India’s missing research papers

If you’re looking for a quantification (although you shouldn’t) of the extent to which science is being conducted by press releases in India at the moment, consider the following list of studies. The papers for none of them have been published – as preprints or ‘post-prints’ – even as the people behind them, including many government officials and corporate honchos, have issued press releases about the respective findings, which some sections of the media have publicised without question and which have quite likely gone on to inform government decisions about suitable control and mitigation strategies. The collective danger of this failure is only amplified by a deafening silence from many quarters, especially from the wider community of doctors and medical researchers – almost as if it’s normal to conduct studies and publish press releases in a hurry and take an inordinate amount of time upload a preprint manuscript or conduct peer review, instead of the other way around. By the way, did you know India has three science academies?

  1. ICMR’s first seroprevalence survey (99% sure it isn’t out yet, but if I’m wrong, please let me know and link me to the paper?)
  2. Mumbai’s TIFR-NITI seroprevalence survey (100% sure. I asked TIFR when they plan to upload the paper, they said: “We are bound by BMC rules with respect to sharing data and hence we cannot give the raw data to anyone at least [until] we publish the paper. We will upload the preprint version soon.”)
  3. Biocon’s phase II Itolizumab trial (100% sure. More about irregularities here.)
  4. Delhi’s first seroprevalence survey (95% sure. Vinod Paul of NITI Aayog discussed the results but no paper has pinged my radar.)
  5. Delhi’s second seroprevalence survey (100% sure. Indian Express reported on August 8 that it has just wrapped up and the results will be available in 10 days. It didn’t mention a paper, however.)
  6. Bharat Biotech’s COVAXIN preclinical trials (90% sure)
  7. Papers of well-designed, well-powered studies establishing that HCQ, remdesivir, favipiravir and tocilizumab are efficacious against COVID-19 🙂

Aside from this, there have been many disease-transmission models whose results have been played up without discussing the specifics as well as numerous claims about transmission dynamics that have been largely inseparable from the steady stream of pseudoscience, obfuscation and carelessness. In one particularly egregious case, the Indian Council of Medical Research announced in a press release in May that Ahmedabad-based Zydus Cadila had manufactured an ELISA test kit for COVID-19 for ICMR’s use that was 100% specific and 98% sensitive. However, the paper describing the kit’s validation, published later, said it was 97.9% specific and 92.37% sensitive. If you know what these numbers mean, you’ll also know what a big difference this is, between the press release and the paper. After an investigation by Priyanka Pulla followed by multiple questions to different government officials, ICMR admitted it had made a booboo in the press release. I think this is a fair representation of how much the methods of science – which bridge first principles with the results – matter in India during the pandemic.

The March for Science, ed. 2018

K. VijayRaghavan, India’s new principal scientific advisor to the Government of India, has brought a lot of hope with him into the role as a result of his illustrious career as a biologist and former secretaryship with the Department of Biotechnology. Many stakeholders of the scientific establishment are already looking to him for positive changes in S&T policy, funding and administration in India under a government that, on matters of research and education, has focused on applications, translational research and actively ignored the spread of superstitious ideas in society.

In a recent interview, VijayRaghavan was asked about R&D funding in India. His response is worth noting against the backdrop of a ‘March for Science’ planned across India on April 14. As the interviewer reminds the reader, the 2018 Economic Survey bluntly acknowledged that India was underspending on research. This has also been one of the principal focus areas of the ‘March for Science’ organisers and participants: they have demanded that the Centre hike R&D spending to 3% and education spending to 10%, both as fractions of the GDP, apart from asking the government to stop the spread of superstitious beliefs.

Q: Getting funding for research is widely considered to be a prickly issue. The 2018 Economic Survey stated that India underspends on R&D. Is this a concern at the administration level?

A: These are wrongly posed questions, because it says that should magically the amount of funding go up, then science’s problems would be solved. Or that this is the key impediment. There’s no questions that there’s a correlation between increased R&D funding and innovation in many economies. South Korea is a striking example how high-tech R&D has resulted in transformation in their industries… Have we analysed, bottom-up, what Korea’s spending goes into and what we can learn from that and do afresh? Have we analysed our contest and learnt? …

Now interestingly, top-down this analysis has been done long ago. We as scientists, individuals and as journalists need to see that. The DST, and the DBT, the CSIR, the ICMR all have their plans should they get more resources. You can’t have a top-down articulation of how the resources can come and be used, unless that is also dynamically connected bottom-up.

When I look at 100 cases of why fund-flow is gridlocked, in about 70 cases, it’s poor institutional processes.

March for more than science

After the first Indian ‘March for Science’ happened in August 2017, the government showed no signs of having heard the participants’ claims, or even acknowledged the event. This was obviously jarring but it also prompted conversations about whether the march’s demands were entirely reasonable. Most news reports, include The Wire‘s, had focused on how this was the first outpouring of scientists, school-teachers and students, particularly at this scale. Scrutinising it deeply was taboo because there was some anxiety about jeopardising the need for such a march itself. However, ahead of the second march planned for April 14, it’s worth revisiting.

