Crosstalk: Remembering What it Means to Be 'World Class'

We tend to ignore lessons from history around the world: there are only a few ways to build exceptional spots of research that can thrive and endure for a long time.

The entrance to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston. Credit: alunwk/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The entrance to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston. Credit: alunwk/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Crosstalk is a monthly column on the history and philosophy of science.

“You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” – Orson Welles, The Third Man

In past columns we’ve explored the scientific method and a practice of science. In this column, we’ll directly explore a much-abused term that is often heard in India these days, that of ‘world-class research institutes’. Political leaders routinely announce either the setting up of new ‘world-class’ institutes or making existing ones ‘world class’. Yet, there is barely a glimmer of understanding of what goes into making such institutes, leave alone the broader conditions in society needed for a culture of science to thrive.

Looking beyond such expressed platitudes, and setting aside debates on whether these are needed when half the country is in poverty, there are substantial systemic changes that need to happen in order to even create small research institutions of good quality. It is even harder to create quality universities. An obvious society-level change that is needed – but most ignored – is a transformation in primary and school education in India. And even without that happening, modern history has shown that creating pockets of research excellence is possible, but this requires a few critical elements. Let’s explore a few of these, and also look at a few examples of such ‘world class’ centres of excellence.

A culture of openness and enquiry: A necessary requirement in any place of research that is pushing boundaries is a vibrant culture of openness and enquiry. This means low levels of functional hierarchy, where scientists are free to question the questions being addressed, and to simply follow the data. This can only happen if individuals within the institute are empowered to ask questions, and not just follow rules or orders. This creates an environment where ideas constantly emerge and are tested. Importantly, it helps develop a broader culture where bad ideas die quickly and do not become persistent zombies sucking out resources from other, good ideas. Of course, this requires a streak of self-criticism in the researchers in that institute, but usually an open culture where ideas are constantly discussed encourages that. The other thing openness and enquiry enables is a reduction in groupthink, which stifles innovation. A herd can be useful but you should be able to go against the herd when needed.

Resources to address questions: Some people imagine that throwing money is sufficient to fix most problems. While money alone isn’t sufficient, it is certainly a necessary condition for enabling excellent research. Often it isn’t only about large amounts of money – the type of money matters. If researchers have freedom to use the money the best way they see fit (and not in a mandated way, being allowed to ask only certain questions, with too many bureaucratic restrictions), the likelihood of something truly innovative emerging increases. Also, while there shouldn’t be easy money, and researchers need to put in effort to raise money. There should always only be enough money. And the barriers toward raising enough money for flexible but intense research should not be too high.

Crosstalk within and beyond the ivory tower: There was a time in history when a scientist would ponder questions in isolation. This is nearly impossible today. We are living in an era of exponential growth in human knowledge and discovery. Science is now extremely interdisciplinary, and many exciting discoveries come out of groups of experts who are not necessarily experts in everything, but bring together exceptional scientists in individual disciplines who work together to address questions. Additionally, even within an individual discipline, there needs to be enough experts who can criticise, evaluate or improve an idea. This then requires a critical mass of high-caliber scientists in an area, capable of grasping and critiquing a question. Additionally, for ideas and discoveries to drive innovation and invention, scientists need to also leave their academic ivory towers, and take their discoveries to innovators as well as people with capital. Again, a different type of critical mass of people (connected to science) needs to emerge.

Location and attracting talent: For any single location (your ‘world-class institute’) to build a critical mass of exceptional people who can ask innovative questions, raise money, push intellectual boundaries and more, location matters immensely. The institute needs to have quality infrastructure to support research; there needs to be easy access to equipment (and equipment manufacturers); and such mundane aspects of research. For the researchers, for very practical reasons of daily life, like access to good schools and education, safe neighbourhoods, quality jobs for spouses, good air and road transportation, all matter immensely. Which means that much thought needs to go into where a new research institute is built. Given that the numbers of researchers in an institute are small compared to the general population of a city, there has to be some existing culture in a city (lacking a great institute) in order for it to be able to support an outstanding research institute.

A quick look at most such clusters in the world make almost all these points obvious. Boston is a prime example. While it can be argued that the great institutes there create a vibrant culture in the city and self-attract talent, there is a long history (at Harvard University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) of a culture of openness, sufficient resources and constant crosstalk to ensure that this culture is sustained. Building multiple institutes in one area truly helped. The same can be said about the San Francisco bay area or the Cambridge-London area, where most of these criteria were (actively) created by building multiple institutions over several decades.

But can new, exceptional institutes be started today, from scratch? And if so, what approaches are succeeding? There have been several successful efforts in North America, Europe and Asia emerging even in seemingly unlikely places. Most of them don’t meet all these criteria, but can compensate for one by exaggerating the other. Just a few examples: the Stowers Institute in Kansas city, IFOM in Milan or the Okinawa Institute for Science and Technology in Japan created centres in hitherto unfancied places by aggressively bringing together large groups of exceptional scientists (creating critical mass), giving them tremendous freedom in their lines of enquiry, created multiple opportunities for scientists at various levels, and provided enormous (more than typical) resources (to use flexibly) to excel. Other institutes choose to start from scratch (or expand within an existing institution) in cities with an existing culture of excellence. Sometimes, like in Singapore, there is focused, extensive investment (in a small geographical concentration) in specific areas of enquiry. All of these can be successful.

So with that perspective, we come back to India and to creating new ‘world-class’ institutes. Given that there isn’t a broad achievement of a ‘baseline’ of quality development, either in our institutes or our cities, it is a Herculean task to create and scatter new institutes from scratch across the country. Your best, pragmatic bet would be to strengthen and improve existing spots of excellence in cities where glimmers of the above criteria exist. If there is institutional resistance, you are more likely to jumpstart a new research institute (which meets these criteria) in the same clusters (since you know you can attract talent, money and excellence) here.

Going by all these criteria, and current history, just announcing new IITs or IISERs in cities chosen for political reasons, and without the commensurate financial resources, environment and culture to succeed, suggest only staggeringly difficult days ahead. Invariably, we tend to ignore lessons from history around the world: there are only a few ways to build exceptional spots of research that can thrive and endure for a very long time.

Sunil Laxman (@sunillaxman) is a scientist at the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, where his research group studies how cells function, and how they communicate with each other. He has a keen interest in the history and process of science, and how science influences society.