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Saturday, September 9, 2023

IITians in ISRO and other national missions

Recently, ISRO made us all proud by landing near the south pole of the moon, an achievement that no other nation has been able to do. During the festivities that followed, one thing that came out in media repeatedly was that there were very few IITians involved in this project. Indeed, there are very few IITian employees in ISRO.

When this was repeated, there were two implications. One is, of course, that we have a strong talent pool beyond the so-called top institutions in the country. This is very positive for the nation. But, the second implication is a complaint that IITians do not participate in the nation building through government projects. If you go through the comments on the newspaper reports, there is also a sense that if we can get high quality scientists from Tier 2 institutions (at a much lower cost), should we be spending so much on IITs. Should we force IITians to spend a couple of years after their graduation to work in the government sector.

What do numbers say. Well, everyone quotes a news report from 2014 in which it was stated that 2 percent of ISRO employees were alums of IITs or NITs. This information was received through an RTI application, and hence is largely believed to be true. But is this a good statistics to look at. When we look at ISRO employees, they include helpers, peons, drivers and so on. There will be many technicians, admin staff, security and what not. Even in technical staff, I suspect that there will be many jobs where they would prefer scientists over engineers. I couldn't find any distribution of employees in ISRO, but my gut feeling is that the number of jobs in ISRO where IITians can be reasonably expected to participate may be anywhere from one tenth to one fifth of the total number of jobs. Even if we look at one fifth as the number, it means that 10 percent of engineering jobs are taken by graduates of IITs and NITs. And 10 percent is not bad at all, particularly considering that IITs and NITs have never produced more than 3-4 percent of engineers in India.

Do IITians avoid government jobs since one often hears of very high salaries (even more than a crore) from MNCs. Far from it. You look at IAS, IPS, IFS, Forest Service, Revenue Service, Customs, and so on, you will find a lot of IITians there. You will also find IITians in all kind of services in Indian Railways, Military Engineering Services, Department of Telecom, DST, Public Works Departments (both at state and central level). You would also find a large number of them in government institutions and universities. So it does not seem like IITians are running away from the government sector. In fact, their contribution to nation building is truly admirable.

Still, if it seems that given the high profile nature of ISRO, more IITians should have been interested in the organization, there is one issue. A typical IITian prefer an on-campus recruitment or taking an exam which opens up a large number of good options. So the exams that many of them would be interested in include: Civil Services, Indian Engineering Services and now lately, GATE (since many PSUs have started shortlisting candidates based on GATE score). An organization having its own recruitment process which is not centered around on-campus recruitment will not attract IITians (or students from those campuses where there is easy availability of jobs). And there is no need to be judgmental about it. There is nothing wrong for an organization to have its own centralized recruitment process and there is nothing wrong in a student not interested in a process which they perceive as inconvenient. After all ISRO is attracting fabulous talent through its process. So why worry about someone not applying.

The last question is whether it means that we are over-spending on IITs (and by extension on other top institutions). If a smaller college with limited resources can produce such great scientists then why fund IITs and IISERs to such a large extent. I disagree. While you will find that the best graduates of Tier 2 institutions are equal to the best graduates of top institutions, the average graduate of a top institution is often better prepared academically than an average student of a Tier 2 institution. (Otherwise, the private sector wouldn't differentiate between the two.) The fraction of graduates of IITs and IISERs who are well trained is higher than the fraction of graduates of a Tier 2 institution who are well trained. And hence instead of thinking of IITs as wasteful, we should think of investing much more resources in Tier 2 institutions so that a much greater number of their graduates are in top league.

In summary, let us enjoy our moment of glory and success, let us feel good about there being talent in every nook and corner and not try to put down the top institutions. Everyone is contributing to the nation building.

1 comment:

samir said...

Thanks Dheeraj for posting this!

Enjoyed reading it. I was at IITK (as you were) in Dec 2022, and when we met current students the clear impression I got was that they were all keen to stay in India but not really do engineering - but start companies and take leadership roles.