India 6 The Telegraph, 2 October 2012. 7 http://blogs.nature.com/news/2013/02/accused-german-science-minister-quits.html 8 http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/ v471/n7337/full/471135b.html 9 See, e g, The Telegraph, 18 November 2013. 10 http://www.dianuke.org/debunking-themyth-necessity-of-nuclear-energy-for-india/ 11 http://blogs.nature.com/news/2013/03/indiafails-to-deliver-on-promises-to-boost-sciencebudget.html 12 William H Press, “What’s So Special about Science (And How Much Should We Spend on It?)”, Science, 342, 15 November 2013. 13 http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/lpbio/lpbio2.html

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