doi:10.1038/nindia.2009.334 Published online 12 November 2009

L'Affaire CSIR

India's apex scientific research body is facing flak after questionably hiring and firing an expatriate scientist. Gautam Radhakrishna Desiraju ponders over CSIR's policy on such recruitments.

G. R. Desiraju

The Indian scientific community is witnessing a very public washing of dirty linen at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).The intimate details of the saga are probably quite sordid but beneath the soapsuds, we have the spectacle of an American of Indian origin Shiva Ayyadurai. He was hired by CSIR to set up a new department to increase the efficiency of commercialising new technologies and to establish better links with industry.

This is the core business of CSIR. It is another matter that an organisation of the size and importance of CSIR feels the need to cleanse the very operations that constitute its entire raison d'être.

Also that Ayyadurai's exact job description within CSIR is still not a matter of public knowledge. In this context, two issues assume importance.

The first — Ayyadurai is not really a scientist in the usual sense of the term. He does have four degrees but they are bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering, computer science, visual studies and theoretical mechanics, and more recently a Ph.D. in systems biology. For the most part, he has been in the IT sector, primarily running an e-mail provider.

Considering that CSIR prides itself on being the foremost scientific department in the country, does it not seem strange that a person with these credentials was hired to start, quite literally, a cleansing of the Augean stables of Rafi Marg?

Ayyadurai was asked to produce a report on the working of CSIR and to suggest improvements. He had a carte blanche in dealing with laboratory directors and other senior administrators in a strictly hierarchical organisation like CSIR. Now that the affair has blown up, there needs to be more openness on what Ayyadurai's assignment was, how he was hired and why. What trait in him appealed to his recruiters as unparalleled?

This brings me to the second point to ponder. There is no dearth of qualified and highly successful scientists with long and enriching careers in India. CSIR itself has many such scientists. Some of them have obtained PhD degrees from prominent universities abroad and have significant collaborations with respected scientists from around the globe.

Most of these scientists are also well aware of the ground realities in India, meaning they harbour realistic expectations of what may or may not be achieved in India. In short, there is no shortage of hard headed, knowledgeable and practical Indian scientists who have lived and worked in India. Leadership is not the monopoly of the gerontocracy nor is it the private preserve of those who adorn administrative office.

The thought that prominent research organisations feel the need to turn to foreign shores to find 'leadership' for their rudderless bodies is anachronistic. This can hardly be a colonial hang-up: not after 62 years.

My fear is, like always, things will become "business as usual" after a little brouhaha. The rot has set in deep within CSIR and elsewhere. Cosmetic changes here and there would be like dusting rouge on a corpse. In the end, we run the grave risk of perishing.

The author is a professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.