InnoVidya Event: R&D in Publicly-Funded Labs In India

National Chemical Laboratory, Pune, is one of the top R&D institutions in the country. With approximately 200 scientific staff working here, it is an interdisciplinary research center with wide research scope and specializes in polymer science, organic chemistry, catalysis, materials chemistry, chemical engineering, biochemical sciences and process development. It houses good infrastructure for measurement science and chemical information.

There are about 400 graduate students pursuing research towards doctoral degree; about 50 students are awarded Ph.D. degree every year. NCL publishes over 400 research papers annually in the field of chemical sciences and over 60 patents worldwide. It is a unique source of research education producing the largest number of PhDs in chemical sciences within India.

InnoVidya and IUCAA present a talk by Dr. Sourav Pal, the current Director of NCL, on Research and Development in Publicly Funded Laboratories in India, on Saturday, 23 Aug, 2014, at Bhaskara 3 Hall, IUCAA. This is the next talk in the InnoVidya/IUCAA SPARK lecture series.

About the Speaker – Dr. Sourav Pal

Dr Sourav Pal is the Director, of National Chemical Laboratory (NCL), Pune, and Director, Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute (CSMCRI), Bhavnagar. He holds an integrated Masters degree in Chemistry from Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, and a Ph.D. from Calcutta University. He was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Florida, Gainesville, USA and an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the University of Heidelberg, Germany . He was a visiting Professor at the University of Arizona, Tucson, USA and at the Institute for Molecular Sciences, Okazaki, Japan. Dr. Pal has been recognized by several awards and honours for his contribution to science and technology including the prestigious Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award in Chemical Sciences, the SASTRA-CNR Rao Award in Chemistry & Materials Science. He is a Fellow of all the three National Academies of Science in India and the Royal Society of Chemistry, UK. He has published over 215 papers in peer-reviewed international journals, guided over 25 Ph D thesis, delivered more than 100 lectures in important conferences and is serving on the editorial boards of international journals.

Abstract of the talk:

Publicly funded Research and development laboratories play a major role in promoting scientific research and development of technology in India. In this presentation, Dr Pal will relate his experiences of working in such laboratories and presently as Director, NCL. He will highlight the role of these institutions in leading scientific research. He will bring out the expectations that the Government has from such publicly funded institutions.

About the InnoVidya IUCAA Spark Program

The SPARK program is a series of events jointly conducted by InnoVidya and IUCAA. These are special events that <spark> imagination & curiosity of our young, build bonds between participants of different disciplines, catalyze interactivity & promote peer links

If you’re interested in the state of education in India, please subscribe to get updates by email

Event Details

The event is on Saturday, Aug 23, 2014, at 11am, at Bhaskara 3 Hall, IUCAA, University of Pune Campus.

Fees and Registration

This event is free and open for anybody to attend. Register here

End education’s licence raj -Rahul Bajaj & Sanjay Bhargava

Rahul Bajaj and Sanjay Bhargava (of Shiksha Mandal, Wardha, an educational trust run by the Bajajs) have a hard-hitting and well-written article in the Economic Times on how we need to End Education’s Licence Raj

You should read the full article – the only reason we have not copy-pasted the entire thing here is that it would be a copyright violation.

Instead, here are a few excerpts to whet your appetite:

The education system in our country is largely dysfunctional, from schools to universities. And this dysfunctionality is because of the system, not despite it. Our system is now designed to produce bad quality. Unless we face up to this fact we will continue to produce unemployables.


In most government aided institutions teacher jobs are sold. The going rate in Maharashtra for a college teacher exceeds Rs 20 lakh. What quality can be expected from such institutions and teachers?


In aided institutions, though teacher salaries are good, funds for running the institution are scarce. In Maharashtra this is 5% of the salary grant, barely covering even the electricity bills.


In Nagpur University, 250 colleges were functioning without teachers and yet students enrolled in them are being allowed to sit for exams. Even the much vaunted Pune University had over 70 such colleges.

But, here is the most important part:

All parts of the system are culpable. Governments running a licence raj and making rules that are supposed to improve quality but only increase costs and cause delays, managements who are not education but money minded, teachers who do not want to work or upgrade themselves, and students who are seeking degrees, not learning.

So, how do we fix this?

