Monday, October 19, 2009

Sibal’s spitball

Union HRD minister Kapil Sibal wants to give a higher weightage to 12th board marks in the IIT qualifiers. Specifically, he wants to raise the minimum 12th board score from 60% to 80-85% for a qualification to the IIT entrance exams. He says that it will reduce the influence of coaching classes, and focus the students on 12th boards.

When did this man turn into the nut he seems to be today?

First problem: This man has earlier wanted to reduce the stress levels of students by easing the grading system for 10th and 12th exams. Suddenly, he wants to increase focus on these exams.

Second problem: Nearly every undergrad program that is fought for in my wonderful city of Mumbai has a CET. The 12th score has no value, and is a union card.

Third problem: If coaching classes are doing well in predicting your questions, set better questions. You are supposed to be the smartest people in India. If some coaching class hacks can outsmart you, perhaps a re-evaluation is in order. In any case, not all colleges are good enough in training students for IIT JEE (Read: No college is good enough, except if it has some IIT coach moonlighting there!) Also, who do you think prepares students for 12th boards? Coaching classes of course! So what we have here are classes for each exam telling the students that their exam is the most important. Great! Now students can choose whatever is good for them.

If a student cracks IIT-JEE by studying hard, being really brilliant, or with a lot of conniving from his coaching class, what is wrong with that? Instead of overprotecting the JEE system, make it a better system. Bring back the IIT screening, if you want.

Another thing: The IITs have been reduced to a celebration of intellect and the ability to crack the JEE and study super-hard while in IIT. There has been no great innovation from them in recent years, nothing that justifies the amount of taxpayer money being spent on the IITs. Frankly speaking, a lot of the students are going to b-schools and becoming investment bankers and hopelessly mediocre writers. Maybe it is time we added more IITs, reduced the overall cutoff, and concentrated on making decent engineers and not astronauts. The phenomenally bright students will find a way, if they're determined enough, and if they're not, well…there's nothing we can do.

The decision to implement this change, or not, is left to the IIT people. Let's all remember: whatever decision is taken, it is a lot of time and energy being spent for a crème de la crème of the Indian student population, and clearly an extravagance we cannot afford.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Scientific Misconduct - An Insight

"There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale
returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact."

Mark Twain

Human beings are passionate; scientists more so than anyone else. That we take a few given facts and let our imaginations run wild is probably our best quality as far as science is concerned. For centuries, budding scientists have taken for granted many bits of established theories and facts while questioning many others. The result has been a victory for science whether the scientist himself benefits or not.

Ideally, one would like to have a research lab equipped with all necessary equipment, excellent research assistants who are dedicated to achieving results and an endless supply of necessities like money, public support and appreciation which lead to extremely unequivocal results which support our conjecture.

In reality, we have labs with constraints of every type possible, the most important being industry support and funding. A lead scientist in charge of a lab has, along with his career, the careers of his research assistants and fellows to think about.

Grants come from bodies interested in research enough to invest in it. They prefer some research to others as they hit closer to home for them. A scientist who does research for scientific curiosity alone will have to wait in line behind those who have marketable results in the offing. This does erode the scientific passion. Brian Martinson, an investigator with the Health Partners Research Foundation in Minneapolis said "Science has changed a lot in terms of its competitiveness. We've turned science into a big business but failed to note that some of the rules of science don't fit well with that model."

Science for the sake of science is a luxury few labs can afford. One can be dismayed but not very shocked at the instances of scientists modifying results to fit to already-accepted conjecture. One can understand that the Pharmaceutical Industry is one of the most affected industries as regards this fact.

This brings us to the issue of scientific misconduct. It has many definitions and interpretations but one way to simplify it probably is 'Submission of data which is suspect in terms of authenticity, originality, completeness, level of accuracy or level of certainty.' This is the type that is most talked about. The term can also be stretched to include 'use of scientific/academic authority to commit an act which is unethical or worse illegal.'

Of the various speculated theories which attempt to explain the commitment of scientific misconduct by highly educated, intelligent and industrious people, one theory states that some scientists doctor their results to fit their own theories. One may jump to a conclusion that this is motivated by avaricious needs to present a 'successful' bit of research i.e. one that agrees with a theory which has some credibility attached to it.

There is no defense for this act but when one digs deeper, one wonders whether avarice and greed to be the toast of the scientific community is just one motive and not the motive. We cannot get inside the skull of those scientists who have admitted to altering results to know their true motive but we can give them a fair moral trial in our minds by examining the situation with greater scrutiny.

This article does not attempt to justify acts of scientific misconduct. It simply believes that there is more to the idea of the talented, brilliant forerunners of our society destroying their careers and their reputations in one fell swoop than meets the eye.

So here goes, when a person approaches an experiment, he has prejudged it to some extent. It will take a yogi to have a completely dispassionate view of the experiment. There is a thought process which has gone on in this mind which has been validated by years of good research and a great academic record. The scientist foresees a result, chews on it and slowly makes it his own. It rarely happens that the research outcome completely negates the theory. More often than not, some fluctuations are introduced which skew the results just enough to challenge the theory.

"If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts." Albert Einstein

One wonders in what context this great mind said that. Fortunately for some scientists, their conjectures and mathematical proofs cannot be challenged simply because an experiment of that kind would not be feasible. For example, Archimedes said, "Give me a place to stand, and I will move the earth." He said this right after he enlightened us with the principle of levers. With simple mathematics, one can prove that no matter where Archimedes stands, he cannot move the earth by even a fraction of an inch. But, a great mind like his was fooled by ego or an arrogant belief in a theory which has beset many of the scientists today.

One wonders then, whether science is reduced to a mere series of experiments and people in suits with regulatory expertise breathing down the necks of scientists. John Forbes Nash Jr. (winner of 1994 Nobel Prize for Economics and a great contributor to Game Theory) dropped Chemistry in college as he felt 'it only measured how someone could handle a pipette and perform a titration and not how well one could think.' But, if thinking is attached to caveats of financial and legal nature, it will stifle the original scientist and could probably force them to see results they want to see.

Gregor Mendel's laws on genetics were taken for granted and then slowly modified and optimized as newer discoveries came about. However, W. F. R Weldon suspected that Mendel's experiment results came too close to the expected ones and after applying the chi square test, he concluded that Mendel's results must be investigated. Ronald A. Fisher opined the same way. It took a lot for these people to challenge very well established laws, and it puts the thought in a person's mind that Mendel had certain views on Genetics and perhaps decided to adjust his experiment results to agree with what he thought.

One is unable to understand why such acts of, at the very least, suspect research, and at most, misconduct are committed by people. Great scientists who have been accused of such acts do not deserve the label of avarice or greed or even ego. There needs to be more research in this aspect to determine what is it that makes scientists falsify, fabricate, plagiarize etc.

At any point we must not forget that for the most part, these are path-breaking innovators with dazzling IQs and legitimate contributions to society. They deserve some more consideration and analysis.

In conclusion, all I can say is that there is no excuse for scientific misconduct and it must never be condoned. There have to be some measures, though, to investigate the cause of misconduct which will help us come up with permanent solutions to this problem as opposed to simply deterrents and punishments.