A controversial choice

Print edition : October 11, 2002

The selection of NRI scientist Shobo Bhattacharya as the new Director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research raises several questions.

THE Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai, the premier scientific research institution of the country which comes under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), will soon have a new Director. But this time it will be a non-resident Indian (NRI) scientist from the United States. Not surprisingly, the choice, which is without a precedent in the 57-year history of the institute, has raised a controversy.

On July 18, the Governing Council (G.C.) of TIFR approved the search committee's selection of 51-year-old Shobo Bhattacharya, a physicist in experimental condensed matter at NEC Research Inc., Princeton, New Jersey, a wing of the Japanese multinational Nippon Electric Corporation (NEC). The three-member search committee, headed by DAE Secretary Anil Kakodkar, was constituted by the G.C. sometime last year. Besides Kakodkar, the two scientific members of the Council were C.N.R. Rao and M.G.K. Menon. The committee's decision awaits the approval of the Prime Minister, who holds the Atomic Energy portfolio, and then of the approval committee of the Cabinet (ACC).

A physics graduate of Calcutta University and a post-graduate of Delhi University, Bhattacharya obtained his doctoral degree from Northwestern University in the U.S. in 1978. After his post-doctoral work at Chicago University, and before joining NEC, he spent several years at the Corporate Research Labs of Exxon. He has done almost all his research abroad. His interaction with TIFR began during 1996-97 when he was at the institute on a year's sabbatical. Significantly, in 1997 he declined the offer of the position of a Professor at TIFR but preferred to have an adjunct position at TIFR. For the past five years, he has been associated with the Condensed Matter Physics group at TIFR and spends about three months in a year at TIFR split between two visits.

The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Bhattacharya will succeed Sudhanshu S. Jha whose term ended in June but who has been asked to continue till September end. Like Jha, all the previous three successors to Homi J. Bhabha, who founded the institute in 1945, were home-grown scientists. One of the convictions with which Bhabha established the institute was that, in the years to come the country will not have to look abroad for its experts but will find them ready at hand. "It is an apparent failure of the philosophy with which Bhabha set up this institute and the DAE system,'' admits Jha, the outgoing director. ``Whether the failure is real or only perceived, I do not wish to comment. But then there is also some sort of support for Shobo within the institute,'' he adds.

But a large number of people would echo the views of M.S. Raghunathan, an internationally known mathematician. "Such a choice may perhaps be acceptable if the person is several cuts above in terms of academic excellence and vision for the institute than any other potential candidate from the country. My understanding is that this is not the case,'' he says. ``It is, in fact, humiliating for those who have remained in the country and built research groups,'' he adds. On the other hand, Obaid Siddiqi, the biologist who founded the institute's molecular biology unit, feels that it may be for the good. "An outsider may bring in fresh ideas and dynamism unlike people from within who have a limited perspective,'' he says.

``We have seen what has happened to the institute during the tenure of the last two directors,'' says Alak Ray, a Professor of Astrophysics, who is amongst those who openly support Bhattacharya. ''We need some dynamic people and who have age on their side and not those who are past sixty. All the potential younger candidates from within the country have apparently refused to take up the responsibility,'' he adds.

``I personally do not give much importance to whether a director is from outside or inside the institution, or the country,'' says Sunil Mukhi, a theoretical physicist at TIFR, currently at Princeton. "There are good and bad examples of each kind. The only thing that counts is what is best for TIFR. Among candidates known to me at the moment, he strikes me as the best choice. I expect that his administration will be transparent, decisive and accountable, something that TIFR urgently needs as it makes the transition to a forward-looking and modern institution. I am not aware of anyone inside or outside TIFR who has these characteristics and was passed over in consideration for directorship,'' he asserted in an e-mail response.

