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Sunday, February 25, 2018

Prime Minister's Research Fellowship (PMRF) Scheme

We have a crisis on hand. Not enough quality PhD students in STEM fields leading to poor quality research and lack of quality faculty.

Solution: Prime Minister's Fellowship Scheme (PMRF)

In this scheme, the government wants to encourage under-graduate students (or those studying in 5-year integrated programs) from IITs/NITs/IISERs/IIITs (only centrally funded ones) to join IITs/IISc for PhD and offer them a huge financial incentive, both personal money (3 times the regular PhD students in these institutes) and research grant.

This scheme is flawed in so many ways that I don't know where to begin.

First, let us talk about eligibility. Are the graduates of these 60+ institutes the very best that this country produces. If yes, we have a much more serious problem of under-graduate education. Thankfully, there are many institutions in India who are better. I know Computer Science education in this country better than most other disciplines. Is there any doubt that IIIT Hyderabad provides a better CS under-graduate education than almost any NIT (if not all NITs). IIIT-Delhi, BITS Pilani, Jadavpur, and I can go on and on with a large number of CSE programs who will be better than a majority of NITs. The lower half of NITs is really pathetic in Computer Science education (and I would guess in other disciplines as well).

So, is this scheme for quality students, or is this scheme for CFTI students. The government should be bold enough and admit that this is to help CFTIs and not about quality. After all, these are their colleges. Of course, being the regulator of the sector and also a player in the sector is nothing new for the government. That it has led to seriously flawed schemes and conflict of interest issues over the past several decades should not deter the government to keep making the same mistakes.

But if they wanted to support their own colleges, why restrict it to only under-graduates. Is there any doubt that many of IITK MTech students are much better prepared for PhD than BTechs from several colleges in this list. Why not make the same offer to MTech graduates. There is a huge bias in favor of UGs in the system. "Getting a good rank in JEE is tougher than getting a good rank in GATE" is the Mantra here, even if false, purely in terms of number of people who give JEE and GATE.

Some people may argue that it is very difficult to come up with an exact set of good colleges in every discipline and the set that the government has chosen is good enough, and while some good students will be missed, keeping it open to all students would have made it extremely difficult to ensure that only the best get this scholarship. Why couldn't government let IITs decide who the best students are (even that is flawed as we will see next, but is better than restricting the pool to a few CFTIs). The only reason that individual IITs and IISc cannot decide who will get this fellowship is that government cannot trust them. There may be good reasons not to trust IITs, but then that the best educational institutes in the country cannot be trusted individually and hence the selection has to be jointly by all IITs/IISc shows a much deeper malaise in our system, and perhaps the government needs to worry about that first.

So, frankly, there is really no reason to restrict the talent pool to poorer quality colleges (strictly in relative terms, in absolute terms, many of the NITs are doing a fine job of preparing their students). It could be open to all and we need to figure out who are the best students working on research problems of national priorities.

Second, let us talk about the institutions where one can do PhD. For some strange reason, only IITs and IISc are allowed to host these students. Again, are these our best institutions in STEM. I would guess that IISERs, TIFR, CMI, ISI, would have stronger research programs in science than most IITs. IIIT Hyderabad and IIIT Delhi would have stronger research program in Computer Science than most IITs. Why are we forcing the cream of the nation to do research in second best colleges. Is IIT mafia at work here.

Is it really very difficult to come up with a program in which quality students from all backgrounds are selected and the student can work in any institute.

The third problem in the scheme is that of the quantum of support. Given that it is an extremely biased scheme, the huge difference with the existing assistantship amount will demoralize a lot of PhD students. At IIT Kanpur, we are admitting about 250 PhD students in a year. Only a fraction of these would get PMR Fellowship. Now, many of those 250 students will actually perform better than these PMR Fellows. How would they feel about  the system. Those who do better research get paid less and those who do worse research get paid more. Why. Because these other students got a few marks less in JEE a few years ago or they were smart enough to find out that a lot of state/private colleges are actually far superior to NITs. The goal of the scheme is to encourage PhD research. The scheme will only end up discouraging a large number of excellent students from doing PhD.