Sundar Sarukkai, the philosopher, had penned an oped the day after the 2017 march, asking scientists whether they had thought to climb down from their ivory towers and consider that the spread of superstitions in society under the Narendra Modi government may have been because of sociological and cultural reasons, and wasn’t simply a matter of spending more on R&D. Following a rebuttal from Rahul Siddharthan, Sarukkai clarified in The Wire:

Whenever ideal images are constructed (like ideal of woman, ideal of nation, etc.), one should be wary, since any such act is often driven by considerations of power. This ideal image of science too is used to establish science as a powerful agent within modern societies. The use of this ideal image to solve social problems related to caste, religion or hatred of any kind is a red herring. It is like using a hammer to fix a bulb. When we do that, it only means that we are not really interested in solving the problem (fixing the bulb) but more invested in using the method (the hammer) – irrespective of whether it is suitable for the task or not.

The terrible cases of lynching, hatred, oppression and misuse of religion must be unequivocally opposed. For those who are serious about that task, the solution is more important than the method used to achieve it. The categories of the ideal notion of science are applicable primarily to non-human systems. So even if they work well within such systems, there is no reason why they should do so within human systems.

A physicist said something similar to me around the time: that the old uncle preaching the benefits of homeopathy in his living room is doing so not because he doesn’t have access to scientific knowledge. That may be true but what’s more conspicuous by absence is someone in the same room challenging his views, communicating to him without being intimidating or patronising and having a discussion with him about what’s right, what’s wrong and the methods we use to tell the difference. Instead, focusing on making it easier for scientists to become and remain scientists alone will not take us closer to achieving the outcomes the ‘March for Science’ desires.

Sarukkai echoed this point in a comment to The Print: that scientists who march only for science are not doing anything useful, and that they must march against casteism and sexism as well (and social ills outside their labs). Without real change in these social contexts, it’s going to be near-impossible for those deemed less powerful by structures in place in these contexts to challenge the beliefs of those afforded more social authority. Ultimately, effecting such change is not going to be all about money – just as much as more money alone won’t solve anything, just as much as imploring the government to “fix” all these issues by itself will not work either.

This is where VijayRaghavan’s comments about R&D spending fit in. Before we throw more money in the general direction of supporting R&D, its Augean stables will have to be cleaned out and inefficiencies eliminated. One example, apropos VijayRaghavan’s comment about 70% of funds being gridlocked due to “poor institutional processes”, comes immediately to mind.

Sunil Mukhi, a theoretical physicist, wrote in 2008 that when he had been a member of the faculty at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, his station afford him a variety of privileges even as there was “no clear statement of our responsibility or duty to perform, and no consequences for failing to do so”. While he has since acknowledged a potential flaw in his suggested solution, the fact remains that many researchers often laze in prized research positions at well-funded institutes instead of also having to grapple with the teaching and mentorship load prevalent at state universities and colleges.

Additionally, though most people have directed their ire at the government for underfunding R&D, 55% of our R&D expenditure is from the public kitty. Among the ‘superpowers’, China is a distant second at less than 20%. So the marches for science should also ask the private sector to cough up more.

One for all

When the government pulled the financial carpet out from under the feet of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in 2014 and asked its 38 labs to “go fund themselves”, many scientists were aghast that the council was being handicapped even as more money was being funnelled into pseudo-research on cow urine. But there were also many other scientists who said that the CSIR had it coming, that – as a network of labs set up to facilitate applied and translational research – it was bloated, sluggish and ripe for a pruning. Perhaps similar audits, though with ample stakeholder consultations (not the RSS) and without drastic consequences, are due for the national scientific establishment as a whole.

As a corollary, it is also true that every march, protest or agitation undertaken against casteism, sexism, patriarchy, bigotry and zealotry can work in favour of the scientific establishment since what ‘they’ are fighting against is also what scientists, and science journalists, should be fighting against. Access to bonafide scientific ideas should not be solely through textbooks, news articles and freewheeling chats on Twitter. Instead, and irrespective of whether they become available, they should have the option to be availed through the many day-to-day interactions in which we confront structures of caste and class.

For example, there is no reason the person who cleans your toilet should not also cook your dinner. To institute this dumb restriction is to perpetuate caste/class divisions as well as to reject science in the form of hand-wash fluids. For another, there is no reason an employer shouldn’t let their domestic help use the toilet when they need to. However, the practice of expecting those who work in our homes to use separate toilets or be fired still persists, even in a society as ostensibly post-caste as West Bengal’s, demonstrating “the extent to which employer relations with domestic workers continue to be flavoured by caste” – as well as the extent to which we falsely attribute different human bodies with irrational biological threats.

These problems are also relevant to scientists, and must be solved before we can confront the bigger, and more nebulous, order of scientific temper in the country. However, such problems can’t be fixed by scientists and science alone.

It is worth reiterating that the ‘March for Science’ tomorrow is not a lost cause; far from it, in fact. The demand that 3% of GDP be spent on R&D is entirely valid – but it also needs to be accompanied by structural reforms to be completely meaningful. So the march, in effect, is an opportunity to examine the checks and balances of science’s administration in the country, the place of science in society, and introspect on our responsibility to confront a protean problem and not back down in the face of easy solutions. If the solution was as easy as ramping up spending on R&D and education, the problem would have been solved long ago.

The Wire, 13 April 2018.

Why Indian science projects must plan for cultural conversations, too

The Wire
May 18, 2015

What should be the priority for science in India? Nature journal published answers from ten scientists in India it had asked this question to on May 13. One of the scientists was Prof. Naba Mondal, a physicist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, and he said India has to “build big physics facilities”. Prof. Mondal is true in asserting also that there aren’t enough instrument builders in the country, and that when they come together, their difficulties are “compounded by widespread opposition to large-scale projects by political opportunists and activists on flimsy grounds”. However, what this perspective glazes over is the absence of a credible institution to ratify such projects and, more importantly, the fact that conversations between the government, the scientists and the people are not nearly as pluralistic as they need to be.

