Monday, May 23, 2016

Innovations In The Indian Context

Last week, my husband related a conversation he had over dinner with some colleagues about why India does not contribute to important or life changing innovations.  This is an oft discussed subject, in the country (with people shaking their heads sadly) and outside the country (largely by non resident Indians shaking their heads vehemently and giving armchair advice).  As it's always hard to get a word in edgeways, I provide below my own armchair views!

It's a well known fact that the Indian system does not engender or promote innovation.  Indians (I think) always function with one eye on the clock.  Not in terms of punctuality (the lack of which they are infamous for) but the clock begins ticking the moment one is born.  Everyone is in a rush to achieve everything as fast as possible.  My son is just two now and almost everyone I meet asks when I will admit him to school.  My views are, "Not until he benefits in some fashion from going there and not until he is comfortable on his own," but I just say, "There's no hurry.  He's learning many things at home."  When I look up details of the nursery schools, I often find a mish-mash of information.  "Montessori methods" are mixed with "Latest computer aids", "Strong group interaction" and "Contemporary teaching methods".  A child of the age 2-3 needs just to be left to discover and indulge his curiosity on his own.  Slightly older children might do this in groups or in led classes but core learning is always self driven.  The emphasis should be to enable the child's inner need to discover, understand and learn rather than to impose a large number of adult-created systems and flood him/her with information.  I think this is where the problem begins and it snowballs as children grow into adults.

From primary school onwards, syllabi are set often by political bodies rather than educationists or experts in a particular subject.  Schools seem anxious to produce results rather than help children grow and deal with their changing intellectual and physical needs.  College is often unfortunately the time when it all becomes too much and children lose interest in their work (I have seen a lot of student burn-outs at this stage.  They are still very successful but that inner spark that drives them towards something that they particularly enjoy doing seems absent).  Many work on, ticking off all the boxes for their CVs, and the moment one box is ticked, they are done with it forever.

After college, what?  The price of failure in India is very high.  There are no back up systems in place, no multiple options.  The industry hirings are competitive and everyone seems to be looking for very similar skill sets.  If one were to start a company or do something new on one's own and fail, it would be very hard to find anything else to do or to earn a living.  Not exactly a situation that encourages innovation.

At a more abstract level (but equally important), there are urgent demands made on one's time right from the time the day begins.  "Will the milk come?  Will the newspaper arrive on time?  Will the maids show up (punctually or at all)?  Will there be uninterrupted power and water?  How bad will the commute be today?"  By the time one has dealt with all this, a certain amount of energy is depleted and one's mind does not immediately turn to thoughts of innovation.

Having said this, I don't think there is a dearth of innovation in the country.  My experience with recording oral history in the the areas of science and engineering brought me in touch with highly creative, successful people, and I know of many more personally and through the media.  It's just that much of the innovation has been in response to needs of the Indian society and though it has touched many people here, it has not made a global impact.  This is especially evident in the period immediately following Independence.  Several people had to learn new things - often go abroad for training, return, adapt those to the Indian setup, innovate to grow and develop further.  Many of the people worked in a spirit of nationalism, without fuss, noise or publicity.  Most of these stories go untold for good news is no news and we are not overly interested in archiving and documenting.

There are often no fairy tale endings.  Indian entrepreneurs face tremendous struggles, the emergence of venture capitalists has helped but not as much as one would have hoped.  It is difficult to sort out the transparent from the opaque in India, this makes it hard for people to decide which start ups to fund.  On the other hand, I know of several good ideas which have gone unfunded because the venture capitalists declare that they are all too risky and too much time will be spent in trying to overcome the challenges along the way.

Research goes on in academia, however, it is not very closely linked to industry (except in some very limited areas).  It is considerably harder to publish in good journals from India than if the same work were done in the U.S.  If one has a breakthrough or one disproves an existing theory, there are often cliques which actively suppress the information.  Often editors of journals reply saying the work is not relevant to their journal or that they just don't believe the work.  "Please repeat it all and do some more," they say, knowing that the process will take a year or more.  So, the dice is loaded to begin with.

But when we entered the game, we knew perhaps not all, but many of the rules.  I think we need to accept that there are reasons why it is not easy to make as many bold, exciting and world changing innovations as in the west (particularly in the U.S. which remains a leader in innovation), but that is not reason enough not to try.  Smoothly functioning systems (and mentors) help but they are not a requirement.  Innovation cannot come about unless certain fundamental values are respected, unless creativity and independent thought are encouraged and unless people stop trying to take the easy or familiar way out.

