In the NIRF rankings released earlier this month, IIT-B appeared in the top five in at least three categories and it has been consistently performing well. What do you attribute this consistency to?
We are a good institute, so we are doing well in the rankings. See, these rankings are new and so they still have to be fine-tuned and I feel we can do much better than this. Many people regard IIT-B as the number one institute. So in that sense I think we can do better perhaps looking at some of the parameters. We have a separate committee that looks into all the rankings.
The institute’s Strategic Plan 2022 talks about diversifying from the core engineering subjects and plans to include Humanities and Arts. What is the reason behind this?
Humanities and Social Sciences were part of IIT right from the beginning. So this is not something new. When IITs were set up, there was a strong emphasis on Science and Engineering so students could have a wide exposure to different subjects. So I think this is a natural evolution. It helps in two ways – one, it gives our students a much wider choice. It is difficult for students to decide exactly what they are going to do at age 18 when they come and join this place. So this gives them a chance to try out different disciplines. Two, our research becomes much more holistic because even Science and Engineering need to take inputs from Social Sciences and Design. Of course there is the Management component if you want to start some business. All of these things are very interconnected and we see a lot of collaborations across all the departments.
A few weeks ago, we saw scientists, academics and students, including those from IIT-B, participate in the ‘March for Science’ in Mumbai. One of the contentions was the decline in funds for Sciences. Has IIT-B faced any such issues?
The only research funding we get is through the funding agencies. For us, each year those funds have been increasing. These are competitive grants. So if your proposal is really good then you get the grants but you are competing with everybody else. So since we have very good faculty here, they are easily able to attract funds. In a sense we haven’t really faced reduction in funds here but I think if we have to be internationally competitive, then each year the increase has to be substantial so that the facilities can be quickly built and students can then get access to doing the kind of research that is internationally competitive.
Is it true that most of the research that is happening in India is catching up with what is happening abroad?
I would say, yes that is broadly true but all research is usually catching up whether it is done in the US or in UK. What happens is that once in a while somebody makes a breakthrough and pushes the field forward. There are some of those things happening in India as well. There are some outstanding researchers all over the country. So they come up with some new ideas and new approach, then everybody follows along. But that is the nature of research in Science. But yes the number of breakthroughs that happen in the advanced countries is far more because there are far more researchers who have much better resources.
Last year there was a report that the number of research projects in IIT-B has gone up but the number of patents filed is not increasing correspondingly.
We file a large number of patents, 100-120 a year. These things don’t go in lockstep because the research funding after it is received, over the next few years that money will be used for the research. Then the patents are filed. On an average, our growth rate in research funding is quite high. It is also increasing in patents with time. Patents are more complicated than just doing research. People file patents only when they think there is a good possibility of commercialising or monetising those ideas in some way. So people may choose to do it or not, depending on how important they feel that idea is or whether the market is open for those things or if they are interested in the business side of things at all. We have to try hard and we are helping people to file patents but it is an expensive process. We usually support patents filed in India. If anyone wants to file a US patent, they have to find part of the funding themselves. After all filing a patent is almost like a business decision because you will spend a few lakhs filing a patent and maintaining it over 10-20 years but what will be your return on that. Quite a few of our patents have actually been commercialised either licensed to companies or some of them have been used by our startups.
In this year’s ‘March for Science’, there was a lot of focus on the “decline in scientific temper” and increase in propagation of pseudo-scientific ideas. IIT-B was also in the centre of a controversy over a Vedic Sciences workshop last year.
I think the subjects don’t matter. I don’t know about this Vedic workshop. I’m sure there is a lot of interesting stuff to investigate in those ideas which are there in our old books. I think every civilisation and culture tries to understand what is useful out of those things. The main thing is the approach. Do you take whatever is written in some book or some set of books as the final truth or are you studying those with a view to questioning what is written there, testing those ideas.
There was a student campaign started recently called #IITBWomenSpeak where women students talked about casual sexism on campus. We know that traditionally the sex ratio at IITs has been skewed. Is there any attempt at bridging that gap and addressing sexism on campus?
Yeah. In a sense this place is a great place for women to study and work. We are absolutely committed to making women safe and comfortable here. There have been instances of sexism that have been pointed out. This was a male-dominated space but not so much now because 23 per cent of the students are women and that is not a negligible number. About 18 per cent of our faculty are women and if you look at our younger faculty there are more. We have a very active women’s cell which has been conducting gender sensitisation workshops. IIT-B will add 35 supernumerary seats for women this year.
IIT-B is known for its incubation center for startups. What is IIT-B doing differently from other institutes?
We have a whole startup ecosystem. The incubator is the end point. There is a very active student club called E-Cell, which runs programmes for students. That generates a lot of enthusiasm. Students have a lot of role models in their seniors who have done well as entrepreneurs. Many come back and talk to young students so there is that transfer of information. Then we have set up the Desai Sethi Entrepreneurship Centre, supported by one of our alumni. It offers workshops and courses for students who are interested in entrepreneurship. Students can even take enough courses to get a minor degree in entrepreneurship. Some of these courses are taught by our faculty but a lot of them are taught by adjunct who are themselves entrepreneurs. Then finally we have SINE, which is the incubator which gives funding and all sorts of support. We have been very successful just nurturing companies to do well. People think about starting companies here because they know there is a way of doing it.