Tuesday, March 08, 2005

IISc's windfall 

A few days back, as part of India's latest Union Budget, Chidambaram proposed a gift of INR 100 crore (approx USD 22.9 million) to the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) with the stated goal of creating a world class Indian university. The relevant section of Chidambaram's budget speech follows:

Institutions of Excellence

92. On January 6, 2005, the Prime Minister spoke about his intention to set up a Knowledge Commission to look into the issue of building quality human capital. Government believes that investments in institutions of higher education and Research and Development organizations are as important as investments in physical capital and physical infrastructure. What we need are world class universities, and we must make a beginning with one institution. We must have a university that will be ranked alongside Oxford and Cambridge or Harvard and Stanford. I am happy to inform the House that we have selected the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, which enjoys a high reputation as a centre of excellence in research and development. We shall work to make IISc, in a few years, a world class university. I propose to provide an additional sum of Rs.100 crore as a grant for this purpose.

The IISc, a 96-year-old Bangalore institution, is far less of a household name than the IITs, both in and out of India. However, the choice of IISc is inspired and sound as it has a decidedly stronger research focus than the IITs whose main role is undergraduate education. Indeed, the IISc does not even have an undergraduate program. Need I say that this is terrific news for researchers in India, or looking to relocate to India?

Of course, there will always be some naysayers, such as the writer of this letter to the editor of the Deccan Herald:
Sir, I don’t agree with the Union Budget’s proposal to give a Rs 100 crore grant to the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in order to bring it on par with world-class institutions like Oxford and Cambridge. Oxford and Cambridge are raising their own corpuses rather than relying on the government. Also, most IISc professors are running their own private trusts using the IISc’s name to obtain funds from donor agencies. How many Nobel Prizes have the IISc alumni won in the last 50 years? This itself speaks for the tall claims made by the IISc about its world ranking.

There are all sorts of reasons why this is wrong-headed, especially the question about Nobel prizes, but I trust that our readers can see them, putting everything in perspective. If anything, it points out that Chidambaram should have had second thoughts before dropping the Oxford and Cambridge names in that speech.

A more meaningful criticism of the IISc is what I alluded to earlier: it's been far less successful at building its brand name than the much younger IITs. As a very young prof working far away from India I can hardly lay claim to knowing the solution but it's clear to me that the 100 crore gift can only help. For starters, perhaps the IISc would consider hiring someone to create a professional website for the institute that actually announces this generous gift? Come on, IIsc! It doesn't take Nobel prize winners to get your website up to Oxbridge standards.

Full disclosure: My father has spent almost his entire career as a professor at IISc.