To illustrate, compare the $1.5-billion Thirty Meter Telescope set to come up on Mauna Kea, in Hawaii, and the Rs.1,500-crore India-based Neutrino Observatory, whose builders have earmarked a contested hill in Theni, Tamil Nadu, for a giant particle-detector to be situated. In both cases: Hundreds of protesters took to the streets against the construction of the observatory; the mountain’s surroundings that it would occupy were held sacred by the local population; and even after the project had cleared a drawn-out environmental review that ended with a go-ahead from the government, the people expressed their disapproval – first when the location was finalised and now, with construction set to begin.

“To Native Hawaiians, Mauna Kea represents the place where the earth mother and the sky father met, giving birth to the Hawaiian Islands,” says Dane Maxwell, a cultural-resource specialist in Maui, in Nature. For the people around the hill under which the INO is to be constructed, it is the abode of the deity named Ambarappa Perumal. In both cases, the protests were triggered by anger over the perceived desecration of their land land but drew on a deeper sentiment of ‘enough is enough’ against serial abuses of the environment by the government

But where the two stories deviate significantly is in the nature of dialogue. On April 23, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs organized a meeting for both parties – locals and the builders – to attempt to reach a temporary solution (A permanent alternative is distant because the locals are also insistent that something must be done about the other telescopes already up on Mauna Kea). Moreover, the American government invited an expert in the local culture – Maxwell – to advise its construction of a solar observatory, in Maui.

Obviously, it helps when those who are perceived to be desecrating the land are able to speak the language of those who revere it. This kind of conversation is lacking in India, where, despite greater cultural diversity, there is more antagonism between the government and the people than deference. In fact, with a government at the centre that is all but dismissive of environmental concerns, a bias has been forming outside the demesne of debates that one side must be ready to not get what it wants – like it always has.

During the environmental review for the project, in fact, scientists from the INO collaboration held discussions in the villages surrounding Ambarappar Hill in an effort to allay locals’ fears. As it happens, scientific facts have seldom managed make a lasting impression on public memory. In my conversations with some of the scientists – including Prof. Naba Mondal from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, and director of the INO collaboration – one question that came and comes up repeatedly according to them is if the observatory will release harmful radiation into the soil and air. The answer has always been the same (“No”) but the questions don’t go away – often helped along by misguided media reports as well.

On March 26, Vaiko, the leader of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party in Tamil Nadu, filed a petition with the Madras High Court to stay the INO’s construction. It was granted with the condition that if construction is to begin, the project will have to be cleared by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board – the state-level counterpart of a national body that has already issued a clearance. But chief among consequences are two:

  1. Most – if not all – people have a dreadful impression of government approvals and clearances. Nuclear power plants often have no trouble acquiring land in the country while tribal populaces are frequently evicted from their properties with little to no recompense. The result is, or rather will inevitably be, that the TNPCB’s go-ahead will do nothing to restore the INO’s legitimacy in the people’s eyes.
  2. Even if they’re dodgy at best, the clearances are still only environmental clearances. A month after Vaiko’s petition mentioning cultural concerns was admitted by the High Court, there have been no institutional efforts from either the INO collaboration or the Department of Atomic Energy, which is funding the project, to address the villagers on a cultural footing. In Hawaii, on the other hand, the work of people like Dane Maxwell is expected to break the stalemate.

There is little doubt, if at all, that the TNPCB will also come ahead waving a green flag for the INO, but there seems no way for the INO collaboration to emerge out of this mess looking like the winner – which could be a real shame for scientific experiments in general in the country. When I asked environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman if he thought there would ever be any space for a science experiment in India that would hollow out a hill, he replied, “I think the neutrino [observatory] will get built. You should not have any fears on that count. I’d rather it doesn’t. But I think it would be unfortunate if it does without so much as an honest debate where each side is prepared to live with a scenario where what they want may not be the outcome.”

Construction has started on two of the world's grandest neutrino observatories

The groundbreaking ceremony for the Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory happened on January 10. This means construction on Asia’s two biggest neutrino experiments will have started in the span of a week, after the India-based Neutrino Observatory was given the go-ahead by the government on January 5.

Where the INO uses a device called the iron calorimeter to ‘trap’ and study neutrinos, the JUNO will use a liquid scintillator neutrino detector: a large container filled with a pristine liquid and lined with sensors. LSNDs are used to count the number of a neutrinos emerging from particular sources, which in JUNO’s case will be two nuclear power plants (comprising 10 reactors with an output of 35.8 GW) situated 53 km from the observatory.

JUNO will also be China’s second big neutrino experiment. The first is the Daya Bay Reactor experiment, which – also using an LSND – studies neutrinos produced by cosmic muons. In 2012, it announced an important result concerning the mass hierarchy of the three types of neutrinos, placing the JUNO in good stead on two fronts, so to speak: with designing and operating an LSND and with using such an installation to get results. Thus, the Institute of High Energy Physics responsible for JUNO already has over 300 scientists from 45 institutions in nine countries working with it.

India, on the other hand, has little to count on on that front, which is why the INO is still soliciting collaborators despite showing no signs of any flaws in its design or effective implementation. The lack of experience also shows in a more subtle, but no less telling, way: in the press releases crafted by the respective organisations. While the TIFR/IMSc statement issued for the INO stuck to the point, the IHEP statement for JUNO expressed confidence about getting results, too.

