Saturday, April 18, 2015

Gender and Affirmative Action Policies in India

S. Rukmini in has an interesting report in The Hindu -- ‘Quotas for education helped SCs, but boys alone reaped the benefit’ -- summarizing the results from a recent study.

The broad conclusion is in line with another study from 2008: Affirmative Action in Education: Evidence from Engineering College Admissions in India (pdf) summarized in a Mint op-ed by the authors. Key quote: "... we find that the affirmative action policy appears to hurt female applicants, given that a higher percentage of those let in through affirmative action are males."

Selecting Higher Ed Leaders

Two stories about recent director-level appointments.

Check out a pretty nice piece in The Telegraph by Basant Kumar Mohanty -- A 10-minute IIT puzzle -- How to pick directors. Mohanty starts with this post from Dheeraj Sanghi's blog, and adds to it with some original reporting on the process used recently for selecting IIT directors at Ropar, Bhubaneswar, and Patna.

[Aside: Buried deep inside, we get this: "Late tonight, it was learnt that Prof. R.V. Raja Kumar of IIT Kharagpur had been appointed director of IIT Bhubaneswar and Prof. Pushpak Bhattacharyya of IIT Bombay that of IIT Patna. Prof. Sarit Kumar Das of IIT Madras will be the director of IIT Ropar."]

* * *

Thanks to R. Ramachandran's Frontline report with a terrific headline (Disappointing a Director), we now have clearer picture of the botched process of selecting the next TIFR director. The way he tells it, almost all the blame is with the Department of Atomic Energy, whose job it was to ensure that all the formal procedures were followed.

You should read Ramachandran's report just for spicy insider stories from the selection process. Let me limit myself here to some of the key points from his report:

  1. The sticking point is about the new norm (that an open advertisement should be the starting point for the search for a new director) which all institutions are expected to follow. The PMO appears to have been (mis)led by a DAE official's adverse comment about the lack of an open advertisement; it turns out that TIFR's own bylaws do not require one.

  2. The search committee followed the same process (i.e., one which did not use an open advertisement) as the previous search committees did.

  3. After the search committee chose Prof. Trivedi, the DAE sat on the file for several months before it was sent to the PMO.

  4. Also, TIFR should also have waited for the final go-ahead from the PMO before asking Prof. Trivedi to take over. Instead, they jumped the gun.

  5. PMO's rejection of Prof. Trivedi's appointment came well after he had taken over, causing much embarrassment all around.

  6. While the PMO could still have accepted the outcome (of the seemingly flawed search process), it is certainly well within its right to say no to the appointment. This, by itself, would not constitute violation of institutional autonomy.

  7. Apparently, the government might mandate that the constitution of the search committee itself be approved by the government (Ramachandran's report is not clear on this point). If this step becomes operational, it would certainly undermine autonomy.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Links: Women in Science Edition

  1. Toni Schmader, Jessica Whitehead, and Vicki H. Wysocki: A Linguistic Comparison of Letters of Recommendation for Male and Female Chemistry and Biochemistry Job Applicants.

    Letters of recommendation are central to the hiring process. However, gender stereotypes could bias how recommenders describe female compared to male applicants. In the current study, text analysis software was used to examine 886 letters of recommendation written on behalf of 235 male and 42 female applicants for either a chemistry or biochemistry faculty position at a large U.S. research university. Results revealed more similarities than differences in letters written for male and female candidates. However, recommenders used significantly more standout adjectives to describe male as compared to female candidates. Letters containing more standout words also included more ability words and fewer grindstone words. Research is needed to explore how differences in language use affect perceivers’ evaluations of female candidates.

  2. Joan C. Williams in HBR: The 5 Biases Pushing Women Out of STEM.

  3. Jessica Collett at Scatterplot: Feeling Like a Fraud? You Are Not Alone. A summary of her recent research on the impostor syndrome.

  4. Noah Smith in Bloomberg: Bigotry Is Expensive.

    So if a society bases its decisions of who gets which job on race and gender, it’s going to be sacrificing efficiency. If women aren’t allowed to be doctors, the talent pool for doctors will be diluted, and wages will be pushed up too high, choking off output. This would be true even in a bizarro world where every man was a better doctor than every woman! Of course that’s not even remotely true, but the point is, the theory of comparative advantage doesn’t care about average differences in absolute ability. If you’re making rules about which type of people are allowed to do which type of job, you’re hurting the economy.

    Just how big of a difference does this make? A team of top economists has recently studied the question, and their results are pretty startling. In “The Allocation of Talent and Economic Growth,” economists Chang-Tai Hsieh and Erik Hurst of the University of Chicago Booth Business School and Charles Jones and Peter Klenow of Stanford estimate that one fifth of total growth in U.S. output per worker between 1960 and 2008 was due to a decline in discrimination.


