No, its not the title of Chetan Bhagat’s next novel (though it could well be). A colleague in the School of Life Sciences pointed me to a new site, Nature Index, “A global indicator of high-quality research” that “tracks the affiliations of high-quality scientific articles. Updated monthly, the Nature Index presents recent research outputs by institution and country.”

niThe 15 in the title above, is the overall ranking of the UoH, relative to all Indian institutions, based on our publications in all scientific fields, with 6, 8, and 22 being the rankings separately in Chemistry, Life Sciences and Physics. This is for the year 1 September 2013 to 31 August 2014, and presumably other time periods can be queried on the NI site as well.

There is reason to be pleased. We are the highest ranked University overall, and above us are only institutes like TIFR, RRI, IISc and consortia like the entire IIT system or all the CSIR laboratories put together. And this has happened in spite of the poor funding for science in the country, and for Universities in particular. As we are painfully aware, the real level of funding that we have to contend with has been very very meagre…

The ranking is based on the Article Count, namely the number of articles published from the institution. More formally, “a count of one is assigned to an institution or country if one or more authors of the research article are from that institution or country, regardless of how many co-authors there are from outside that institution or country” in computing the AC. There are other measures that can make us look even better such as the Fractional Count (FC), “that takes into account the percentage of authors from that institution (or country) and the number of affiliated institutions per article. For calculation of the FC, all authors are considered to have contributed equally to the article”, and the equation in the title then becomes, if we use the FC, 8=6+11+19. And to normalize, the corresponding equation for another Central University with which we share many similarities is 18=22+3+29.

In all these lists, there are no Universities that are ranked above us in Chemistry, one in the Life Sciences, and very few in Physics, so these country specific rankings say as much about us as about the funding patterns, the focus on research, and on infrastructure and support. Nevertheless, if anyone out there is looking, its pretty clear which among the Central Universities really is a University of Excellence.

To learn, to teach, to understand…

500004277-03-01At the Institute for Advanced Study where I spent a sabbatical some years ago, the photograph on the left was in the hallway outside my office: Oppenheimer with von Neumann, standing in front of the computer that they had built in a shed on Olden Lane, where the Crossroads Nursery School and Infant Center now stands.

Few American scientists have been publicly as deeply introspective as J. Robert Oppenheimer. Or as eloquent. His knowledge of the Bhagavad Gita stood him in good stead, when just before testing the bomb, he is said to have taken inspiration from the verse:

In battle, in the forest, at the precipice in the mountains,
On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows,
In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame,
The good deeds a man has done before defend him

although where precisely in the Gita this appears is in some doubt. Nevertheless, the lines capture the angst of someone coming to grips with what must be done, however distasteful that might be. Later, when speaking to the Association of Los Alamos Scientists in November 1945 he drew attention to the value of a scientific approach.

I think that we have no hope at all if we yield in our belief in the value of science, in the good that it can be to the world to know about reality, about nature, to attain a gradually greater and greater control of nature, to learn, to teach, to understand. I think that if we lose our faith in this we stop being scientists, we sell out our heritage, we lose what we have most of value for …

Of course the context was different, and the times were morally complex, Hiroshima and Nagasaki having happened a short while earlier then, but the sequencing- learn, teach, understand- seems so apposite. After so many years of working in an University, and after countless discussions with colleagues across disciplines, I think that this is true of all areas of study and not just the sciences, that true understanding comes only after teaching.

Today this is a particularly fine message to share. Happy Teacher’s Day!

A Telangana State of Mind

TToday, Monday, June 2, 2014 sees the birth of a new state, and for us, a new state of mind. We are automatically and very naturally in Telangana, the 29th state of the country, and a state that has been eagerly awaited … and very emotionally struggled for.

Here’s wishing all of us the very best in the years to come, the years in which we look forward to seeing the state grow from strength to strength!

