Tuesday, November 10, 2009

CSIR, bitten by the one it fed

Suppose you are heading the country's largest and most important scientific organisation. You know that, despite some very bright spots, it has been getting creaky and bureaucratic over several decades. Being a dynamic and go-getting scientist, you have several ideas on what is to be done. One of the things you want to do is to set up a new department aimed at streamlining the process of commercialising new technologies, and establishing better links with industry. Would you hire this guy? Would you offer him a job the very first time you met him?

The current director-general of the CSIR apparently did. And there, in my opinion, started the trouble that has since then accounted for much column-space and blog-energy. Good reviews, and links, are on Abi's blog: here and here (some of the comments are interesting too).

V A Shiva, also called Shiva Ayyadurai, seems to have had an interesting career. He is not a career scientist, but has bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering and computer science, visual studies and theoretical mechanics from MIT; and recently, apparently, he earned a Ph.D. in systems biology from the same institution. In between, he has mainly been in what we like to call the IT sector, primarily running an e-mail provider, EchoMail. Read his biography for more.

The DG of CSIR, Prof S K Brahmachari, is a smarter man than me, and no doubt a better and more experienced judge of others' CVs and abilities. It appeared to me that Shiva Ayyadurai has few notable academic achievements, and his primary commercial undertaking, EchoMail, is not exactly a household name. He seems prone to bombast: for example, he claims to have created "one of the world's first e-mail systems" in 1979, but e-mail has been around since the 1960s. Nevertheless, a thorough interview and review of the man's abilities and accomplishments may have led Prof Brahmachari to conclude that he was the right person to head his pet project, CSIR-Tech. But was that done, or was it an instantaneous decision, as Shiva suggests?

Having been hired, at a generous salary, he was apparently asked to produce a report on the functioning of the CSIR and future improvements. This he did, and that is when all hell broke loose, and the CSIR terminated his appointment (the CSIR claims that he was not employed in a permanent position, only hired on contract, and there are also claims that he was asking for too much money). Shiva went ballistic, complaining to everyone in the media who would listen that he was being victimised for his genuine and well-meaning criticisms of the organisation. He claims also to have written to the Prime Minister. What the PM thinks of it, we don't know.

So what did he say? The Deccan Herald excerpts the report here. I have seen the full report but do not think it is worth "leaking": it seems hastily put together, is unprofessional and often personal in tone, identifies obvious problems that I'm sure are well known to all CSIR scientists, and prescribes remedies that would be within the province of a first-year MBA student. Nevertheless, do read the DH link for its entertainment value, if you like. As Abi asks, if this is Shiva's opinion of the man who hired him, why does he want to keep the job, and having aired such an opinion, why should he expect to keep the job?

As some commenters on Abi's blog suggest, maybe he was already told not to expect to be hired in a permanent position, and his report was his way of venting his grievance at the CSIR DG. Which makes it even more unprofessional. Regardless of the truth or otherwise in his observations, I don't think the report will now be taken seriously, nor should it be.

But that shouldn't detract from two key issues. First, exactly what sort of position was Shiva hired under in the first place, why, and what was his mandate? Second, the need to reform and streamline CSIR remains: what does the DG plan to do in this regard? I suspect the CSIR DG made a mistake (caused by over-eagerness to "get things done") in hiring V A Shiva, and knows it; he should now make amends -- first, by coming clean on exactly what happened; and second, by making sure the need for reforming and modernising CSIR is not sidetracked.


Rahul Basu said...

I would have thought that one look at this guy's web page would be enough to keep him at arm's length. Bombast is hardly the word. But maybe the CSIR DG had other info on which to base his decision to hire him.

Anonymous said...

I am surprised CSIR chose to hire bombastic candidate like this one to launch its technology commercialization programme. NCL-Pune has done well in this area, and the DG-CSIR could have called on the NCL Director to lead the effort. OR the DG could have talked to IP studies centre at IIT-KGP which is planning to launch a law school.

Anonymous said...

I do not know how many of you who posted views here ever interacted with current DG Dr. Samir Bhramchari in person. I do not know Dr. Ayyadurai therefore I will refrain to comment on his credentials. But Dr. Bhramchari is a politician and manipulator that is why he got his current job. During one of my personal meetings with him he was continuously scratching himself like a monkey, sticking his finger in his nose several times every minute and clearing his cough filled throat and swallowing cough every minute. Another time I saw him in front of a foreign delegation in his office and he was behaving the same way. Everybody in that delegation was irritated when DG was nose picking in front of everybody. This DG does not know how to behave in public. A third grade politician from Bihar knows better. If you analyze his recent appointments for the post of directors in various CSIR labs, you will realize that current DG is very shrewd politician. The excuse "financial mismatch" is bullshit.
But that is the norm in any Govt of India organization.
Jai Hind.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

jbeck: yes. I hope someone asks such questions.

anonymous: I have met the CSIR DG, twice (the first was before he became DG). I did not observe the personal habits you mention and I don't see what the relevance of it is. I did have issues with the way he conducted the meetings (the second one in particular), and I raised them both in person (to the extent I could) and in an e-mail later, that was copied to him, and sent with my real name from my institutional address. I suggest, if you have genuine complaints, you do the same. I notice you have posted the exact same comment on Abi's blog. Grow up. Really.