Essentially, the solutions in our view lie in, first, lifting the heavy hand of government from education. Decisions on starting and expanding an institution should be left to institutions, especially for institutions with a good track record.

Second, disband ‘electoral’ institutions in universities and empower ‘academic’ vice chancellors.

Third, give government aid to A grade institutions and stop giving it to non A grade institutions.

Fourth, move to a tenure track mode of selecting teachers, as in the US and Europe. At present, they are simply confirmed after a year. Given the bad quality of governance, this has the potential of turning away good teachers from teaching altogether.

Fifth, get the corporate sector involved in starting or supporting institutions from schools to universities. It is in their enlightened self-interest and they should use their CSR funds for this purpose. The important thing is to face reality and make real progress.

Read the full article

Education: We need a national strategy – by @MeetaSengupta

@Meeta Sengupta in LiveMint talks about the need for a national strategy for education. There are various problems at various levels with our education system. Here are her suggestions on what the government needs to do to improve things:

  • Unbox Learning: […] Build on existing programmes to push content via multiple channels, create open libraries, let village school buildings become community learning centres after school time with open access to solar-powered connected computers. Commission science and reading vans, convert bus stops into educational game corners. Invest in creativity and research attitudes from the very beginning. Let learning be open to all, not just those who wear uniforms.
  • Unbind the education sector from these regulatory constraints, allow the private sector to participate and compete, and take on the role of good governance via agencies to ensure relentless focus on improving quality.
  • Build synergies between ministries. Let the digital literacy mission be integrated with the teachers’ mission. Vocational training and employability are inextricably linked with the labour ministry. Untangle the threads that do not allow student finance to flow freely, whether as loans, scholarships or vouchers.
  • The Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto and speeches spoke of maximum governance, minimum government. This is what education needs. Let the government provide oversight, not necessarily run operations

Read the full article where she goes into much more detail.

India’s higher education needs to be saved from the rule of babus?

Business Standard has an Opinion Column by Devesh Kapur arguing that India’s higher education needs to be saved from the rule of babus?. He basically compares India with China and points out that China has very quickly become a major contributor to Science and Technology in the past few years, and India is falling behind.

This rise of China is not just about quantity: they are also improving their quality and capabilities:

Make no mistake: if a foreign institution wants to establish itself in China, it has to have a meaningful collaboration with a Chinese institution that can learn, copy and improve over time, just as Chinese businesses have done. But this self-confidence is lacking in India. If India’s political elites have been apprehensive of globalisation, the country’s intellectuals have been, for the most part, hostile; they have viewed themselves as valiant defenders of the nation against marauding foreigners. Patriotism is the best cover for self-interest.

How does India fare in comparison?

Not only is meritocracy a much more contested terrain in India, but the idea that there should be clear links between academic productivity, salaries and tenure, as in China, would meet fierce resistance from a vocal interest group, namely faculty. The University Grants Commission (UGC) rules, that faculty members in public institutions should automatically get promotions based on the length of service and have a common salary structure linked to civil service salaries set by an anachronistic authority called the Pay Commission, have reduced faculty to the status of babus. It is not surprising that so much of higher education in India – both overall regulation and the internal governance of universities – is what Pankaj Chandra, former director of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Bangalore, termed “babudom” – a regime of, for and by babus.

He goes on to lament that a very few babus in our government control the leadership positions in all our top institutions, and this can only lead to bad things:

Why should the HRD ministry have a role in the selection of an IIT or IIM director, or in the appointment of the vice-chancellor of a central university? The key stakeholders are the campus community (faculty, students and staff), alumni, and, yes, the national government. At the same time, an alumnus of an IIT has a far greater emotional stake in the success and future of his alma mater than a dozen bureaucrats in the HRD ministry or the selection panels they appoint.

Read the full article

Five steps to take India’s education system from mediocre to world class

The Times of India has published an open letter from Ashish Dhawan, Anu Aga, and Amit Chandra to HRD Minister, Smriti Irani, giving her advice on Five steps to take India’s education system from mediocre to world class.