At the same time it does us well to remember that the new state is born out of the old- and the erstwhile AP was itself born in 1956 out of the Madras State, which was formed out of an older entity, the Madras Presidency plus the erstwhile Telengana… We should see that this, the formation and reformation of geographies, is an ongoing process, and hope that the present  bifurcation be as peaceful and as amicable as possible. 

Both the new states being formed this month will need much input for their growth and training of manpower. The University is here, willing, and ready to participate in the development process in whatever way possible,  and whatever way necessary. The UoH is uniquely suited for the job: as a Central University we aim to cater to the needs of the entire country without compromise on quality or access, but being situated here, it is fair to say that we understand the region, its needs, its special aspects with more sensitivity.

I believe that all of us share the commitment to see that our University will participate fully in the growth and  development of the new states. And we will do whatever we can to see that the University of Hyderabad continues to provide academic leadership and maintains its position as a standard bearer in the state, the region, and indeed in the nation!

Our Game of Thrones

HBO CANADA - #OwnTheThrone in Vancouver!The quote attributed to Henry Kissinger, namely “Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small” is also seen as an instance of Sayre’s Law, that in any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue. Kissinger probably said it, but so have many people before him and since. Woodrow Wilson as President of Princeton University in the years 1902 to 1910 observed sardonically that the intensity of academic squabbles was a function of the “triviality” of the issues being considered.

My recent introduction to the TV series Game of Thrones has been most instructive. Having missed the first three seasons I’ve had a bit of catching up to do with the complex stories that are woven into the somewhat dark fantasy. Of course, the parallels with other sagas like the Iliad or the Odyssey, or the Mahabharata are there- not for nothing is it said (of the Mahabharata), Yennéhâsti na tadkvacit, namelyWhat is not here is nowhere else”!

Inevitably, one is drawn to the parallels that can be made to life at our University. Although our setting is not particularly dark, we seem to have our share of complex stories that have been woven into a not very long history- after all, forty years is not much of a lifetime. But still, memories at the University run long and deep, and there is often an event in our present that echoes another in our past.

The GoT analogies are somewhat direct- each of the kingdoms is like a School of study, only there there are seven and here we have twelve. The continents of Westeros and Essos are very real entities indeed- these are our two cultures! Of course we are spared the relentless wars, but we do occasionally have minor battles over the limited resources that come our way, and the smaller the stakes, the more intense the combat!

ceOne of the questions playing on my mind, for instance is how many Schools of study should there be in the University? At present we have 12, but clearly we don’t cover all the areas of studies that a University should or could have. The manner in which we grow is therefore important, and there are many models that are available to us. There is admittedly a chicken and egg situation: What should one do first? We could decide by fiat or by committee (a near impossibility!) as to what is desirable. Or we could start courses- hit the ground running- and then worry about getting faculty. Or we can wait for someone else to tell us what to do. As it happens, all these models have been employed at the UoH at one time or the other in the past, and there is always an éminence grise who will tell me of this or that situation which was similar to that or this in the past. All very useful, of course, but often an impediment to action. Nevertheless, we need to think carefully about this, since the only reasons for the creation of new Departments, Centres, or Schools can be academic ones, and no other motivation needs to be operative. This is where other analogies from the Game of Thrones come into play- who shall be lord and who the king…

If one cannot learn from the past, one is doomed to make more mistakes- first the tragedy and then the farce as Marx famously said. But this could also be a millstone that simply does not allow us to evolve new patterns and new structures. It can be stultifying to have to grow within the same formats, especially if the format does not allow for flexibility. I do hope that collectively and individually we can find the way forward.

Given the momentous events of the week past, it is not possible to close without commenting on the other game of thrones, the one being played out in Delhi. This blogpost was written over a period of time that includes both the elections and it’s denouement. It is of immeasurable importance as to who is named the Minister for Human Resource Development as the policies and practices that are in force in the next few years will be crucial to the further growth of our  University. The last two years of stasis have been an impediment that cannot be exaggerated, and while I do not anticipate the financial picture to become rosy overnight, one can only hope that the vision for change will be founded on sound principles of better education at all levels, especially the tertiary. And an unassailable respect for the autonomy of the University, our aims, and our aspirations.

