Published: 29th June 2020
Our researchers need to innovate and lead, not finds gaps in others' theories and follow: Dr Uday B Desai
The former Director of IIT Hyderabad also added that there will always be people misusing it but that should not deter the granting of academic freedom to India's researchers
Indian researchers need to innovate in fields that haven't been explored and become the leaders in them rather than filling gaps in someone else's research, said Dr Uday B Desai, noted academician the former Director of IIT Hyderabad. Dr Desai was in conversation with senior journalist Kaveree Bamzai and Dr S Vaidhyasubramaniam, Vice-Chancellor of SASTRA University at The New Indian Express' E-Expressions on June 29.
Researchers in India need to develop the confidence to delve into areas that have not been explored yet and cultivate this mindset in the youngsters rather than giving them an algorithm for research. "Our research is about finding gaps in the research that has already been done and then come up with an upgrade. Why can't we write papers where we wouldn't have to put a literature survey — it will be the first of its kind work. The fellow sitting at MIT has the confidence to do it. We need to develop that," he added. "Research is a very non-linear process. It does not have an algorithm that you can follow. Sometimes you start with something and you'll end up discovering something else. We need to give that leeway," said Dr Desai.
Talking about the need to give researchers more freedom to work, network and collaborate, he said that we needed more trust all around. There will always be people misusing a structure or a system but that should not deter the necessary change, said the professor. "Some people will always misuse any change. But there will be exceptional people on the other side. Unfortunately, in India, we concentrate on people who misuse it. I would rather concentrate on excellence. If I am changing a system, I will have to keep aside a sum in my funds for people who will misuse it," added Dr Desai. "You need three things to propagate good research — hire the best possible faculty, give them the freedom and invest in research equipment. You also need Masters and PhD students to carry on research," he added.
We need to invest in people, said Dr Desai and added that Indian institutes do not invest in them, or headhunt them aggresively, as much as they should. "It also means that we need to hunt for good researchers. I used to have a good filtered interview process. In the US, they would hunt for good people. They would go after good people. We have occasionally done that in the IITs. If you look at how Stanford was built, in the late 50s they went and got top-notch people who built it up. It is a hard, long-drawn process," he said and further added that does not necessarily mean that they have to give away huge chunks of money. "I'm saying get good people and give them money to set up world-class labs. We are not on par with universities in the US. That requires money. Many who come back are not looking for massive salaries, but you need research equipment and support," he said.
The former Director also added that the Indian education system needs to empower our faculty soon and stop micromanaging them on the number of papers they have published. "In India, we have a very stigmatic approach to failure — if you fail you're wrong and not good and not that it is an act of learning. Great things don't happen overnight," he said. "We need a cultural mindset change with research. You have to give them freedom, not make them come to you for small approvals. Compared to how things were in the 80s and 90s now there's a lot more freedom. Research is no more about sitting in a lab, it's about meeting people, collaborating, building synergy and that's something we need to allow," added Dr Desai.
Responding to a question from Dr Vaidhyasubramaniam, he said that linkages have increased in the last 20 years but is still not present to the extent it should be. "Very often, we get turnkey projects, but not fundamental R&D projects. Industries report progress every quarter whereas researchers report project progress after years. So the time scales are mismatched and skewed. We should have converted the electronics industry into a cottage industry. We missed the boat, maybe we have got a second opportunity with COVID. And I mean setting it up in every village and town. We are blessed with bright people but we need a policy decision on this," he said.
Indian industries don't build labs whereas corporates abroad are doing it and keep them at arm's length so that they are not linked to their product division, said Dr Desai. "Our industries should also do the same. But it should not reflect in the profit-loss sheets and should be funded by CSR or some such category. Only then will young researchers want to come work in Indian labs. They can also do it in partnership with our research parks. IIT Madras has a huge one as do all the older IITs. They have access to professors and top-notch students. Why not set up top-notch research labs?" asked Dr Desai.
Another aspect of freedom is access. Research is not a 9 to 5 job. There should be access 24x7, feels the professor. "Let the students access the labs whenever they want. If you go to the average US university this is very common. If you have to fill up forms and sign ledgers then it becomes cumbersome," he added. "The top American universities can be looked at as role models. There is no one formula for this. Stanford did it in a very different way than MIT. But you can't replicate a Stanford. We can learn from them. Even if I give you unlimited money and freedom it will be hard to decide how to go forward with it," he said.
Breaking is more important than making. We should have a breaker lab where students can just break open things and study them. "In India this is considered a vice but I say as long as you learn from the process it is fruitful," said the professor who also added that he does not have much faith in rankings. "Ranking systems are not reliable because it cannot be taken very seriously. It has now become more about increasing the numbers which they evaluate," he said in the virtual session.