Here are the main points made by the letter:


our education system currently suffers from an apparent ‘Licence Raj’ that restricts entry and operation of private players. Even policies such as RTE neglect that private schools are a large part of the education ecosystem (already 40% of school students and 60% of college students are enrolled in private institutions). These norms have led to the shutdown of a large number of affordable private schools that serve low-income students. The government must deregulate school education and treat government and private schools as equal partners in solving India’s education crisis.


it is important not only to invest more in education but to do so more strategically. Central government should invest more resources in teacher education and development, principal training, ICT in education and assessments.


improve quality standards through nationwide assessments. Assessments need to be at the core of any planning exercise for improving India’s education system.


equip school principals to become efficient school leaders. Great leaders make great institutions, in every sphere. In schools principals are the highest point of leverage, yet their role is often restricted to administrative functions. There is a need to reimagine the role of the principal — as an instructional leader, rather than an administrator.


improve teacher quality for better learning outcomes. It is unfortunate that teaching today does not attract the best talent. We need public awareness campaigns in India that are able to effectively project teaching as a rewarding and meaningful profession.

The full article has much more detail.

How @BillGates caused a major education policy shift in the US: common standards

The Washington Post has a long article on how Bill Gates pulled off one of the swiftest shifts in US education policy – the common core revolution which asks for common standards of education across the various states and schools in the US.

Apparently, the problem they have is the opposite of the problem India has. Our education system is sluggish because of too much centralized control; their problem is the complete lack of centralized standards:

Coleman and Wilhoit told the Gateses that academic standards varied so wildly between states that high school diplomas had lost all meaning, that as many as 40 percent of college freshmen needed remedial classes and that U.S. students were falling behind their foreign competitors.

                      The pair also argued that a fragmented education system stifled innovation because textbook publishers and software developers were catering to a large number of small markets instead of exploring breakthrough products. That seemed to resonate with the man who led the creation of the world’s dominant computer operating system.

The biggest problem in any such major shift in education policy is that it is usually a highly politicized issue with lots of stakeholders all pulling in different directions, and hence any substantial change is almost impossible to push through the mess. That’s where Bill Gates, and the Gates Foundation comes in:

The Gates Foundation spread money across the political spectrum, to entities including the big teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, and business organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — groups that have clashed in the past but became vocal backers of the standards.

                      Money flowed to policy groups on the right and left, funding research by scholars of varying political persuasions who promoted the idea of common standards. Liberals at the Center for American Progress and conservatives affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council who routinely disagree on nearly every issue accepted Gates money and found common ground on the Common Core.

What exactly is the common core? Here is an example:

The math standards require students to learn multiple ways to solve problems and explain how they got their answers, while the English standards emphasize nonfiction and expect students to use evidence to back up oral and written arguments. The standards are not a curriculum but skills that students should acquire at each grade. How they are taught and materials used are decisions left to states and school districts.

Read the full article

India needs and education strategy by EduCable : Meeta Sengupta’s blog-The Times Of India

As we get ready for a new government, Meeta Sengupta has an interesting article where she acknowledges the achievements of our Education Policy so far, and charts out the way ahead

Here are some excerpts:

First, it would be graceful to acknowledge what went well, especially in the Education sector. Much was achieved including investments in infrastructure, near universal enrolment at the primary level, acknowledgement of the private sector contribution, the groundwork for the entry of foreign universities to India, the almost universal acceptance of the RTE Act (flawed as it is) and of course the slow but steady entry of technology in education.

and, as for the path forward:

The path forward is known and the structural gaps are identified. There can be nothing better to inherit for a team that knows that actions often speak larger than words. For example – it is acknowledged that Indian universities need to focus on research and international engagement to ride up the global rankings. (I of course advocate a diversified model for post secondary education that does not require all universities to fight for a spot on the same greasy pole). It is also clear that multiple accreditation bodies need to be set up with the blessings of the sector skills councils that represent the employer’s requirements  – these are to guide the content and certification of competencies to fill the skills gap. At the primary school level we know that qualified teacher gaps are a national emergency – this is already a national mission and must be executed well.

Read the full article

“Free Indian Science from Bureaucracy” – Mathai Joseph & Andrew Robinson

Nature has an interesting article by Mathai Joseph and Andrew Robinson who argue that Indian Science is being stifled by government bureaucracy and needs to be freed.

First, the government claims to care about science, but is not willing to invest in it:

Sadly, science and its administration, once seen as central to Indian development, are not currently on the agenda, despite some trenchant critiques from scientists and science policy-makers. Repeated government promises to increase the expenditure on research and development (R&D) to 2% of India’s gross domestic product have not been kept. R&D spend remains at about 0.9% of GDP — compared with 1.12% in Russia3 (down from 1.25% in 2009), 1.25% in Brazil and 1.84% in China2 (see ‘Brick benchmarking’).