#s 4, 5 and 7: A UoH triple play

Untitled 2For reasons that are truly too dreary to get into, I had to spend a little time on the Web of Knowledge, that useful (but often dangerous!) engine of discovery.  Again, for reasons too dreary to elaborate, I thought I would find out which scientific contributions from India were most significant in terms of their impact. Each of these terms is loaded, of course, but here are the filters that I applied.

  • I searched for papers that were published from India between 1 January 1999 and today. This amounted to a total of 540,649 publications in all.
  • I removed all papers from this list where one or more authors was from the USA, bringing the number down to 515,720. (That’s 24929 collaborative publications between the countries in the past 15 years. Not a lot.)
  • I further pruned the list by removing papers where there were coauthors from the UK, Japan, Germany, Switzerland and Russia. This brought the total to 484,153. (5 countries, 15 years, 31567 papers. Really not a lot.)
  • Since one needs a valid subscription to the Web of Knowledge to see the results, I’ve put up a snapshot of the results page above, using the feature in WoK of ranking papers by “Times Cited”. This can tell you which papers have been cited maximally by other researchers.
  • Judging impact by this indicator, it turns out that the paper with most impact that is purely “from India” is the 2002 IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON EVOLUTIONARY COMPUTATION publication,  A fast and elitist multiobjective genetic algorithm: NSGA-II by K. Deb,  A. Pratap, S. Agarwal and T. Meyarivan. Its been cited an impressive 5574 times.

What is really quite remarkable, and a matter of justifiable pride, is that the School of Chemistry of our University figures thrice in the top 10 papers in the list. The 2003 Chem. Rev. paper by  Basavaiah, Roy and Satyanarayana, the 2002 Acc. Chem. Res. paper by Desiraju, and a 2002 paper by Kotha, Lahiri and Kashinath in Tetrahedron figure at Nos. 4, 5 and 7. While Profs. Basavaiah and Desiraju were  on the faculty when these papers were written of course (and Prof. DB continues to be with us), Prof. Kotha of the IIT Powai is an alumnus, having earned both the M. Sc. and the Ph. D. from the UoH, in 1979 and 1985 respectively.

Some caveats. Of course, in this age of globalization the “from India” tag is not necessarily prized, and in any case it can be quite irrelevant as to which ideas are truly from India. Most cited is also not necessarily the most significant work, and a longer sense of history is needed to judge significance. In journal terms, the word impact has its own connotations, mostly negative, but still.

All this apart, its quite nice to see our work up there in the rankings. The institutional affiliations of other authors on the top 10 papers (to further normalize the list) include the IITs (Kanpur, Mumbai, and Roorkee), IUCAA (Pune), IISc (Bangalore), JNCASR (Bangalore), and JNU (New Delhi).

Pretty good company to keep.

Round 3 of the NAACcreditation

indexThe results from the NAAC reaccreditation are now out, and our University has been awarded the overall score of 3.72 out of 4. This is lower than what we had in the first round of reaccreditation when we were given 3.89 out of 4. It is disappointing that we have slipped by 0.17, a percentage drop in quality of about 5%, however that may be estimated… From the documents that can be seen on their website, it is clear that with the passage of time the NAAC has gotten somewhat stricter, but that in of itself is little solace, given the effort that went into the preparation for the visit of the peer review team in January.

SMBe that as it may, all of us owe a word of appreciation to the Coordinator of the effort, Professor Sachi Mohanty of the Department of English. He was a veritable one-man army, mobilizing the efforts of so many staff in preparing reports, collecting information, supervising cleaning, painting, and doing the million things that we all saw him do.

As a colleague wrote to him after the NAAC peer team visit, “I want to take the opportunity to congratulate you and your team for an excellent academic presentation and for the efficient coordination and organization of the NAAC visit. We may know the grade/marks later, but whatever these may be, you and your team made the UoH community proud of its achievements.