There are other issues with the scheme. It suggests that these PhD students will work in research areas that are national priorities. Who will decide national priorities. Who will determine if the student is actually working on a problem which is a national priority. I haven't seen any list of priority areas yet.

The research grant of these PhD students is Rs. 2 lakh per year. This is when the research grant of IIT faculty remains at Rs. 1 lakh per year. If you really want to support research and build a research eco-system, shouldn't you be looking at all the cogs in the wheel.

The assistantship of other PhD students get raised only after many years (last raise was in 2014, if I remember correctly). Should we not move to a system where some increment is given to PhD students every year to take care of inflation. Again, look at all the cogs in the wheel.

The student will be interviewed by a panel consisting of one faculty representative of each institute desirous of admitting a PhD student with PMR Fellowship in that discipline. For most core disciplines, it means that 24 professors will be interviewing a student.I can't imagine facing an interview board of 24 persons. I would be too stressful and won't be able to perform in such an environment. And, of course, if a student gets nervous, we will be quick to declare that s/he is not good enough for PMR Fellowship.

It is also not clear how the decision will be taken. If some IITs want to admit a student, but some other IITs don't want to admit the student, will that be possible. Will we tell the student that as far as IITX is concerned, you did well in the interview, but IITY thinks that you did not do well in the interview. Or are we going to tell him, IITX being a second rate IIT has agreed to admit you, but IITY being the first rate IIT has decided not to admit you. Is there clarity on this.

Now, the numbers. About 30,000 students are graduating from all those lucky CFTIs. One would guess that about 30% of these students would have a CGPA of 8.0 or higher. So the total number of eligible students is, say, 10,000. Will we be able to attract 1,000 students out of 10,000 to do PhD in IITs/IISc. I have my doubts. What it will result in is that anyone from any of those CFTIs with 8+ CGPA can do a PhD in some IIT.

I think as of now, there are around 300 students from these CFTIs doing PhD in IITs and IISc, and may be another 100 doing PhD in other institutes. What this scheme will do is that those 300 who would have joined anyway with low assistantship will get higher fellowship. Most of those 100 in other institutes will now shift to IITs. May be another 100 who are not doing PhD will get attracted to do PhD, the primary aim of this scheme. And another 200 will join the scheme since the money is good, but will not be able to complete the PhD. So, may be they will be able to select around 700 PhD students in all. But the net addition due to this scheme who would also perform well and complete a good PhD would be only 100. And to add these 100, we would have lost another 100 who would have been demoralized by this scheme. So the net impact of this scheme will be zero, if not negative.

And remember, the scheme is only talking of attracting quality students to PhD program in quality institutions. There is no thought about how would we ensure that these students after completing their PhD remain in India. Why wouldn't they join foreign places.

So we have a scheme which deliberately prefers students from poorer quality colleges, prefers them to do PhD in poorer quality colleges, and is based on mistrust of the best institutions in the country. It is discriminatory, demoralizes other good students in PhD programs, does nothing for the research eco-system as a whole, and does nothing to ensure that there is no brain drain (a stated goal of the scheme).

Added on 25/02/2018:
 
They could have taken inspiration from another large PhD fellowship scheme of the Government, Visvesvaraya PhD Scheme, managed by Media Lab Asia, under the Department of Electronics and IT. It is not as if I agreed with everything they did, but it was so much better. There was no discrimination (except PhD scholar could not be at a new private institutes who had not been accredited or approved), the amount was only marginally higher, there was a scheme for faculty too, there was money for the department to improve research infrastructure, there was money for conference travel. It was designed keeping in mind that not every institute is as well endowed as IITs, and yet, not every good PhD research is taking place in an IIT. The scheme made a significant impact as far as PhD programs in IT are concerned.


Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Presidential Visit to IIT Kanpur (Convocation 2013)

I want to recall the visit of Shri Pranab Mukherjee to IIT Kanpur as the Chief Guest of our convocation in 2013, and place on record all the issues that I faced as the primary person responsible for organizing his visit in the hope that it will help others organizing a Presidential visit.

A presidential visit is an honor for the Institute. He is Visitor to the Institute and in that role responsible for approving statutes, deciding who the next Director will be, sending a nominee to the selection of ALL professors in the Institute. So he is one of us, and we look forward to the Visitor visiting us. However, convocation is too complex a function to be made even more complex by merging the Presidential visit with it.

We had a new Director, Prof. Indranil Manna, join the Institute in November, 2012. He was keen to have his first convocation to be a very high flying event with wide coverage by media, and he decided that he will invite none other than the President himself. We sent the invitation in March, and were pleasantly surprised to receive an acceptance letter within days. It was for a convocation to be held in June, 2013. However, a month later, we received a letter from President's office canceling his visit because of his other engagements. By now, all our graduating students had booked air tickets (mostly non-refundable), and I was of the view that we should invite him again for a different event. But the Director was insistent and sent a letter informing them that we are willing to postpone the convocation to any date that the President finds convenient. So a new date was decided. It was 5th July, 2013.

This would be the last communication that we would receive from the President's office for the next 2 months or more.

We were under the impression that we invited the President and hence we were the hosts, and we would be dealing with his visit. But President's office does not look at it this way. For them, the host can only be the state government, and the state is represented by Chief Secretary. So every letter from them would be sent to Chief Secretary in Lucknow. And since Digital India was not yet the project of Government of India despite an earlier President, Dr. Kalam, being very tech-savvy, all such communications could only be through a fax. The Chief Secretary office will forward all such faxes to the office of Home Secretary which is right in the same building in Lucknow, but it won't be sent by a person, but through a fax. Home Secretary will send it to Commissioner, who will send it to District Magistrate, who will send it to SDM, who will send it to Registrar, IIT Kanpur, and each one of them would use, you guessed it right, a fax machine. A person in Registrar office will bring that fax to me, and there is no way I can read anything written on it.

On a couple of occasions I sent a request to President's office to send the same letter to us directly through email, and if they don't wish to recognize our existence, they could at least send the same letter to Chief Secretary by email, but I never got any response from them, nor did I receive anything through the State Government route which was legible.

While I could not read anything in those faxes, the District Administration would tell me what the letter says. I always suspected that they are not reading that letter but just saying what they want us to do.

Right from the very beginning, different people in the district administration would come to us and tell us all sorts of things to do. I was sure that those were neither required for security nor were part of any protocol, but you will never hear from President's office regarding what are the security and protocol requirements that we are supposed to follow.

Just to give an example, we were told that a lot more electric sockets are needed in the auditorium. We didn't know why, but had no option. So we told them that it would be done. Not so soon, you must get it done by a specific contractor, and not by your own people. But why. Because this contractor is security cleared and our men are not security cleared. It occurred to me that the electricians who did the wiring in the auditorium 20 years ago may not have been security cleared either. And security of the President should depend on the quality of wiring and not on who does that wiring. So I asked them to give me a formal letter giving a list of all security cleared contractors. I was told that the list is confidential and cannot be shared. I asked him to give me at least 3 contractors so that we can call for quotations and take L1 among them. But he would not budge. And, of course, if you do secure wiring by the security cleared contractor, it would only cost you twice of what a normal contractor would charge, and we should be willing to pay this extra money since the security of the head of the state is involved. I refused. I was warned that the venue will not be security cleared and President's office will be informed that there is risk to his life. I told him that if they can check all the 20-year old wiring, they can check a small amount of additional wiring and if they don't agree, they can tell the President to stay at home. Well, they agreed to let us do it ourselves.

Similarly, a small set of steps outside the auditorium was considered the best place to have a photo with the President. This place won't be security cleared for photograph unless the tent is taken from a security cleared tent contractor. We refused and made the arrangements for the photograph anyway.

