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Old boy’s home truth

New Delhi, May 23: Environment minister Jairam Ramesh today decried what he said was poor quality of research at the Indian Institutes of Technology, echoing sentiments long simmering across sections of India’s science and engineering establishments.

“There is hardly any worthwhile research from our IITs. The faculty in the IITs is not world class. It is students in IITs who are world class,” Ramesh said here on the sidelines of a meeting on the conservation of biodiversity.

“The IITs... are excellent because of the quality of (their) students, not because of the quality of research or faculty,” said Ramesh, who is an alumnus of IIT Bombay.

Ramesh, who announced his ministry’s decision to set up a world-class research centre on marine biodiversity jointly with Reliance Industries, said government institutions were unable to attract young talent.

Senior Indian scientists said they were not surprised at Ramesh’s observations about India’s elite technology schools that are not just the most sought-after undergraduate engineering institutions but have also gained a high reputation overseas.

An analysis of research publications from Indian and US universities portrays the contrast between research output and quality at leading US science and engineering institutions and that in the IITs.

The analysis, published last September, by faculty at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, used several parameters to compare the research output and quality, including the number of times a research paper had been cited by other researchers — a widely accepted measure of research quality.

The study, published in the journal Current Science, found that the citations per faculty per year were much lower in each of the five oldest IITs than in leading US tech schools such as the California Institute of Technology, University of California and Berkeley, and the MIT.

“The IITs only have a reputation for undergraduate education — they don’t have a research and development culture,” said C.N.R. Rao, a top Indian chemist and chairperson of the Prime Minister’s Scientific Advisory Council.

“Some IIT departments do publish a lot,” Rao conceded. He added that the IITs lacked the culture of interdisciplinary research that is widely seen in leading US universities.

But, Rao said, it would be unfair to point fingers at just the IITs. Over the past decade, he said, India’s contribution to global research publications has remained stagnant at about 2.5 per cent but China’s share has gone up from the same level to 14 per cent.

IIT Delhi director Surendra Prasad said it would be wrong to compare the IITs with the best institutions in the US. “The annual budget of MIT is 100 times higher than the average budget of an IIT. The research infrastructure is such in the leading American institutions that it will take years for the IITs to match those standards,” Prasad said.

“Good research scholars prefer to go to American institutions to pursue research. There are nearly 50 Nobel laureates in MIT alone. I don’t think the IITs should be compared with the top US institutions,” he said.

A government panel led by a former chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, Anil Kakodkar, had earlier this month underscored the need to “considerably enhance” the level of research in the IITs.

“The IITs should... contribute in a significant way to the research and development capability and culture in the country at large by creating a large pool of PhD graduates,” the panel had said. It had called for a 10-fold increase in the number of PhDs graduating from the IITs, which now stands at about 1,000 a year.

IIT Guwahati director Gautam Barua said the number of citations per faculty per year was high for American institutions because of the fame attached to these institutions and their researchers.

“Once you become famous, your work will be cited by other researchers. The publications of IIT faculty are good but at times, they go unnoticed because the IITs are yet to gain fame in the global sphere,” he said.

Barua admitted that the atmosphere was conducive to research in American institutions.

A human resource development ministry official said the government was well aware of quality concerns relating to the IITs and that steps were being taken to improve the standards of teaching and research in these institutions.

HRD minister Kapil Sibal said none of India’s educational institutes rank in top 100 institutes of the world. “Is there any single world-class educational institute in India? If yes, it has to be in the top 100. We would like to be there in the years to come,” he told reporters.

Reacting to Ramesh’s remarks, Sibal said: “He is a world-class student. He himself is an IIT-ian and has an insider’s knowledge about things in the institute.”

Sibal said he was trying to put systems in place so that Indian institutes can also rank among the top in the world.

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