  1. Anjali Vaidya at India BioScience: Unaddressed demands remain after research fellowship hike. Uses several quotes from IISc students and faculty!

  2. Prashant Nanda in Mint: Govt climbs down, to drop IIM council plan. "The HRD ministry’s change of heart came after the business schools raised concerns, say two government officials".

  3. Adam Connor-Simons in MIT News: How three MIT students fooled the world of scientific journals. SCIGen is 10 years old, and this is a timely (and short) profile of the MIT grad students who created it.

  4. For the Ilayaraja fans: Rare Photos Of Music Composer Ilaiyaraaja. Look at those bell-bottoms!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Links: Higher Ed Edition

  1. The most depressing thing you will read this month. Kendall Powell in Nature (April 2015): The future of the postdoc. "There is a growing number of postdocs and few places in academia for them to go. But change could be on the way."

  2. As usual, Google has figured it all out!

  3. Ivan Oransky in The Conversation: Unlike a Rolling Stone: is science really better than journalism at self-correction?

  4. Richard Van Noorden, Brendan Maher & Regina Nuzzo in Nature (October 2014): The top 100 papers. "Nature explores the most-cited research of all time."


  1. Prem Panicker at Smoke Signals: RIP Jayakanthan.

  2. Sriram V. at Madras Heritage and Carnatic Music: A Chola Gift to Chennai.

Thursday, April 09, 2015


  1. Susannah Locke in 15 ways to tell if that science news story is hogwash

    The excellent chart ... offers "A Rough Guide to Spotting Bad Science." It was put together by the blogger [Andy Brunning, a chemistry teacher in the UK] behind the chemistry site Compound Interest. It isn't meant to be an exhaustive list — and not all of these flaws are necessarily fatal.

  2. A bold initiative in France: Ambition in Paris:

    The creation of the University of Paris-Saclay’s campus will cost €2 billion ($2.17 billion), and a government-funded €2.5 billion ($2.72 billion) extension of the Paris Métro will connect the high-tech hub to the center of the French capital in 35 minutes.

    However, Dominique Vernay, president of Paris-Saclay, has bigger concerns than the infrastructure challenges involved in constructing the university’s 1,300-acre campus over the next few years, namely how to get 19 fiercely independent organizations to pull together and move in the same direction. [...]

    “They were not that keen to work together in the beginning, but they have taken steps over the past seven years to come together -- the commitment was to set up a common organization.”

    To this end, nine of France’s most prestigious grandes écoles, such as the École Polytechnique and the École Normale Supérieure, will work with less selective traditional universities, business schools and national research organizations at Paris-Saclay.

    Within 10 years, 12,000 researchers and 70,000 students will be based at the Paris-Saclay campus, with the institution aiming to take its place among the world’s top 10 universities by 2025.

  3. Charles Seife in Slate: Science’s Big Scandal. "Even legitimate publishers are faking peer review."

    It can be read alone, but it's even better to read it with Seife's previous article in Scientific American: For Sale: “Your Name Here” in a Prestigious Science Journal. "An investigation into some scientific papers finds worrying irregularities."

  4. Barbara Fister in Inside Higher Ed: New Predatory Publishing in Old Bottles. "... What worries me far more than these fairly obvious scams are the emerging business practices being used by highly profitable publishers with long and distinguished pedigrees that are treating open access as a new revenue stream that can be both open and closed – earning money through subscriptions and author fees. [...]"

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Links: Misconduct in Science Edition

  1. Jill Neimark in Aeon: The Retraction War. "Scientists seek demigod status, journals want blockbuster results, and retractions are on the rise: is science broken?"

  2. John Rasko and Carl Power in The Guardian: What pushes scientists to lie? The disturbing but familiar story of Haruko Obokata. "The spectacular fall of the Japanese scientist who claimed to have triggered stem cell abilities in regular body cells is not uncommon in the scientific community. The culprit: carelessness and hubris in the drive to make a historic discovery."

  3. James MacDonald at JSTOR Daily: Research Fraud: When Science Goes Bad.

  4. Neuroskeptic: Editorial Misbehaviour in Autism Journals?. See also: The games we play: A troubling dark side in academic publishing by Pete Etchells and Chris Chambers in The Guardian.

  5. To end all this bleakness, here's a link to something positive. Dan Hopkins in Washington Post: How to Make Scientific Research More Trustworthy. An interview with Brendan Nyhan, who advocates registering research designs before scholars begin the work.


  1. Veenu Sandhu in The Business Standard: Sexual harassment at work: Tell and suffer. "A woman's ordeal only worsens after she protests against sexual harassment at the office."'

  2. Cat Ferguson in Retraction Watch: Rolling Stone retracts UVA gang rape story: A view from Retraction Watch. [The only (and, barely) redeeming thing in this disaster is that Rolling Stone got an external review done by Columbia Journalism School, and made the review report public.]