Both INO and JUNO, once simultaneously operational in 2020, will be extending the study of the neutrino mass hierarchy problem on a grand scale. At the INO calorimeter’s heart will sit the world’s most massive electromagnet while the JUNO’s LSND will comprise the world’s most voluminous LSND tank. At the same time, the two observatories don’t signify the dawn of experimental neutrino physics in Asia; the Kolar Gold Fields neutrino experiment in India took care of that in 1964.

Construction has started on two of the world’s grandest neutrino observatories

The groundbreaking ceremony for the Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory happened on January 10. This means construction on Asia’s two biggest neutrino experiments will have started in the span of a week, after the India-based Neutrino Observatory was given the go-ahead by the government on January 5.

Where the INO uses a device called the iron calorimeter to ‘trap’ and study neutrinos, the JUNO will use a liquid scintillator neutrino detector: a large container filled with a pristine liquid and lined with sensors. LSNDs are used to count the number of a neutrinos emerging from particular sources, which in JUNO’s case will be two nuclear power plants (comprising 10 reactors with an output of 35.8 GW) situated 53 km from the observatory.

JUNO will also be China’s second big neutrino experiment. The first is the Daya Bay Reactor experiment, which – also using an LSND – studies neutrinos produced by cosmic muons. In 2012, it announced an important result concerning the mass hierarchy of the three types of neutrinos, placing the JUNO in good stead on two fronts, so to speak: with designing and operating an LSND and with using such an installation to get results. Thus, the Institute of High Energy Physics responsible for JUNO already has over 300 scientists from 45 institutions in nine countries working with it.

India, on the other hand, has little to count on on that front, which is why the INO is still soliciting collaborators despite showing no signs of any flaws in its design or effective implementation. The lack of experience also shows in a more subtle, but no less telling, way: in the press releases crafted by the respective organisations. While the TIFR/IMSc statement issued for the INO stuck to the point, the IHEP statement for JUNO expressed confidence about getting results, too.

Both INO and JUNO, once simultaneously operational in 2020, will be extending the study of the neutrino mass hierarchy problem on a grand scale. At the INO calorimeter’s heart will sit the world’s most massive electromagnet while the JUNO’s LSND will comprise the world’s most voluminous LSND tank. At the same time, the two observatories don’t signify the dawn of experimental neutrino physics in Asia; the Kolar Gold Fields neutrino experiment in India took care of that in 1964.

Vaiko has a problem with the unmanned, fully automated neutrino observatory

Imagine a vast research facility situated below a hill – fully underground – hosting a massive particle detector made up of the world’s largest electromagnet and some 30,000 metal plates. Embracing this device is a magnetic field 35,000 times as strong as Earth’s, not to mention more than three million electronic channels carrying signals to and from computers monitoring the device. The facility will also house multiple other systems to process and analyze the measurements the detector will take (of neutrinos), and to support other particles physics experiments, including one to find signs of dark matter in the universe. The entire thing will cost Rs 1,500 crore and take six years to build.

Its most distinctive attribute? The entire thing is one big robot, completely unmanned with everything automated. The machine’s surfaces are all self-cleaning; the computers will power themselves on and off – as well as manage the particle detector – according to programs that have already been fed to them; the electromagnet will maintain itself. When important observations are made, the computers will process the data; write out the papers (with a little humor to taste); submit them to whatever journals (and upload a copy in the national OA repository); share the data with collaborating institutions; have the results corroborated by independent research teams; move on to the next experiment. All this guzzling power from the grid and promising nothing in return forever.

At least, this is Tamil Nadu politician Vaiko’s vision of the India-based Neutrino Observatory. After the INO received approval from the Prime Minister’s Office on January 5, Vaiko told the press on January 6:

… the neutrino project is not an industry, which would generate employment to the people in that area, but an institution to carry out research only.

 

His bigger point was that the INO should be scrapped because it would affect the environment in the area it’s coming up in: the West Bodi Hills, Theni district. The observatory requires a substantial shield to keep out all particles but neutrinos from the detector, and achieving this is easier under more than a mile’s worth of rock.

That said, Vaiko should acquaint himself with what happened in the months leading up to the approval. The scientists from the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, spent time among the people living around the hill, addressing their questions – from where debris from the construction of the underground cavern would be dumped to where the scientists’ facilities would get their water from to what kind of experiments would be conducted at the INO.

In fact, in 2009, the national UPA government had refused to allow the INO to set up shop in Nilgiris district – the first finalized location – over environmental concerns, and suggested the present location near the Suruliyar Falls. In 2012, members of the collaboration from IMSc told me that the roads leading to and from the two entrances to the cavern would not be laid in straight lines through the surrounding forests en route to Madurai (110 km away) but only through the least densely populated areas – both by people and animals. They also told me that the land acquired for the project was not agricultural land (and it had been acquired before the land acquisition laws were diluted).

Beyond this point, I have only one suggestion for Vaiko: How about calling for scrapping the INO before its Cabinet clearance comes through? But on the upside, I am glad he’s not on the same page as VS Achuthanandan. Or as VT Padmanabhan.

Cabinet approves India-based Neutrino Observatory

On Monday, the Prime Minister’s Office gave the go ahead for the India-based Neutrino Observatory, an underground physics experiment that will study particles called atmospheric neutrinos. The project is based out of Theni in Tamil Nadu, and the Tamil Nadu State Government is providing the infrastructural support. The observatory is expected to cost Rs 1,500 crore and to be completed by 2020. With the PMO’s green signal, the consortium of institutions will now receive the bulk of funds with which to start excavating the underground cavern.