Just as an illustration (not a point of comparison), I mention here Stanford University.  The website states that they are celebrating 125 years of impact in people's lives and around the world.  That they are dedicated to finding solutions to big challenges.  Here, we see old universities languish and new ones set up based on political whims.  New undergraduate programmes are started under tremendous pressure to perform without infrastructure or faculty.  Established universities begin new programmes sometimes for not very good reasons.  A premier graduate school began an undergraduate programme to improve their ranking and gleefully reported after some years that the mission was accomplished.  I don't know how motivating all this can be to a student.

Good leadership is often not evident in Indian graduate schools.  I think things would be greatly improved if councils and directors were elected rather than chosen by a select few.  Again, just as an illustration, John Hennessey, who is now stepping down as the president of Stanford, has long been acknowledged as one of the most dynamic presidents of the university, and a very successful fund raiser.  Apparently, the budget more than doubled since he stepped in and he raised $13 billion (from 2000 to date) despite the financial downturn.  Cutting edge and interdisciplinary research was encouraged (and the necessary infrastructure provided).  The arts were nurtured and generously and thoughtfully funded.  Hennessey had active dialogues and a strong interaction with the government.  Apart from all this, what warmed me the most was reading an article in Stanford (the University newsletter) where he was quoted as follows -

"I love going to the freshman dorms," he says.  "I love seeing the students in all kinds of different settings.  And the same with the alumni....  One of the biggest surprises for me (after becoming president) was how much alumni love this place and are loyal to it."

It would be heartening to see someone attempting these things in Indian universities in present times, even if they didn't succeed.  I don't know any such person (that is not say that they don't exist!).  If we want something more from our young, working population, we need to give them something more when they are in the process of growing and finding themselves.

Nitash Balsara (whom I happen to know), a professor at Berkeley, visited here in 2014, as a Platinum Jubilee fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences.  This fellowship requires the person to visit a range of teaching and research institutes in the country, to lecture and interact with the students.  He divided the institutes into two groups - A (slightly less known centres with less research ) and B (larger, more research oriented centres).  After his lectures, when I met him, he said that the most interesting questions invariably came from the group A colleges.  His report was thought provoking and I include some excerpts of it (the complete report is available on the website of the Indian Academy of Sciences, ).

"I begin with students as they are, without doubt, the most important part of any university. On average, the students at Group A institutions were much more engaged with the lecture than that those at Group B institutions. They appeared more interested in the topic, more interested in talking to me after the lecture, and they asked more questions. Some of the most thoughtful questions came from students at Group A institutions...

...When I asked the professors about undergraduate students I detected a uniform difference in their response. Professors at Group A institutions were upbeat. NIT Calicut was delighted to have students from all across India, selected through the nationally held JEE. Kunal, the student who spent a few hours with me (he took me for a visit to a temple near Surathkal but what I appreciated most were discussions concerning his work on enzymatic reactions) came from Jamshedpur. I think that diversity of backgrounds of both students and faculty is important for all educational institutions. While many state colleges in the US like the University of California, Berkeley, where I work, have a local flavour, the diversity is what defines them. This increase in diversity in what were previously regional colleges is a new trend that must have been extremely difficult to nucleate. All of the professors I talked to at the IITs were less than upbeat about undergraduate students. They told me that a large fraction of the students were only interested in the degree. High CPIs were desirable but only because they led to high-paying jobs in the banking industry or entry into IIMs. The reported fraction of uninterested students ranged from 80 to 95%! Professor Kunzru of IIT K, my undergraduate teacher who I respect deeply, told me that he just finished teaching his class and that not a single student asked a single question all semester long. While the Group B institutions were generally healthy, this might be something worth focusing on for improving their health. I suspect that in the long run, this will negatively impact the quality of education. To add fuel to the fire, Professors at Group B institutions also indicated that students are glued to their cell phones. Professor Rajiv Shekhar of IIT K told me of inviting two students from his class of 30 for a meeting in his office. The two students did not even know that they were in the same class!

...Most of the research-active professors in the Group B institutions were truly stellar. They are working incredibly hard to set-up amazing facilities...
I marvelled at the drive of the research-active professors in Group A institutions...

The lack of involvement of the Indian industry in academics was a concern. While the research activity in these institutes may be far removed from the immediate needs of this cost conscious industry, captains of Indian industry, many of whom were educated at the institutions listed above, might consider investing in the future of their alma mater. Surely there is some cost associated with ensuring that their employees are being trained by faculty aware of developments that are of current global interest (e.g. my project on biofuels which funds two post-docs, three PhD students, and 1 undergraduate is funded by the petrochemical giant, BP)...

India is clearly on the move. Optimism is in the air. There is something astir in all of the institutions I visited. Like all systems, they are not perfect and challenges remain.  Overall, it was an amazing to witness the new horizons emerging in all of the institutions."

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