I would also like to acknowledge and salute your personal commitment, dedication and devotion to the University; it is rare to find this today. You not only put together and presented an academic assessment through the voluminous report documenting the achievements of the various Departments and Centres and Schools but also highlighted the small and big endeavors made by the teaching, non teaching and student community. As a member of the campus residential community I want to particularly thank you for efforts you made to improve our environment and ambience and make the campus a clean and aesthetic place to live in. In ensuring this, you went beyond the call of duty.

we-try-harder-tvlowcost-australia There are some advantages to not being No. 1 – one tries harder to achieve excellence… There will be time enough to discuss what all needs improving at the University- starting with the infrastructure, both physical and academic. But we should find both the time and the will to bring about some real changes, to earn the higher grades that we all know that we are capable of. Till then, we should keep trying.

See an interview on the local tv station: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57gT5J8wrxE#aid=P-sgiBrV7IE

The Palamuru Seven

37On Monday the 27th January, I was in Mahbubnagar,  at Palamuru University, to attend the Annual Convention of the Andhra Pradesh Akademi of Sciences (APAS), to keep an old commitment, namely to deliver the Sitamahalakshmi Memorial Lecture. And I was fortunate in at least two ways…

The first was that I got to see- after too many years- Ranga, aka Professor S Ranganathan who taught us Organic Chemistry so brilliantly at IIT Kanpur. Ranga, who is now at the IICT in Hyderabad, retired from Kanpur after decades of teaching generations of chemists. His classes were wonderful, and he was one of the first to seriously try to get some of us interested in biology- I remember him and Balu (Professor D. Balasubramaniam, also now in Hyderabad, and at the LV Prasad Eye Institute) inviting a number of people in ’73 or ’74 to try to educate us philistine M Sc students of the exciting things that were going on in biological chemistry. Some of my classmates took the bait, but it didn’t work out in my case… But more of that in another post, maybe.

The second was that I got to see seven of our colleagues being inducted into the Akademi at one go- the largest contingent from anywhere to be so elected! In the alphabetical order of the handout, here they are :

Untitled 3

M. Ghanshyam Krishna of the School of Physics was elected Fellow. His work focuses on the growth, characterization and applications of thin films.

Subramanyam Rajagopal of the Department of Plant Sciences, School of Life Sciences was elected Fellow. (OK, so the photo is an older one, and he does not sport the mustache now…) His group is working on bioenergy related to photosynthesis and phytomedicines. His major research contribution was on abiotic stress effects on photosynthesis apparatus of cyanobacteria, algae and higher plants.

Samar Das, of the School of Chemistry, was also elected Fellow. The focus of his research effort is to synthesize metal-oxide based inorganic compounds and to exploit their host guest, ion exchange and catalytic properties.

Pradeepta Panda of the School of Chemistry was elected an Associate Fellow. His  work is on the design and synthesis of various porphyrins.

S Srilakshmi of the UCESS was elected an Associate Fellow. She is a geophysicist, and the only woman in the group.

S Srinath of the School of Physics was elected an Associate Fellow. His areas are Magnetism, Multiferroics, Oxides, Nanomaterials  and  Thin films.

S Venugopal Rao of theACRHEM was elected an Associate Fellow. He does a lot of things, as you can see on his homepage, but to mention a few areas of his interest,  Semiconductor Nonlinear Optics: Optical frequency conversion techniques [Second Harmonic Generation, Sum Frequency Generation, Difference Frequency Generation], Optical Parametric Oscillators/Amplifiers in the near- and mid-infrared spectral region and construction and characterization of femtosecond/picosecond Ti:sapphire lasers.

And in addition, there were many other colleagues from the UoH there: they had already  been elected to the Akademi in earlier years. The President, Dr Ch. Mohan Rao, being an alumnus, made the presence of the University even stronger, and drove home the point that we are the preëminent research university in AP. And, of course, also in the country. Nice!