The INO is jointly supported by the Department of Atomic Energy and the Department of Science and Technology. The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, is the host institution. Additionally, an Inter-Institutional Center for High Energy Physics has also been set up in Madurai to lead the R&D for the observatory. The approval confirmation came from Prof. Naba K Mondal of the TIFR and spokesperson for the project.

Upon completion, the INO is being envisaged as the return to India of world-class experimental neutrino physics. From the 1960s until the 1990s, a neutrino experiment at the Kolar Gold Field Mines held that bragging right. In the years since the mines were closed, however, it became evident that the experiment they’d housed could have made some important contributions to understanding the masses of the three types of neutrinos, an important question today.

The PMO’s go-ahead also includes the approval to construct a 50,000-ton electromagnet – the world’s largest upon completion – that will be the heart of the stationary Iron Calorimeter detector. It will comprise “alternate layers of particle detectors called Resistive Plate Chambers (RPCs) and iron plates. The iron plates will be magnetized with 1.4 Tesla magnetic field. Over 30,000 RPCs will be used in this detector. A total of over 3.7 million channels of electronics will carry the signals from these RPCs to be finally stored in the computer,” according to the press release accompanying the announcement.

Some members of the INO at the site of the project, in the Bodi West Hills. Prof. Mondal is second from left.
Some members of the INO at the site of the project, in the Bodi West Hills. Prof. Mondal is second from left. Credit: http://www.ino.tifr.res.in/ino/

Because neutrinos interact so rarely with matter, an experiment to study them must disallow particulate interactions of any other kind in its kind. This is why the INO will be situated beneath 2.2 km of rock acting as a shield.

A similar neutrino experiment is simultaneously coming up in China, called the Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory. JUNO has two important similarities with INO: both will attempt to answer questions surrounding the subject of neutrino masses and both expect to start operating by 2020. The supplementarity means the experiments could corroborate each others’ results. The complementarity means it will be a challenge for each experiment to produce unique results, although it is too early to say how important such a consideration is now.

At the same time, JUNO has an important edge: It is already an international collaboration of participating institutions while India is still soliciting partnerships.

Finally, because of its scale and the level of funding it will receive, the INO will eventually house a full-fledged scientific institution of sorts, with research in the other sciences as well. Even as an underground neutrino experiment, the observatory has potential to host others which might require a similar environment to study: a neutrinoless doube beta decay experiment to study the nature of neutrinos and a dark-matter detector, to name two.

As Sekhar Basu, the Director of BARC, noted: “Development of detector technologies for various particle physics experiments and their varied applications including societal applications in areas like medical imaging is an important aspect of the project.” Not to forget the development of highly skilled technical manpower.

The full list of the INO-ICAL collaborators is available on the last page of the press release (which I’ve uploaded to Scribd). Thanks to Prof. Mondal for informing us about the development. Good luck, INO team!

 

'No string theorists in non-elite institutions'

Shiraz Naval Minwalla, a professor of theoretical physics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, won the New Horizons in Physics Prize for 2013 on November 5. The prize – which recognizes ‘promising researchers’ and comes with a cash prize of $100,000 – is awarded by the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation, set up by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner in 2012.

Shiraz has been cited for his contributions to the study of string theory and quantum field theory, particularly for improving our understanding of the equations governing fluid dynamics, and using them to verify the predictions of all quantum field theories as opposed to a limited class of theories before.

On November 12, Shiraz was also awarded the Infosys Foundation Prize in the physical sciences category. He was the youngest among this year’s winners.

I interviewed him over Skype for The Hindu (major hat-tip to Akshat Rathi), which is where this interview first appeared (on November 13, 2013). Shiraz had some important things to say, including the now-proverbial ‘the Indian elementary school system sucks’, and that India is anomalously strong in the arena of string theory research, although it doesn’t yet match up to the US’s output qualitatively, but that almost none of it happens in non-elite institutions.

Here we go.

Why do you work with string theory and quantum field theory? Why are you interested in these subjects?

Because it seems like one of the roads to completing one element of the unfinished task of physics. In the last century, there have been two big developments in physic. The quantum revolution, which established the language of quantum mechanics for dealing with physical systems, and the general theory of relativity, which established the dynamic nature of spacetime as reality in the world and realized it was responsible for gravity. These two paradigms have been incredibly successful in their domains of applicability. Quantum theory is ubiquitous in physics, and is also the basis for theories of elementary particle physics. The general relativity way of thinking has been successful with astrophysics and cosmology, i.e. successful at larger scales.

These paradigms have been individually confirmed and individually very successful, yet we have no way of putting them together, no single mathematically consistent framework. This is why I work with string theory and quantum field theory because I think it is the correct path to realize a unified quantum theory of gravity.

What’s the nature of your work that has snagged the New Horizons Prize? Could you describe it in simpler terms?

The context for this discussion is the AdS/CFT correspondence of string theory. AdS/CFT asserts that certain conformal quantum field theories admit a reformulation as higher dimensional theories of gravity under appropriate circumstances. Now it has long been expected that the dynamics of any quantum field theory reduces, under appropriate circumstances, to the equations of hydrodynamics. If you put these two statements together it should follow that Einstein’s equations of gravity reduce, under appropriate circumstances, to the equations of hydrodynamics.