But these altercations were causing too much stress, and I didn't know how to deal with the situation any better. One day, I called up a few of my batchmates who are in IAS and asked them for advice. It was simple. I should request the District Magistrate for a coordination meeting in IIT Kanpur with all his staff who will be involved in planning and execution and all our internal teams responsible for the convocation. During the meeting, I should call the DM by his first name, which he won't mind. After all, he is so junior to me. But each one of his staff would notice and assume that I have a very close and direct connection to him and would start behaving. This is exactly how it played out. They were most helpful in most things after that.

But the security guys would continue to give us hell and closer to the event, even admin staff would play truant.

What if the President suddenly feel the urge to take rest. Well, we would certainly welcome him to our guest house, and keep a suite reserved for him. No, the entire guest house must be vacated. I told them that we didn't vacate the guest house even for PM's visit (Dr. Manmohan Singh had come for a convocation a couple of years earlier). And we have had pretty much every President visit us, including Madam Pratibha Patil and Dr. Kalam in recent times. OK, at least the entire wing of suites. No way, Sir. I don't think our Chairman, Board of Governors, and our distinguished guests like Mr. Narayan Murthy could be settled in small rooms. Finally, we agreed to three suites. A corner suite for the President on the ground floor. The suite next to it for any other VIP in his contingent, and the suite directly above his suite for the security guys.

Invitation cards were getting delayed. We had sent the first design well in time for the approval from President's office, but no reply was forthcoming. After many reminders, just 2 weeks before the convocation, we received a large number of changes along with the instruction that it was not final, and we must still get it approved from them after making all those changes. We did those changes and sent it again. No response again for a few days. Finally, we got the invites printed without approval and distributed them. After we had done so, we received a couple of minor changes to the card and we were told that this was final. We printed a small number of cards with these changes and sent these new cards to all "officials" like MHRD. I don't know if President's office really thought that invitation cards can be printed and distributed all over the country within a day or two, when they can take weeks to respond to a request.

The biggest fight was about who will sit on the stage. In IITK convocation, almost 40 people sit on the dais, and we have kept it this way even when previous PM/Presidents have come for the convocation. But this time there was a determined DM and an equally determined security chief to not allow this. We were supposed to send the dais plan to President's office and get it approved. We were sending it repeatedly by email, but it would be beneath the dignity of the President's office to respond to IIT Kanpur. Who were we in comparison with the state of UP. And they would only respond to letters from the state of UP. On the day before the convocation when we were putting chairs on the stage, an officer asked a staff to remove those chairs. When I challenged him, he showed me a fax approving the stage plan that someone in the local administration had sent, and of course, on the plan that he had sent to President's office, he had written that IITK has created this plan, which was a complete lie. I told him that we will continue with the plan that we have sent by email unless they specifically tell us that that plan is not acceptable to them. And I told him that if he interfered with my work, I will have to ask him to leave the auditorium. He threatened that he will ask the President office to cancel the visit. I was so used to this threat by now. I told him it would indeed be great if the visit is canceled. I was sick and tired of this visit where the President's office thinks that their host is state government and not IIT Kanpur, and have consistently refused to talk to us. Let the State Government host him and he does not have to come to IIT Kanpur. I was quite prepared to conduct the convocation without the President. And we had a complete plan B ready for the entire convocation if there was a last-minute cancellation by the President.

This officer called up someone and gave the phone to me. Some Army officer in President's office. He first insisted that only approved plan for stage has to be implemented. But I explained to him that the plan has been approved by falsifying the information that it was IITK plan. He must look at the IITK plan, and if he feels that something needs to be changed because of security or protocol concern, we will do so. He asked me to send it again, which I did, and within minutes he called to say that our plan is approved. This was the turning point of the entire arrangement. I talked to him about the photograph venue. He approved it.