    Ferguson quotes from the NYTimes article on the report's findings:

    It is hardly unusual for journalists to rely on members of advocacy groups for help finding characters, but it is a practice that requires extra vigilance. “You’re in a zone there where you have to be careful,” said Nicholas Lemann, a professor at Columbia and the journalism school’s former dean.

    Mr. Lemann distributes a document called “The Journalistic Method” in one of his classes. It is a play on the term “the scientific method,” but in some respects, investigating a story is not so different from investigating a scientific phenomenon. “It’s all about very rigorous hypothesis testing: What is my hypothesis and how would I disprove it?” he said. “That’s what the journalist didn’t do in this case.”

Monday, April 06, 2015

Trouble at IIT-Jodhpur?

I was alerted about this early last week by someone with an interest in a faculty job at an IIT; since then the situation has really got out of hand, with students taking the lead in asking for the removal of the director of IIT-Jodhpur. The main complaint appears to be that a lot of faculty members have been dismissed in the short tenure of the current director, and the most recent such case has sparked a strong protest by students.

IIT-Jodhpur has had a rather turbulent beginning -- the first director (Prof. Prem Kumar Kalra, the man behind the first generation Akash tablets) was sent back abruptly, and replaced by the current director, Prof. C.V.R. Murthy. I don't have any clue about the protests there other than what I have read in the newspapers. I am posting this stuff here in case people with some personal knowledge can share what they know.

Annals of Professorial Mistakes


Drexel University is investigating a law professor who thought she was sending her class a link to an article on writing legal briefs, but who actually sent a link to a pornography site's video [...].

Thursday, April 02, 2015


  1. Curt Rice in The Guardian: Don't be fooled by the closing gender gap in science PhDs.

    [The researchers] found that historically men have had higher persistence rates than women, with a greater proportion of men having continued for a PhD. Since the 1990s, we see something else. The persistence rates have coverged: men and women continue in equal rates. That’s great news. Or so it would seem.

    Unfortunately, the new study doesn’t actually show a pipeline being tightened up to leak less – it shows the opposite. The convergence in persistence rates for men and women is not a result of an increase in the rate of women taking a PhD: it’s the result of a decline in the rate of men doing so, which now stands at 3%.

    Is this something to celebrate? I can’t imagine why. ...

    See also: Bob Grant's article in The Scientist -- New Look at the Leaky Pipeline -- on the same research.

  2. An idea whose time has come! Noah Smith on Affirmative Action for Conservatives.

  3. Finally, do yourself a favor and go to the 58th minute of the video below (or at YouTube) and wait for Bobby McFerrin's magic over the next several minutes. [I know I have linked to this stuff a long time ago, but it's worth watching any number of times]:

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Selection of IIT Directors

Before we plunge in: This issue is not just restricted to TIFR or the IITs. It turns out that the process of selecting leaders at many other S&T institutions has been muddied. See this IE editorial -- A leadership vacuum -- for a sense of the utter badness of it all. Here's a short quote from the editorial: "Such a leadership vacuum, resulting from indifference or political interference, should be seen to be unacceptable for national institutions that have contributed enormously both in terms of research and high-quality manpower generation."

Let's now turn to the main post.

* * *

In a better world, the process of selecting the director at each of the IITs at Bhubaneswar, Patna and Ropar would have been a straight-forward affair. In the real world, it has turned into a deeply controversial affair.

At first, everything appeared to be moving smoothly until, of course, it unraveled rather fast about a month ago. HRD Minister Smriti Irani junked the list of candidates selected by the committee constituted for this purpose.

[Unlike the TIFR case, I don't know of any procedural problems with the way those candidates were selected, and the HRD Ministry does not appear to have given any reason for scrapping the results of that process.]

In any case, a fresh round of interviews were held two days ago for some 35 candidates; it's not clear how many showed up.

But four days before these interviews, there was some drama: Dr. Anil Kakodkar resigned his position as the chair of IIT-B's governing council. Since he was a standing member of the committee to select IIT directors, his resignation was thought to be a fallout of the way the work of that committee was junked so unceremoniously.

Within a day of media playing up this news, HRD Minister Smriti Irani was reported to have convinced him to withdraw his resignation; again, the implication was that he would continue to serve in the selection committee, and more importantly, that he would participate in the fresh round of interviews on the 22nd of March.

It turns out that he didn't. Neither did three others on the committee -- M.S. Ananth, Lila Poonawalla and H. M. Nerurkar.

A day later, Kakodkar talks to Yogita Rao of ToI:

"It is too casual a process for the appointment of directors of IITs," said nuclear scientist Anil Kakodkar in his first remarks on record after his run-in with the HRD ministry over the appointment of directors of the IITs at Patna, Ropar and Bhubaneshwar. Union minister Smriti Irani had called for a fresh process to interview 36 candidates in a single day. "What was done before was okay. Looking at all 36 candidates in one day is not right. There is a fundamental difficulty with the process. How do you ensure that you make the correct selection?" he asked, while speaking to TOI on Monday.