My collaborators and I were able to directly verify this expectation. The equations of hydrodynamics that Einstein’s equations reduce have particular values of transport coefficients. And there was a surprise here. It turns out that the equations charged relativistic hydrodynamics that came out of this procedure were slightly different in form from those listed in textbooks on the subject, like the text of [Lev] Landau and [Evgeny] Lifshitz. The resolution of this apparent paradox was obtained by [Dam] Son and [Piotr] Surowka and in subsequent work, where it was demonstrated that the textbook expectations for the equations of hydrodynamics are incomplete. The correct equations sometimes have more terms, in agreement with our constructions.

The improved understanding of the equations of hydrodynamics is general in nature; it applies to all quantum field theories, including those like quantum chromodynamics that are of interest to real world experiments. I think this is a good (though minor) example of the impact of string theory on experiments. At our current stage of understanding of string theory, we can effectively do calculations only in particularly simple – particularly symmetric – theories. But we are able to analyse these theories very completely; do the calculations completely correctly. We can then use these calculations to test various general predictions about the behaviour of all quantum field theories. These expectations sometimes turn out to be incorrect. With the string calculations to guide you can then correct these predictions. The corrected general expectations then apply to all quantum field theories, not just those very symmetric ones that string theory is able to analyse in detail.

How do you see the Prize helping your research work? Does this make it easier for you to secure grants, etc.?

It pads my CV. [Laughs] So… anything I apply for henceforth becomes a little more likely to work out, but it won’t have a transformative impact on my career nor influence it in any way, frankly. It’s a great honour, of course. It makes me happy, it’s an encouragement. But I’m quite motivated without that. [After being asked about winning the Infosys Foundation Prize] I’m thrilled, but I’m also a little overwhelmed. I hope I live up to all the expectations. About being young – I hope this means that my best work is ahead of me.

What do you think about the Fundamental Physics Prize in general? About what Yuri Milner has done for the world of physics research?

Until last week, I hadn’t thought about it very much at all. The first thing to say is when Milner explained to me his motivations in constituting this prize, I understood it. Let me explain. As you know, Milner was a PhD student in physics before he left the field to invest in the Internet, etc. He said he left because he felt he wasn’t good enough to do important work.

He said one motivation was that people who are doing well needn’t found Internet companies. This is his personal opinion, one should respect that. Second: He felt that 70 or 80 years ago, physicists were celebrities who played a large role in motivating some young people to do science. Nowadays, there are no such people. I think I agree. Milner wants to do what he can to push the clock back on that. Third: Milner is uniquely well-positioned because he understands physics research because of his own background and he understands the world of business. So, he wanted to bridge these worlds. All these are reasonable ways of looking at the world.

If I had a lot of money, this isn’t the way I would have gone about it. There are many more efficient ways. For instance, more smaller prizes for younger people makes more sense than few big prizes for well established people. Some of the money could have gone as grants. I haven’t seriously thought about this, though. The fact is Milner didn’t have to do this but he did. It’s a good thing. This is his gesture, and I’m glad.

Are the Fundamental Physics Prizes in any way bringing “validity” to your areas of research? Are they bringing more favourable attention you wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise?

Well, of late, it has become fashionable sometimes to attack string theory in certain parts of the world of physics. In such an environment, it is nice to see there are other people who think differently.

What are your thoughts on the quality of physics research stemming from India? Are there enough opportunities for researchers at all levels of their careers?

Let me start with string theoretic work, which I’m aware of, and then extrapolate. String theory work done in India is pretty good. If you compared the output from India to the US, the work emerging from the US is way ahead qualitatively. But if you compared it to Japan’s output, I would say it’s clear that India does better. Japan has a large string theory community supported by American-style salaries whereas India runs on a shoestring. Given that and the fact that India is a very poor country, that’s quite remarkable. There’s no other country with a GDP per capita comparable to India’s whose string theoretic output is anywhere as good. In fact, the output is better than any country in the European Union, but at the same time not comparable to the EU’s as a whole. So you get an idea of the scale: reasonably good, not fantastic.

The striking weakness of research in India is that research happens by and large only in a few elite institutions. But in the last five years, it has been broadening out a bit. TIFR and the Harish-Chandra Research Institute [HRI] have good research groups; there are some reasonably good young groups in Indian Institute of Science [IIS], Bengaluru; Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai; some small groups in the Chennai Mathematical Institute, IIT-Madras, IIT-Bombay, IIT-Kanpur, all growing in strength, The Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune, has also made good hires in string theory.

So, it’s spreading out. The good thing is young people are being hired in many good places. What is striking is we don’t yet have participation from universities; there are no string theorists in non-elite institutions. Delhi University has a few, very few. This is in striking contrast with the US, where there are many groups in many universities, which gives the community great depth of research.

If I were to give Indian research a grade sheet, I’d say not bad but could do much better. There are 1.2 billion people in the country, so we should be producing commensurate output in research. We shouldn’t content ourselves by thinking we’re doing better than [South] Korea. Of course it is an unfair thing to ask for, but that should be the aim. For example, at TIFR, when we interview students for admission, we find that we usually have very few really good candidates. It’s not that they aren’t smart; people are smart everywhere. It’s just one reason: that the elementary school system in the country is abysmal. Most Indians come out of school unable to contribute meaningfully to any intellectual activity. Even Indian colleges have the same quality of output. The obvious thing is to make every school in India a reasonable school [laughs]. Such an obvious thing but we don’t do it.

Is there sufficient institutional and governmental support for researchers?