The security guys weren't pleased. And they had to keep coming up with many demands. President could not be walking in the aisle of the auditorium. It would be too dangerous. What if we give all corner seats on both sides of the aisle to policemen. No, it would still be too dangerous. President can quietly sneak in from the backdoor to the stage once the academic procession has reached the stage. I called up President's office and the officer said that the President has always participated in academic processions in all convocations he had attended and there can be no exception at IITK.

Throughout the evening, many issues would be raised. In all such cases, I would call up the officer in Delhi, and he would always agree with our viewpoint. Where were you for the last 3 months, I cried, when the local officials were harassing me to no end.

A large contingent of security forces descended on the auditorium as soon as our rehearsal ended. They checked every seat, the stage, the green room, the place where the President will get down, and so on. For the next few hours, it was a war zone, and in the night, they left, satisfied that the venue is safe enough for the President of India.

But, wait a minute. where is UP Police. Not a man in sight. You clear the venue and you just leave. Last time when SPG sanitized the venue, they made sure that not even a bird could enter the place without multiple levels of security checks. But now, even a truck could enter. What kind of security is this. I was scared. I felt as if the responsibility of the security of the President has fallen on me and I didn't know how to deal with it. I called up the Chairman of the Security Advisory Committee, and requested him to assign several internal security persons to guard the auditorium in all directions throughout the night and not allow anyone at all to enter. At 2AM, I thought I could catch a 3-4 hour sleep and went home.

At 4AM, I was woken up. A truck full of flowers had landed with lots of workers and they had to do their job. I immediately reached the auditorium. No policemen. Only one hand held metal detector with our people. I requested additional guards. They had to check all flowers with that metal detector, and check all workers while they worked. At 8AM, they left. In between, DOAA staff had arrived with all the degrees and certificates, medals, and no one to check them.

At 7AM, lots of police shows up. There is a contingent of police that wants to re-sanitize the auditorium. Someone realized the mistake. I told them that the President would be coming in 3-4 hours, and we have to start seating people within two hours. So they did a hurried job. And in that hurried job, did not check any of us (about 25 persons in the hall at that time). Suddenly, they had this question. When was this stage built. I told them that it was 20 years old. What if it is unsafe. Well, they should have asked that question a long time ago.

So the people start coming in. A police officer comes to me. Where is the seating for IPS officers. I told them that it was in the second row, middle block. The most prominent seats were reserved for them and the IAS officers. But he wasn't happy. Do you think that DIG and IG would sit in the second row. Why can't at least these two be given seats in the front. (Notwithstanding that IAS officers senior to IG were going to sit in the second row. Shouldn't they be given the first row seats as well.) I explained to him that in the front row, we had half the seats reserved for President's office folks that they had insisted on as per the protocol. Then we had two seats each reserved for the distinguished persons getting honorary doctorates. We had an MP and an MLA and one Padma awardee, then our Deputy Director and myself as the Master of Ceremony. He questioned the seat to DD. I was irritated and told him that every professor in the Institute was in the higher grade pay than his IG and yet we are acting like a good host and not giving second row to our faculty who are so senior to all of them, but to our guests. And DD is too important for us compared to any police officer. He then asked me to ask MP/MLA to sit in the second row. I told him he can do that himself. I can't ask them to move. He got mad and said that if DIG/IG were not given a front row seat then no IPS officer will sit in the hall. I asked him if he could confirm it so that I can let more faculty members sit in the second row. I was under tremendous pressure for seats from all corners and faculty was particularly unhappy at being not given enough seats in what is essentially an academic event.

