Academic Research: An Interview with the Dean


Dr. Sarit K Das, who assumed office as the Dean, Academic Research, IIT Madras around three months ago talks to T5E about the research scene in the institute and the steps he’s planning to take.

research-studies_000Could 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% of the student population comprises of post-graduates. 35% of the students are pure research students. There are about 1700 PhD students and about 800 M.S. students in 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 PhDs from all the IITs put together, from 1000 to 10,000 in 2020. For this to happen, the research scholars themselves should come out of the shell and we have seen in recent times that it has started happening. Recently, a Research Scholar Day was organized. The research scholars are coming out with their difficulties and demands, which is a good sign. An 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 PhD. There should be interaction between the research community and the course-based students. But, this is what 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 Madras. We have invited the GATE toppers and straight away offered them PhD admissions. Our MS-PhD 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 MS-PhD programmes quite a lot. Now, rather than having year-based evaluations, we have event-based evaluations. We have started interdisciplinary PhD programme, 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 of all the Bhatnagar awardees (which are 5 in number in 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 put a very good infrastructure in place for the research scholars.

What do you think about the present scenario of research being done by the faculty in IIT Madras?

Unfortunately, in India so far, the faculty research and the research degrees are inseparable, for the simple reason that we don’t have other types of research. For example, we don’t have Post Doctorates in large numbers. We started the Post Doctorate programme couple of years back, but the number of people in the programme is very insignificant. I am trying to introduce a very innovative post doctorate scheme where we call the best of the people, give them a salary which is almost comparable to that of an assistant professor’s. We should give lot of incentives to the faculty; the incentives need not always be in terms of money. For example, the faculty should be given more opportunities to attend conferences, more equipment grant, wider publicity for the entire campus community to know of their research work. I am taking steps in these directions.

What do you have to say about the present post graduate research scene?

I think the research scene in M Tech has improved. Today, a large number of M.Tech students publish 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 form M Tech to PhD. The number of PhD students is increasing and the quality of work is also improving. I see a very bright future.

Recently, IIT Madras has been recognized as the institute with maximum number of patents. What do you have to say about that?

We are happy about this, but we still think that there is a long way to go. Let’s be very frank: we have maximum patents because other people have done worse. We have something like 30-40 patents in a year, which is not a number. I would like to see around 100 patents in a year. We are putting a lot of emphasis on this. Today, there is a separate patent office in IIT Madras. One of the reasons why we don’t have many patents is the lack of awareness amongst many of the academicians about patenting. We want to wipe this out. We hope that those who are willing to patent have enough information and help from the institute. Through the new patent office, we are taking steps in this direction. I agree that we are better than the others, but we want to do much better than this.

There is a general notion that the interest of undergraduate students in research is waning. What is your comment on this?

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 85 students went abroad after their IIT education. 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% 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 finance sector, management dominate and this trend is reflected in not doing research work. This trend of the best of the students not going for research is alarming. If there is 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. How do you think can the students use the 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. The Research Park has already incubated certain companies which are doing a wonderful job of taking the technology built inside IIT Madras to the market. Many of the technologies are related to things like healthcare, which are directly related to the public services. We have developed a mobile eye-surgery unit in collaboration with Shankar Netralaya. 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 Research Park, we are doing excellent work; in fact in socially relevant projects, probably IIT Madras is topping at this moment. But unfortunately, a very small fraction of the student and faculty knows 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 of Innovation, where so many of our students work. It’s better to keep such a model not a part of 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 in 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 degree students to the field of research.

What is 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 the 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 in IIT Madras should get some hands-on research experience.

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