At the top levels, yes. I feel that places with the kind of rock-solid support that TIFR gives its faculty are few and far between. In the US many such places exist. But if you went to the UK, the only comparable places are perhaps Cambridge and Oxford. Whereas if you went to the second tier Durham University, you’ll see it’s not as good a place to be as TIFR. In fact, this is true for most universities around the world.

Institutions like TIFR, IIS, HRI and the National Centre for the Biological Sciences give good support and scientists should recognize this. There are few comparable places in the Third World. What we’re missing however is the depth. The US research community has got so good because of its depth. Genuine, exciting research is not done just in the Ivy League institutions. Even small places have a Nobel Laureate teaching there. So, India may have lots of universities but they are somehow not able to produce good work.

We’ve had a couple Indians already in what’s going to be three years of the Fundamental Physics Prizes – before you, there was Ashoke Sen. But in the Nobel Prizes in physics, we’ve had a stubborn no-show since Subramanyan Chandrasekhar won it in 1983. Why do you think that is?

There are two immediate responses. First is that, as I mentioned, India has an anomalously strong string theory presence. Why? I don’t know. India is especially strong with string theory. And the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation has so far had some focus on this. The Nobel Prizes on the other hand require experimental verification of hypotheses. So, for as long as the Foundation has focused on the mathematics in physics, India has done well.

What are you going to do with your $100,000?

I haven’t seriously thought about it.

At the time of my interview, I had no idea he was about to win the Infosys Foundation Prize as well. It seems he’s in great demand! Good luck, Shiraz. 🙂

‘No string theorists in non-elite institutions’

Shiraz Naval Minwalla, a professor of theoretical physics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, won the New Horizons in Physics Prize for 2013 on November 5. The prize – which recognizes ‘promising researchers’ and comes with a cash prize of $100,000 – is awarded by the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation, set up by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner in 2012.

Shiraz has been cited for his contributions to the study of string theory and quantum field theory, particularly for improving our understanding of the equations governing fluid dynamics, and using them to verify the predictions of all quantum field theories as opposed to a limited class of theories before.

On November 12, Shiraz was also awarded the Infosys Foundation Prize in the physical sciences category. He was the youngest among this year’s winners.

I interviewed him over Skype for The Hindu (major hat-tip to Akshat Rathi), which is where this interview first appeared (on November 13, 2013). Shiraz had some important things to say, including the now-proverbial ‘the Indian elementary school system sucks’, and that India is anomalously strong in the arena of string theory research, although it doesn’t yet match up to the US’s output qualitatively, but that almost none of it happens in non-elite institutions.

Here we go.

Why do you work with string theory and quantum field theory? Why are you interested in these subjects?

Because it seems like one of the roads to completing one element of the unfinished task of physics. In the last century, there have been two big developments in physic. The quantum revolution, which established the language of quantum mechanics for dealing with physical systems, and the general theory of relativity, which established the dynamic nature of spacetime as reality in the world and realized it was responsible for gravity. These two paradigms have been incredibly successful in their domains of applicability. Quantum theory is ubiquitous in physics, and is also the basis for theories of elementary particle physics. The general relativity way of thinking has been successful with astrophysics and cosmology, i.e. successful at larger scales.

These paradigms have been individually confirmed and individually very successful, yet we have no way of putting them together, no single mathematically consistent framework. This is why I work with string theory and quantum field theory because I think it is the correct path to realize a unified quantum theory of gravity.

What’s the nature of your work that has snagged the New Horizons Prize? Could you describe it in simpler terms?

The context for this discussion is the AdS/CFT correspondence of string theory. AdS/CFT asserts that certain conformal quantum field theories admit a reformulation as higher dimensional theories of gravity under appropriate circumstances. Now it has long been expected that the dynamics of any quantum field theory reduces, under appropriate circumstances, to the equations of hydrodynamics. If you put these two statements together it should follow that Einstein’s equations of gravity reduce, under appropriate circumstances, to the equations of hydrodynamics.

My collaborators and I were able to directly verify this expectation. The equations of hydrodynamics that Einstein’s equations reduce have particular values of transport coefficients. And there was a surprise here. It turns out that the equations charged relativistic hydrodynamics that came out of this procedure were slightly different in form from those listed in textbooks on the subject, like the text of [Lev] Landau and [Evgeny] Lifshitz. The resolution of this apparent paradox was obtained by [Dam] Son and [Piotr] Surowka and in subsequent work, where it was demonstrated that the textbook expectations for the equations of hydrodynamics are incomplete. The correct equations sometimes have more terms, in agreement with our constructions.

The improved understanding of the equations of hydrodynamics is general in nature; it applies to all quantum field theories, including those like quantum chromodynamics that are of interest to real world experiments. I think this is a good (though minor) example of the impact of string theory on experiments. At our current stage of understanding of string theory, we can effectively do calculations only in particularly simple – particularly symmetric – theories. But we are able to analyse these theories very completely; do the calculations completely correctly. We can then use these calculations to test various general predictions about the behaviour of all quantum field theories. These expectations sometimes turn out to be incorrect. With the string calculations to guide you can then correct these predictions. The corrected general expectations then apply to all quantum field theories, not just those very symmetric ones that string theory is able to analyse in detail.

How do you see the Prize helping your research work? Does this make it easier for you to secure grants, etc.?