The dissent amongst TIFR scientists is, however, not so much with regard to the choice of an NRI per se but with the unprofessional manner in which the search committee went about the process. Indeed, when Bhattacharya's name came up in April, some scientists wrote to Ratan Tata, the chairman of the Council: "A viewpoint has been permeated... that no potential candidates... are available within the country... It is our considered judgment that adequate efforts have not been made... on all the prospective candidates within TIFR, as well as those serving other organisations in India.''

Dr. Shobo Bhattacharya, who has been selected as the new Director of TIFR.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Countering this, M.G.K. Menon said: "Suggest a name who is not only academically excellent but can face 100 parliamentarians or handle a budget of a hundred crores. For the politician, Asoke Sen or Raghunathan means nothing.'' When asked if Bhattacharya met these criteria, he merely said: "We have considered all aspects and inputs from everywhere, here and abroad. I think we have made the right decision.''

There is another issue which the TIFR academic community is sore about the lack of a consultative process on the part of the search committee with the faculty. This undemocratic selection process is, of course, a generic problem with all similar institutes in India. But in 1997, the Lord Porter Review Committee on TIFR had made the following recommendation with regard to the choice of the institute's director: "The Council should form a search committee to seek a candidate both internally and externally and should consult senior faculty before arriving at a recommendation.'' TIFR scientists point out that for some reason such an exercise had not been carried out this time though this did happen in 1997. The letter further suggested that in order to ensure transparency in the selection process the search committee formally meet the prospective candidates in an authoritative manner and prepare a comprehensive dossier on each of them.

However, it appears that as discussions this correspondent had with some of them has revealed the committee thought it sufficient to ask potential candidates cursorily and stop at that. A casual "no'' or indifference shown was presumed to be a categorical "no''. Even those who had given their consent were not approached for a formal, serious follow-up discussion. The latter category included scientists of greater eminence than Bhattacharya both from within the country and abroad. Given the fact that Bhattacharya has been abroad for the last 30 years or so, academic excellence alone would have been the primary consideration, one would imagine, though no one doubts Bhattacharya's competence in his field.

``I am sure there are many within the country who would have been appropriate,'' said P.K. Iyengar, former AEC Chairman. "I would have been happier if it was an internal candidate unless this person is of extraordinary calibre. My only concern is that this person should understand that he cannot expect things to function in the same way as in the U.S.''

However, C.N.R. Rao says: ``There is really a crisis of leadership in the country. I feel dejected that we could not find a person from within the country despite our best efforts.'' He added: "For the past 15 years TIFR had got into a lull, a kind of stalemate. There is a need to get in some fresh blood. Shobo has been visiting TIFR regularly for the last five years, seems to have a lot of ideas, is keen to bring about a change and has a lot of idealism. We hope he will succeed.''

``It has been one of the most difficult decisions in my life,'' says Kakodkar. ``We have had extensive discussions within the committee, considered all inputs from within as well as from peers abroad. I think our decision is in the best interests of the institute.'' He denied that faculty inputs were not considered. "I have met TIFR scientists individually as well as in groups. I am fully aware of their concerns.''

``The fact that Rao or Kakodkar agreed to consider inputs from TIFR academics only after the process had reached an advanced stage, and that too only when some people voluntarily went and met them, does reflect on the kind of respect they are ready to give to the academics of the institute and their opinions,'' says Navin Singhi, a Professor of Mathematics. Indeed, even this much-delayed interaction with academics may not have happened if a few of them had not descended on Rao in late March when he had come to the institute to deliver a lecture.

In the absence of a proper forum for regular interaction with the council, the inputs from the TIFR staff began to be fed in various fragmented forms through e-mails to the committee members, and letters by small groups. An effort to arrive at a collective recommendation only resulted in a dubious voting exercise amongst the academic staff in early March to identify suitable candidates.

But this was far from a majority recommendation because, of the150 to 200 academic members at TIFR at any given point of time only about 50 attended the meeting, of which only 30 voted in an exercise where each member had to give three choices. However, the outcome of this voting became a convenient argument for the search committee in defending its decision because the top five candidates included Bhattacharya besides four internal candidates.