Anonymous said...

Since he CSIR-Tech seems to be more of networking with industry and lab mgmt streamlining/advisory position I think it would be a waste of time to vet the person being hired as one would hire for a scientific position. Maybe the contract should have said that all advisory reports are confidential and have to be vetted by the DG before being leaked to the press.

Anonymous said...

Btw why not both sides release the language of the contract to the press to settle the controversy of why he was hired, salary, termination rules etc..

Anonymous said...

Technology commercialization in universities is a high profile business in the US, because it generates a significant cash flow without much investment. It works very well in the US for certain reasons.
In the US,
There's a lot of applied research not only in the engineering departments, but also in the science departments, even physical sciences. The scope of research activities is broad and tends to, as a rule, become confined to deep niches, with no two universities engaging in the same area at a time.
Patenting and licensing is an accepted way of doing business.
Technology intensive Fortune N00 corporations extensively license IP from each other, underwrite development at each other's labs, license from universities, and sponsor research at universities.
There is also a vibrant startup culture with every university of consequence launching startups.
Tech commercialization departments at unviersities not only make a good sum of money but also offer the best return of investment for the unviersity, and of course there is always the possibility of a blockbuster - like Columbia University's gene insertion method, or Dartmouth's biomass breakdown process (earned in the range of $0.5 to 1 billion). The Phys.Ed. and med school at U.Florida formulated Gatorade (Gators is the U of Fl. athletic team name and allogator is the mascot), licensed it to Quaker and made millions for years. But Indiana University dental school simply ran a sponsored research program underwritten by P&G to develop a fluoride toothpaste, earning little, giving up all rights to license and royalties.

In Europe the scene is a little different as corporations are more integrated, or rely upon niche technology specialists as in Germany, with unviersities playing none of the role they do in the US. Cambridge U has tried to make a start and has even set up a joint center of sorts at MIT. But academics have criticised these moves for their being an inevitable response to declining funding for basic research in the UK. There is also a thriving business in development brokering, with intermediaries making deals between innovation seekers and innovation providers. There are several small Indian companies already working with US and European corporations and aquite a few Chinese universities have gotten into the act as well. US corporations have gotten into the act early on and set up large research centers in India to tap into the expertise avaliable. The lack of a startup and licensing culture in India has seen scientists and engineers gravitate to these coroporate R&D centres rather than strike out on their own.

Of course all research isn't the same, and everywhere basic experimental research is funded almost entirely by the government. The private sector is not going to build a particle accelerator in Texas. Even in the life sciences in case we imagine that the human genome project has been funded privately, we musn't forget that this attracted private investment because of its immediate commercial potential. Biology is vast and areas like evolution, paleobotany etc., continue to struggle for funds. Why, recently, U of Florida decided to wind up its department of geological sciences, and after much petitioning the decision was stalled.

Coming back to India, culture can't be created overnight, and in case we forget we already have a "culture". Recognizing it and working within it is the first step in changing it.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

jbeck - sorry for belated reply, but your last paragraph is a very insightful one. We have a existing culture, which, like any existing culture, is resistant to change. The current thinking seems to be to essentially abandon the "old" universities and set up new ones (and also new "institutions" like the IISERs, that fall short of being universities). It is too early to say how that will work -- but I would say that if one does not recognise the existing culture in the "old" places, it will get into the new places too. Part of it is generated by the employment rules and conditions which were created for (and by) government bureaucrats, not scientists and scholars.

Anonymous said...

A few points:

1. What should be the right credentials/experience for a person heading CSIR-Tech (what should be the job description): A person with a scientific background at highest level, solid understanding of technology licensing, knowledge on legal framework, basic understanding of international patent law and solid understanding of running a scientific/technology start-up: From all these counts, Ayyadurai has the right credentials (or so it appears from his website)

2. It's not pertinent to discuss how good of a scientist Ayyadurai is/was or how many citations his publications have received, why? because this is not relevant for the job that he was supposedly hired for. His job was NOT to be a practicing scientist in a CSIR lab BUT to understand hidden treasures in CSIR labs and help commercialise those.

3. I wonder if its possible to get hold of the whole report by filing a request under government's Right To Information Act (I am not even sure whether RTI act applies to internal government reports before they are finalized/approved). This would help clarify a lot of comments & counter-comments.

4. No mater how much of a problem CSIR or its current leadership has, as its supposedly been portrayed by the report, Ayyadurai's style of functioning was not right. You can't and shouldn't try to impose US style of management in India. This doesn't necessarily mean that there is no folly in our system but we should rectify the system to be better and more efficient within our own framework rather than copying others blindly. Ayyadurai should have had a candid talk with the DG in a one-to-one setting (we don't know whether he did) in stead of making the report public to all of CSIR's scientists (which he did). Its not what Ayyadurai said in the report but how he said it.

5. We, Indians, are very touchy about anyone and everyone who is critical about us/our style of functioning/our system. A mature nation/system takes things in stride rather than being reactionary. Hence, let's examine what we could all do to better our own surrounding rather than lamenting on it.

Looking at the brighter side, one can only hope that something good comes out of it at the end.

Anonymous said...

I wonder, why Ph.D is a must for SC-EI to Sc-E2, where as it is not a must for F to G and E2 to F.
why such parity?