As soon as I finished with this officer, I was called behind the stage. We had made arrangements for refreshments for the President, just in case. A lady officer was looking at the crockery and told me that she hadn't seen such dirty crockery in her life. I told her that this is the finest crockery we could find in the market and it has been washed and dried and looked just fine to me. And the waiter. There was this man who was the best waiter in our guest house, who had been given a nice dress, ironed and all, and was looking smart. We had requested a local 5-star hotel to give him extra training on how to serve VVIPs. How can you even consider such a dark complexioned person to be waiting on the President of India. I was under severe stress, and almost at the point of breaking down. With all the courage I could gather, I told this officer that only 30 minutes are left before the President arrived. We cannot replace him with a light complexioned waiter. Would she mind serving the Head of the State, as she had the light complexion. She could not believe that someone could reply to her. She started shouting and while shouting, left the venue altogether. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

Finally, the President arrived. He and his team were extremely nice. Nothing to be hurried. Not only the press and the official photographer with passes could take the photograph, but even some of us with our phones could take photographs. The President was introduced to the academic procession and he was trying to know each one of them. Again, no hurry, no worry. He gave a long speech, much longer than the time his office had specified. And it was one of the best convocation speeches that we had heard. People who accompanied him were perfect gentlemen. No unnecessary requests. Always cooperative.

So it ended extremely well, but was the end so good that it justified tolerating all the stress for three months. Absolutely, not. I wouldn't invite President unless I am assured some support from his office right from day one, and not only on the last day.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Engineering teachers should interact with civil society

What do we teach our students in a network security course regarding authentication. Well, that it can be done based on what we know (password/pin), what we have (a card, or a device), and who we are (biometric). Unless you are an expert in biometric, a typical teacher will give an impression to students that biometrics is a fool proof method. It is fool proof because it is "private" and it is "unique." We can forget password, or others can guess our password. We can lose our card or others can steal our card. But we can not forget our fingerprint, we cannot lose our fingerprint (in normal situations) and others can't steal our fingers, of course. And we don't need to remember anything, since we always carry this information with us.

I think all such teachers should either follow the biometric research or follow the Aadhaar case in Supreme Court. Biometric is neither private nor unique and hence has a certain failure rate.
 
It is not private in the sense that lots of people have your biometric or can get it easily. I must have given my fingerprints to more than 10 people so far (passport, visas, driving license, aadhar enrollment centers, a few airtel agents, a few vodafone agents, and so on) and they could have saved them for replaying them at an opportune time. It is also not unique. Not just that every sensor is slightly different, but the position, the pressure and everything else is going to be slightly different. To some extent, an approximate search is possible and you may compare only some important features of the biometric, and it can authenticate you correctly. And if the issue is only the process and the sensor, you may just try again, and hopefully you will get authenticated. However, "who you are" changes with time. Fingerprints change and it is quite possible that if you attempt authentication against the fingerprints stored 5 years ago, you may not succeed in this. And you may fail in authentication at a very crucial time.

Now, this post is not to argue for or against Aadhaar. I don't want to get into whether despite these shortcomings, we can make something work, or are these shortcomings so fundamental to the scheme of things that there is no possibility of making it work. That would be an interesting debate and I will continue to follow the case in SC for that. (Would also be open to any paper by a knowledgeable researcher/technology expert.)

Here, my only contention is that as an academician, it is our responsibility to tell our students the limitations of any technology that we teach. Interestingly, when I just searched for some course notes on network security courses in Google, I noticed that courses in top CS departments even 10-15 years ago were teaching the shortcomings of biometric based authentication in those courses, since researchers knew about them long time ago. Are we doing the same in India. (I can say for myself that on a couple of occasions when I have taught network security course, I indeed have pointed out to some shortcomings.)

In general, the point is that we must keep our eyes and ears open for any information that relates to what we teach. We typically learn by following journals and conferences. But let us face it, we often teach courses which are beyond our research areas, and in those areas we do not read papers. Our regulators like AICTE would tell us that we should interact with industry to know broadly what is going on and the shortcoming of our educational institutions is that they don't encourage interaction with industry. To me, it seems, that it is even more important to learn about public policy and laws as they relate to technology and incorporate that learning in our courses. In a lecture on authentication, we should be able to present Aadhaar as a case study.
 
Our graduates should be solving the challenges faced by industry and build new technologies. But they should also be sensitive to the use of that technology as an instrument of public policy and whether that will necessarily benefit the society. They should be able to participate in such debates and ensure that the government takes informed decisions.