"IITs are far too important to the country to have such a casual process for the appointment of its directors. It has to be dealt with seriously. How can one be party to such a process?" he said.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Selection of TIFR Director: An e-mail from a professor at NYU to the Prime Minister

What you see below is a slightly edited version of an e-mail addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with "Expressing Concern over PMO & HRD Ministry Interference in TIFR, Premier Institutes (IITs, etc)" as its subject. I have the permission to identify the sender only as "a Professor from NYU, who wants to withhold his name."


  • Expressing solidarity with Scientific Community’s concern about PMO’s interference in TIFR Director selection.

  • Expressing concern over Minister’s/Bureaucrat’s increased interference in selecting IIT Directors, Premier Research Institute Directors.

* * *

Hon’ble Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi,

I am writing this letter to you to express my solidarity with my fellow Scientist’s concern over the recent unhealthy developments, in the process of setting directions for premier Academic Institutes (IITs, IISERs etc) and Central Government Research Institutes spread across India, and the arbitrary manner bureaucrats are starting to take decisions.

We, Visiting Scientists in Central Research Institutes, are deeply concerned about the ill treatment meted to Scientific community by IAS bureaucrats in PMO and in key Ministries, resulting in situations where our fellow scientists are getting demoralized. Dr Sandip Trivedi is a brilliant Scientist of international repute and held key investigator roles in Fermi Labs in Illinois, US, a reputed lab for Theoretical Physics, for several years. We get alarmed when Internationally accomplished Scientists like Dr Sandip Trivedi are rejected based on Technical grounds and by bureaucrat’s whims in PMO, suggesting that PMO bureaucrats have no clue in evaluating eminent Scientists like Dr Sandip [Trivedi]. In addition, my fellow Professors in IITs are unhappy with HRD Minister Mrs Smriti Irani [whose] style of functioning has been a source of concern for many Faculty members in IITs and other centrally funded Technical Institutes. Expressing dissatisfaction about HRD Ministry functioning, even senior Scientists like Dr Anil Kakodkar are starting to dissociate from IIT Governing bodies, suggesting an unhealthy trend. Series of incidents prompts us to come to the rescue of our friends in India and urging you to intervene and make suitable corrections.

Institutes of National importance like IITs, IIMs etc, Premier Research Institutes like TIFR, CSIR should be allowed to function autonomously and key Ministries like S&T Ministry, HRD Ministry, Dept. Of Atomic Energy should be managed with a scientific temper, like in United States and Europe. When Scientists of Indian origins shine outside of India, it is the responsibility of Government of India to provide an equivalent ecosystem in India itself to harness the potential of Indian Scientific community. Unfortunately, from what I gather from my fellow Scientists in India, Ministers in-charge, Senior bureaucrats in PMO and Ministerial Secretaries do not have the Scientific bent of mind to make them accountable by coming up with proper metrics, instead constantly interfere in their work citing frivolous reasons.

I was able to pursue my higher study in [Institution X] and have been [serving as a Named Chair Institution Y] from the year 2011 onwards, and [I] completely support the existing selection process for TIFR Director. I urge Hon’ble Prime Minister to solicit inputs from eminent scientists, study Government labs in US, Europe and Japan, take [everyone] on-board and make suitable corrections.



[A Professor at NYU]


  1. Michael Gordin in Aeon: Absolute English. "How did science come to speak only English?"

  2. Noah Berlatsky in Pacific Standard: What Is the Point of Academic Books? "Ultimately, they're meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell."

  3. Gillian Tett in The Financial Times: A degree of creativity. ‘Vocational degrees provide skills that can become outdated or be replaced by robots.’

  4. Attention Decay in Science, a paper by Pietro Della Briotta Parolo, Raj Kumar Pan, Rumi Ghosh, Bernardo A. Huberman, and Kimmo Kaski. Here's the abstract:

    The exponential growth in the number of scientific papers makes it increasingly difficult for researchers to keep track of all the publications relevant to their work. Consequently, the attention that can be devoted to individual papers, measured by their citation counts, is bound to decay rapidly. In this work we make a thorough study of the life-cycle of papers in different disciplines. Typically, the citation rate of a paper increases up to a few years after its publication, reaches a peak and then decreases rapidly. This decay can be described by an exponential or a power law behavior, as in ultradiffusive processes, with exponential fitting better than power law for the majority of cases. The decay is also becoming faster over the years, signaling that nowadays papers are forgotten more quickly. However, when time is counted in terms of the number of published papers, the rate of decay of citations is fairly independent of the period considered. This indicates that the attention of scholars depends on the number of published items, and not on real time.