Where are the science leaders?

A critical deficiency in India's current scientific establishment is the dearth of credible administrators, who can rise to the challenges that confront her educational and research institutions today, says Gautam Radhakrishna Desiraju.

doi:10.1038/nindia.2010.61 Published online 7 May 2010

G. R. Desiraju

In former times, India's science establishment was led by 'stars', men of substantial scientific ability, entrusted with administrative responsibilities along with their scientific tasks. Some of these stars are still with us, perhaps not as luminous as before, generally bemoaning the lack of 'leadership' in the younger generation. One may well ask them — if this is actually true — who should be blamed for this lack of leadership today?

Indeed, one of the consequences of the star system is that the men whom these stars handpicked to succeed them to head our universities, national laboratories and research institutes, were typically people of only average to above average ability but who had the confidence of their mentors. These administrators bred similar successors and the inevitable dilution in this next phase of administration led to consequences that are now showing. The second lot of administrators owed their positions more to their patrons than to their intrinsic merits. So they were generally unwilling to take bold decisions to transform the scientific system.

What the stars and their successors failed to foresee was that the star system itself would fade out. This has happened in Hollywood, in Bollywood, in cricket, in politics, and dare I say in organised crime and in public life, signifying an end to a mode of governance wherein a handful of heroic figures dominate the firmament.

Professional leaders

In the context of scientific enterprise in India, the failure of the second set of administrators to initiate systemic change and the simultaneous demise of the star system has led to a dangerous situation — the appearance of 'professional leaders'. They constitute the third set of science administrators in the country.

Many of these newest 'leaders' are unusual; they are impelled to lead; it does not matter what they lead; it does not matter how well or how badly they lead. They just must lead. They would head a university, a fisheries board or a lottery agency with equal élan. They are single minded in their pursuit of the fishes and loaves of administrative office and they will do whatever it takes to acquire such office.

They have quite literally mounted the proverbial tiger that will devour them if they fall off. Simply put, they have nowhere to go if they do not hold an administrative position as they have long since abandoned science — the noble calling that got them anywhere near teaching or research in the first place.

The selection process

In part, our method of selecting scientific administrators has got us into this mess. Screening committees are first created and these groups of wise old men suggest panels of names that other groups of wiser and older men scrutinise and in the end, the final choices are made after arcane procedures that involve the highest levels of bureaucracy and the political class. The ones who really have a vested interest in who gets appointed — professors and students of the universities, research personnel of national laboratories and scientists of the institutes — figure nowhere in the process.

Because of this highly politicised procedure of appointing vice-chancellors and directors, many unusual outcomes ensue. Primary among them is that a leader, who has not grown within the organisation, is appointed. A rank outsider takes charge. Directors become 'professors' and professors become directors in a mad scramble for administrative authority. A vice-chancellor is appointed who has never taught a course, conducted an examination, caught a student cheating or defused a tense classroom situation with a joke; in other words someone who has not a clue as to what motivates or discourages students and faculty, gets appointed. Many directors today are unfamiliar with the research going on in their laboratories and have h-indices much lower than the scientists they administer.

Good science administrator

It could be argued that a good administrator need not be a good researcher and vice versa. The argument begs the question, "What does one look for in a good science administrator?"

The following are three obvious and mandatory attributes: (1) The ability to hire good faculty or research staff; (2) The ability to attract public and private sector funding into the organisation; (3) The ability to convince employers in the market place that science graduates at all levels from B.Sc to Ph.D and beyond are employable and that an engineering degree is not the sine qua non for employment.

The situation looks grim. Those who are possibly the best qualified to lead do not seem to be willing to shoulder administrative responsibility, while the ones who seem to be the most willing are perhaps not as desirable. We need to be able to anoint true leaders who might lack the techniques to make themselves visible to the political class — by simply being too decent.

There needs to be much greater indignation and resistance to the present goings-on amongst the stake holders in the system — students, employees, faculty, scientists — for, it is clear that the political class have little interest in identifying the reasons for the leadership crisis that now assails our educational and scientific institutions.

Gautam Radhakrishna Desiraju is a professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and a fellow of the three national scientific academies of India.