``The job of the academic community should not be to short-list people for directorship by voting, without any exercise of assessing academic or administrative records of the eight people suggested,'' says Singhi. "A committee could have gone through this exercise and come up with a list of possible names instead of voting off-the-cuff,'' Singhi adds. "The voting was certainly not representative. But even if one went by the voting pattern which in any case does not mean anything Shobo was not the topmost choice and the committee just did not bother to pursue the matter seriously with the others who got more votes,'' a senior physicist points out .

The unusual interest shown by the search committee to appoint an NRI baffles most people. And it had become apparent to many from corridor talk as early as February that Bhattacharya was slated to become the director. "If it had to be an NRI, why someone who has not headed a major laboratory or guided a good number of students or has demonstrated extraordinary administrative capability?'' is the question being asked. "If he was so committed to Indian science, he had the golden opportunity to come here in 1997, set up a lab, train students, get to know the system and its constraints,'' point out critics. "Heading a small NEC lab of two or three people is not the same as heading a major institute,'' they argue.

Sudhanshu S. Jha, the outgoing Director.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The focus on an NRI seems to have been triggered by a curious letter sent by a group of NRI scientists to the G.C. and the search committee. This letter has generated widespread consternation among the scientific community in the country, and not just within TIFR. Some conscientious NRI scientists too have condemned such unwarranted intervention. The letter, masterminded by Shivaji Sondhi (son of the politician M.L. Sondhi) of Princeton University, was signed by eight scientists. Some people point out that it may not be just a coincidence that Bhattacharya is also from Princeton.

The signatories, claiming "long-standing ties'' with TIFR, said: "The TIFR... is not living up to its full potential and faces the danger of becoming a progressively weaker force on the international scene. In our judgement this is a consequence of TIFR not modernising itself over the last decade or so... TIFR is due for a change of leadership which is then an opportune time for fresh policy inputs... In our judgment the two most important steps the Council can take are: (a) select a new director who intends to modernise TIFR, has a vision of how this will happen and has a detailed understanding of "best practices'' in running peer institutions worldwide. A younger than normal appointment would be worth considering, as would an appointment from outside TIFR...(b) appoint visiting review committees made up entirely of external members, for each school, that directly report to the council every five years...''

Criticising these self-appointed guardians of Indian science while staying out there, TIFR scientists point out that none of the signatories has ever had any close ties with TIFR. Brij Arora, Professor of Solid State Electronics, points out how he showed Jainendra Jain, one of the signatories, his lab during the latter's visit to TIFR, and asked him to offer his suggestions for improvement. "Jain had nothing to offer. How can they say they are concerned about TIFR?'' asks Arora. Indeed, some of TIFR's Condensed Matter physicists point out that Bhattacharya, despite having been associated with the department for five years, had contributed little to the group.

According to some senior scientists of the group, Bhattacharya had not initiated any independent experimental activity in TIFR. Apparently a Ph.D. student had joined specifically to work with him but could not proceed further. "I am apprehensive of his suitability as the director,'' says a Professor in thegroup. "He is an outstanding academic in his chosen area but has little understanding of the process of training graduate students and conduct of experimental research in India,'' he added.

Arora, the chairman of the group, was, however, more circumspect. "There were some problems in the collaboration but nothing which was beyond resolution. Bhattacharya too may have erred here, I feel. But, overall, Bhattacharya's contribution was positive,'' he says.

But the most disturbing aspect of the entire episode and the process of selection of the director of a premier institution, and that too one which is closely associated with the nuclear programme of the country, is that the process should get influenced by a small group of NRI scientists who have no real understanding of the situation.

Indeed, their disparaging remarks about TIFR in the letter have riled many people. They certainly are not peers as the search committee would have you believe. Many scientists of the country have viewed this development seriously and are concerned that this does not augur well for the future of management of science and research in the country.

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