Academic Research: An Interview with the Dean

Dr. Sarit K Das, who assumed office as the Dean, Academic Research in early 2013, speaks to Shruti about the research scene in the institute and the steps he’s planning to take to encourage research.

Could you give us an overview of your plans as the Dean, Academic Research, of IIT Madras?

IIT Madras is no longer only an undergraduate institute. 55 percent of the student population comprises postgraduates. 35 percent of the students are pure research students. There are about 1,700 Ph.D. students and about 800 M.S. students here at IIT Madras. This is a huge number. This changes the entire fabric of the institute. Over the years, it has happened that the research community has remained segregated. It perceives itself as a small community, with the institute mostly being dominated by undergraduates and M.Tech students. This perception has to change. The research community has to realize that it is a very important part of the institute.

The government is looking at having IITs as the top research universities. It aims to enhance the total number of Ph.Ds from 1,000 to 10,000, in all theIITs put together, by2020. Forthistohappen,the research scholars themselves should come out of their shell and we have seen in recent times that it has started happening. Recently, a Research Scholars’Day was organized. The research scholars are coming out with their difficulties and demands, which is a good sign. The important thing is that non-research scholars should also sense their perception; the B.Tech students should also think that they can learn a lot from the research work which is going on in the institute, the M.Tech students should realize that some of them could even change their programme to Ph.D. There should be an interaction between the research community and the course-based students. But this is something the students have to do.

The institute, on its part, needs to take some initiatives, and these are what we have already started doing. Firstly, by inviting quality research scholars; for the first time, we have started an outreach programme in various cities of the country. We have met the students of various reputed institutions and told them about the possibilities of joining as research scholars at IIT-M.

We have invited the GATE toppers and straight away offered them Ph.D. admissions. Our M.S.–Ph.D. programme has undergone a complete overhaul. Before taking up the post of Dean, AR, I headed the research task force and hence it was easy for me to implement the recommendations in which we have changed the rules of M.S.–Ph.D. programmes quite a lot. Now, rather than having year-based evaluations, we have event-based evaluations. We have started interdisciplinary Ph.D. programmes, which will be governed centrally.

We have also made an institutional mentoring committee to mentor the young faculty members. This is very important because the young faculty members are the ones who are going to take up the baton of research in the coming days. The committee comprises all the Bhatnagar awardees (there are five of them at IIT Madras) and a couple of people working in IISc, Bangalore (alumni of IIT Madras). So, the institute is trying to get better people in the research wing, to mentor the faculty and the students well, and also trying to create a very good infrastructure for the research scholars.

What do you think about the present postgraduate research scene?

I think the research scene in M.Tech has improved. Today, a large number of M.Tech students publish papers in journals, while ten years back, publishing a research paper while doing M.Tech was very rare. Also, it was rare to find postgraduates going for higher studies. This scene has changed a lot over the years. People have started converting their programmes from M.Tech to Ph.D. The number of Ph.D. students is increasing and the quality of work is also improving. I see a very bright future.

There is a general feeling that undergraduate students are not very interested in research. Would you agree?

In my opinion, looking at the number of students opting for non-technical jobs, this perception is right. Earlier, the complaint used to be about IIT students going abroad. I have taught a batch wherein 67 out of the 85 students went abroad after their education at IIT. I was really asking myself the question: who and what for am I teaching? I think today the scenario has changed, considering only about 15 percent of the students go abroad and the others take up jobs, which is good for the country. But a question remains: what kind of jobs? Jobs in the finance and management sectors dominate, and this trend is reflected in the decrease in the amount of research work done. This trend of the best students not going for research is alarming. If there is a brain drain, it’s bad; but if there is “brain in the drain,” it’s worse! In India, the present scenario is: where you need intelligent people, you don’t have them, and where you have them, you don’t really need them!

The IIT Madras Research Park is the first university-based research park in India. In what ways do you think students can use this resource more?

The Research Park is a very important step that IIT Madras has taken. In fact, the other IITs are now replicating this model. We have the second phase coming up: the second tower is going to be built in the Research Park. It has already incubated certain companies which are doing a wonderful job of taking the technology developed inside IIT Madras to the market. Many of the technologies are related to things like health care, which are directly related to the public services. We have developed a mobile eye surgery unit in collaboration with Sankara Nethralaya. It has been extremely successful and the government is now going to use this as a model to do cataract surgeries in rural areas. Through the Research Park, we are doing excellent work. In fact, when it comes to socially relevant projects, IIT Madras probably tops at the moment. But unfortunately, a very small fraction of the students and faculty know about the good work that is happening.

We are aware of this and are planning to take steps so that our students, through the Research Park companies, can do some good work.

Are there any grants given by IIT Madras for students to take up research?

IITs are given block grants. How to spend these grants depends on the IITs. So there’s no special grant devoted to research activities, but we do invest in that area. Take the example of the Centre for Innovation (CFI), where so many of our students work. It’s better to keep such a model separate from the curriculum because there’s a saying that if you want to kill a student’s interest in anything, put it in the curriculum! I think if you do research as fun, and not as a part of the curriculum, it will be more exciting, particularly for the younger people. Funding is not an obstacle for research at IIT Madras. The main concern is how to draw more students into it. We need to take more initiatives like the CFI to bring the undergraduates and the Master’s degree students to the field of research.

What would be your message to the students?

My message is only one: Please understand that you are in the 21st century. The days of mugging from books and vomiting into answer sheets are gone. Today information is available at the click of a mouse; nobody looks at a graduate from IIT for information. It’s your understanding which gives you an edge to innovate. The ways and methods you are learning, which will help you to innovate further, are going to be very important. So, learning how to innovate is going to be much more important than learning a subject. Everybody, including the undergraduates, postgraduates, and research scholars should concentrate on how to innovate, how to think about new concepts and how to put them in place. Whether it is through CFI, projects or even informal associations, everyone at IIT Madras should get some hands-on research experience.