And whatever science that does happen in India is limited by bureaucratic rules:

The basic problem is that Indian science has for too long been hamstrung by a bureaucratic mentality that values administrative power over scientific achievement. And, to preserve local control, research is still done mostly by small teams working in isolation rather than through collaboration — a key generator of impact

And the results of this bureaucracy are clear enough:

Today, although India ranks tenth in the world for output of scientific papers, it ranks 166th for average citations per paper (see Almost 20% of patents filed at the World Intellectual Property Organization in 2010 were from China, with just 1.9% from India (below Russia’s 2.1% but above Brazil’s 1.1%)

In other words, our scientific community is reacting as happens in any situation involving inflexible bureaucratic rules – by following the letter of the policy, but not the spirit.

Why is our scientific output so bad? The authors specify three important reasons:

First, scientists are promoted on the basis of years of service, rather than achievement, and once at the top they stay until retirement age; long after, in some cases. Even at the prestigious Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai, which is less rule-bound than many other institutions, research groups are almost invariably headed by those who have been there the longest.


Second, although research in the leading institutions is well funded — with more money available than requested in credible grant applications, a striking contrast to the situation in many nations — the funding is subject to unsuitable restrictions applicable to the entire government bureaucracy. These include limited foreign travel and no travel support for research students, ruling out regular participation in leading conferences and research gatherings.

and finally:

Third, the movement of researchers from one institution to another is discouraged, because administrators prefer senior positions to be filled by internal promotion rather than lateral hiring.

Is there a solution?

More than two decades ago, the threat of imminent national bankruptcy forced India’s government to liberate its economy from the notorious ‘licence–permit raj’, which had strait-jacketed commerce and industry since 1947. What will it take in 2014 to reinvigorate India’s decrepit scientific empires, trapped for decades in a similarly rigid bureaucracy?

Instead of just complaining, the authors give 4 specific suggestions on what can be done:

The first step towards reinvigorating Indian science must be to create an empowered funding agency, staffed by working scientists, some of whom could be non-resident Indians


A second step must be to ensure planned rotation of institutional roles and responsibilities.


Third, the formation of trans-institutional groups that can undertake coordinated work in a few well-chosen areas should be encouraged at the funding stage.

and finally:

Fourth, how to spend that 2% of GDP when it finally materializes? Leading institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and many others are already well provided for, by any standards8. New research money should be spent on regenerating the scores of poorly provided university laboratories that lack the funds to procure and maintain modern scientific equipment; they currently receive only around 10% of the R&D budget but are expected to produce most of the country’s PhD

Read the full article – it has far more detail.

“@Seema10Singh: Why The New IISc Director Has His Work Cut Out For Him

Anurag Kumar of IISc has just been appointed the new director of IISc.

Seema Singh has an interesting article in which she lists the challenges that will face him

IISc needs to change:

What worked for IISc for the last 100 years will not carry it through even in the next quarter century, let alone the next 100 years. And while rankings are a function of many things – number of PhDs, faculty, budget, etc. – and not really reflective of the true value of the institution, the 2014 Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings shows that IISc has slipped in ranks, from 130 to below 200.

Seema argues that IISc needs to start focusing on applied research – research that results in new products.

In the past when I raised the issue of quality research resulting in products, Balaram told me I was “soft” on the industry (and hard on the academics) in not asking them to invest more in R&D. He is right to the extent that journalists cannot question industry’s poor investment in R&D, it’s their money and if they don’t see merit in R&D, their short-sightedness will come to haunt them. But institutions like IISc do research with public funds. Frankly, it’s not about value for public money, it’s about regard for public need. India needs scientists and engineers working on Indian soil to solve its problems, particularly in game-changing fields like energy, healthcare, water, and so on.

IISc scientists focus far too much on getting papers published. This needs to change:

Career scientists and engineers in research institutions like IISc have thrived mostly by publishing papers. That calls for a change. Peer review is ailing and collapsing under its own weight.


The head of an Indian arm of a large publishing house tells me how “vanity publishing” has proliferated in India as the entire reward system is based on paper publication.

What should the new director do?