It pads my CV. [Laughs] So… anything I apply for henceforth becomes a little more likely to work out, but it won’t have a transformative impact on my career nor influence it in any way, frankly. It’s a great honour, of course. It makes me happy, it’s an encouragement. But I’m quite motivated without that. [After being asked about winning the Infosys Foundation Prize] I’m thrilled, but I’m also a little overwhelmed. I hope I live up to all the expectations. About being young – I hope this means that my best work is ahead of me.

What do you think about the Fundamental Physics Prize in general? About what Yuri Milner has done for the world of physics research?

Until last week, I hadn’t thought about it very much at all. The first thing to say is when Milner explained to me his motivations in constituting this prize, I understood it. Let me explain. As you know, Milner was a PhD student in physics before he left the field to invest in the Internet, etc. He said he left because he felt he wasn’t good enough to do important work.

He said one motivation was that people who are doing well needn’t found Internet companies. This is his personal opinion, one should respect that. Second: He felt that 70 or 80 years ago, physicists were celebrities who played a large role in motivating some young people to do science. Nowadays, there are no such people. I think I agree. Milner wants to do what he can to push the clock back on that. Third: Milner is uniquely well-positioned because he understands physics research because of his own background and he understands the world of business. So, he wanted to bridge these worlds. All these are reasonable ways of looking at the world.

If I had a lot of money, this isn’t the way I would have gone about it. There are many more efficient ways. For instance, more smaller prizes for younger people makes more sense than few big prizes for well established people. Some of the money could have gone as grants. I haven’t seriously thought about this, though. The fact is Milner didn’t have to do this but he did. It’s a good thing. This is his gesture, and I’m glad.

Are the Fundamental Physics Prizes in any way bringing “validity” to your areas of research? Are they bringing more favourable attention you wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise?

Well, of late, it has become fashionable sometimes to attack string theory in certain parts of the world of physics. In such an environment, it is nice to see there are other people who think differently.

What are your thoughts on the quality of physics research stemming from India? Are there enough opportunities for researchers at all levels of their careers?

Let me start with string theoretic work, which I’m aware of, and then extrapolate. String theory work done in India is pretty good. If you compared the output from India to the US, the work emerging from the US is way ahead qualitatively. But if you compared it to Japan’s output, I would say it’s clear that India does better. Japan has a large string theory community supported by American-style salaries whereas India runs on a shoestring. Given that and the fact that India is a very poor country, that’s quite remarkable. There’s no other country with a GDP per capita comparable to India’s whose string theoretic output is anywhere as good. In fact, the output is better than any country in the European Union, but at the same time not comparable to the EU’s as a whole. So you get an idea of the scale: reasonably good, not fantastic.

The striking weakness of research in India is that research happens by and large only in a few elite institutions. But in the last five years, it has been broadening out a bit. TIFR and the Harish-Chandra Research Institute [HRI] have good research groups; there are some reasonably good young groups in Indian Institute of Science [IIS], Bengaluru; Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai; some small groups in the Chennai Mathematical Institute, IIT-Madras, IIT-Bombay, IIT-Kanpur, all growing in strength, The Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune, has also made good hires in string theory.

So, it’s spreading out. The good thing is young people are being hired in many good places. What is striking is we don’t yet have participation from universities; there are no string theorists in non-elite institutions. Delhi University has a few, very few. This is in striking contrast with the US, where there are many groups in many universities, which gives the community great depth of research.

If I were to give Indian research a grade sheet, I’d say not bad but could do much better. There are 1.2 billion people in the country, so we should be producing commensurate output in research. We shouldn’t content ourselves by thinking we’re doing better than [South] Korea. Of course it is an unfair thing to ask for, but that should be the aim. For example, at TIFR, when we interview students for admission, we find that we usually have very few really good candidates. It’s not that they aren’t smart; people are smart everywhere. It’s just one reason: that the elementary school system in the country is abysmal. Most Indians come out of school unable to contribute meaningfully to any intellectual activity. Even Indian colleges have the same quality of output. The obvious thing is to make every school in India a reasonable school [laughs]. Such an obvious thing but we don’t do it.

Is there sufficient institutional and governmental support for researchers?

At the top levels, yes. I feel that places with the kind of rock-solid support that TIFR gives its faculty are few and far between. In the US many such places exist. But if you went to the UK, the only comparable places are perhaps Cambridge and Oxford. Whereas if you went to the second tier Durham University, you’ll see it’s not as good a place to be as TIFR. In fact, this is true for most universities around the world.

Institutions like TIFR, IIS, HRI and the National Centre for the Biological Sciences give good support and scientists should recognize this. There are few comparable places in the Third World. What we’re missing however is the depth. The US research community has got so good because of its depth. Genuine, exciting research is not done just in the Ivy League institutions. Even small places have a Nobel Laureate teaching there. So, India may have lots of universities but they are somehow not able to produce good work.

We’ve had a couple Indians already in what’s going to be three years of the Fundamental Physics Prizes – before you, there was Ashoke Sen. But in the Nobel Prizes in physics, we’ve had a stubborn no-show since Subramanyan Chandrasekhar won it in 1983. Why do you think that is?

There are two immediate responses. First is that, as I mentioned, India has an anomalously strong string theory presence. Why? I don’t know. India is especially strong with string theory. And the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation has so far had some focus on this. The Nobel Prizes on the other hand require experimental verification of hypotheses. So, for as long as the Foundation has focused on the mathematics in physics, India has done well.

What are you going to do with your $100,000?

I haven’t seriously thought about it.

At the time of my interview, I had no idea he was about to win the Infosys Foundation Prize as well. It seems he’s in great demand! Good luck, Shiraz. 🙂