The new director must pick a bunch of faculty and their research groups, seek bold ideas, and back them to the hilt. If India waits for agencies like DARPA or ARPA in the US, another century will go by. The much-celebrated role of private finance (or venture capital) role in innovation and economic development is debunked by economist Mariana Mazzucato in her 2013 book The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs Private Myth, clearly establishing the solid role that government labs, engaging in high-risk research, have played in the global economic boom of past decades.
This means many will have to get out of their comfort zones, stop playing safe and do risky research. Only a director can ensure such research reaches a critical mass in a short span of time.

And increase collaboration with industry:

At any given point, there are more than 150 companies working with IISc researchers. But most of those are can be categorised as projects, hardly any would qualify as big, ambitious goals.

The full article has a lot more interesting stuff to say. You should read it.

Private schools in rural India provide similar education at much lower cost than govt schools

Karthik Muralidharan and others have an interesting research paper on the differences between private and public (i.e. government run) schools in rural India, where they discover, over the course of a large, 4-year, controlled study they discover that private schools comparable (actually, slightly better) education, but at costs much lower than the government schools.

This was the setup (in Andhra Pradesh):

The AP School Choice Project provided children who were enrolled in free public primary schools with a voucher that allowed them to attend a private school of their choice.

And here are the main finding:

We find that the main operating difference between private and public schools in India is that private schools pay substantially lower teacher salaries (less than a sixth of that paid to public school teachers), and hire teachers who are younger, less educated, and much less likely to have professional teaching credentials. However, they hire more teachers and have smaller class sizes and less multi-grade teaching than public schools. Using official data as well as data collected from direct observations conducted during unannounced visits to schools, we find that private schools have a longer school day, a longer school year, lower teacher absence, higher teaching activity, and better school hygiene. We find no significant change in household spending or in time spent doing homework among voucher-winning students, suggesting that the impact of the program (if any) is most likely to be due to changes in school as opposed to household factors

So, private schools have cheaper teachers, but spend more time teaching. What about the performance of the students?

However, in spite of the superior performance of the private schools on most measures of school processes, we find at the end of two and four years of the school choice program that lottery winners do no better than lottery losers on tests of Telugu (native language of AP) and Math. Our data from school time tables suggest that a likely explanation for these results is that private schools spend significantly less instructional time on Telugu and Math, and instead spend more time on English, Science, Social Studies, and Hindi. We conduct tests in these subjects at the end of four years of the program and find positive (but insignificant) effects of winning the voucher on test scores in English, Science, and Social Studies (of around 0.1ı each), and positive (and highly significant) effects on test scores in Hindi (of 0.5ı). Averaging across all subjects, we find that students who won a voucher scored 0.13ı higher, and students who attend private schools score 0.23ı higher.

What does all this mean? Here is the bottom line – private schools provide slightly better education at much lower prices:

the combination of test score results and school time table data already show that private schools are more productive than public schools because they are able to achieve similar Telugu and Math test scores for the lottery winners with substantially less instructional time, and use the additional time to improve outcomes on other subjects – especially Hindi. But the cost-effectiveness comparison is rendered stark by the fact that the annual cost per student in the government- school system is over three times the mean cost per student in the private schools in our sample. Thus, students who win a lottery to attend private schools do as well on some subjects and better on others even though the private schools spend substantially lower amounts per student

Check out this short article by the author where he asks this question:

Since private schools achieved equal or better outcomes at one-third the cost, the fundamental question that needs to be asked is “How much better could private management do if they had three times their current level of per-child spending?” Thus, in addition to focusing on improving the effectiveness of government schools at the current level of spending, the results suggest that policymakers should be open to experimenting with models of education provision with public funding (to ensure universal access) and private provision (for better school management).


Overall, policy discussions need to move away from debates of ‘public’ versus ‘private’ provision of education, which are (a) too simplistic because averages hide enormous variation within both public and private schools, and (b) not very useful because both systems are unlikely in their current form to deliver significant improvements in outcomes. Rather, the focus should be on the design of better education ‘systems’ that aim to deliver superior outcomes by leveraging the strengths of both the public and the private sector while mitigating the weaknesses of the other. Clause 12 of the RTE provides the ideal context in which to have this discussion of education systems.

Read the full paper, or this short article by the author where he asks this question:

Source: Marginal Revolution Blog