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On the eve of his retirement as NAL’s Director in 2002, I asked Dr T S Prahlad what fraction of his time as Director he spent “usefully” 1. I expected him to say “about 50%”, but he surprised me by replying “25%” in all seriousness.

This was about five years ago. I wonder what directors in CSIR, DRDO and other publicly-funded national establishments feel today. It would be no surprise if today’s figure was well below 25%.

In fact, we are rapidly heading towards a situation where a capable scientist, researcher or professor would rather not accept a leadership role. This is very worrying because it leaves the door open for an incompetent individual to take charge, and eventually seriously hurt the institution.

Why are the best now unwilling to accept leadership roles? Why has a once coveted job suddenly become thankless? We will try to list the inhibiting factors, but in no particular order.

You really can’t do much: The director of a national R&D establishment is severely shackled. He2 might step in with many ideas and a grand vision, but he is, day after day, told by the “administration” 3 that the rules don’t permit Action A, Action B … or, indeed, any intelligent action. The director has to be really brave to stick to his resolve over long periods of time; most eventually succumb, or mellow to permissible levels.

There is no worthwhile enabling infrastructure: It is a common misconception that the director’s post is very powerful; much is made of the director’s “powers” and his enormous “delegated authority”. In reality, this doesn’t add up to much. The director might sanction expenditure, but it’ll take a long time before that money can actually be spent; he might sign a purchase file, but the delivery will be made six months later! And during these six months, the director will have to intervene six times to push the file. The truth is that the director can only be effective if he has a good enabling infrastructure – and he is usually saddled instead with an abysmal supporting system.

No effective power: The accepted management wisdom is that a good leader cleverly toggles between the carrot and the stick. The director of a national lab or institute however quickly discovers that a stick will take him nowhere: if he orders his administrative officer to act in a certain way, the officer will slyly refer the matter to the HQ “for consideration”; if he forcefully imposes his will on a department head, the heads will gang up to defeat this initiative. Suitably chastised, the director will opt for the carrot … but he will soon discover that a mere carrot won’t suffice; it must be multiple – and juicy – carrots.

The mundane overwhelms the magnificent: Over the years, most national labs have become too director-centric. The director must apparently be involved in everything: clearing most administrative files, approving air travel by a private airline for an “ineligible” colleague, or presiding over every farewell party to greet a retiring colleague (as institutions age, retirements are multiplying). Sometimes it’s the nature of the director’s personality that compels him to get so intimately involved in mundane activity, but usually it’s something more sinister: everyone’s passing the buck, and the buck stops with the director. If it’s the sort of file that’ll set an auditor’s or vigilance officer’s eyeballs rolling, the administration will “protect” itself by seeking the director’s signature.

The best are going away: One of the great joys of leading an R&D establishment is to work with intelligent colleagues to create great knowledge and technologies. This was always hard in a national lab because of the poor enabling environment; but it may now become impossible as talented scientists, lured by high salaries and better work conditions, leave in large numbers and new talent refuses to come in. How is the director to work his magic in such circumstances?

Endure nonsense from bureaucrats: Directors, especially new and weak directors, must also reckon with the severe pressures that they face from the bureaucrats at the HQ. The Delhi bosses love to dominate, and enjoy sending off long notes to directors seeking updates on performance indicators, or explanations for apparent transgressions – all this, of course, “within the next seven days”.  The director must eventually learn how to vanquish these arrogant intrusions, but he must also wonder why he accepted the directorship when it involved putting up with such nonsense.

It’s lonely up there: Most directors find that their job cuts them off from the rest of the lab: they have to meet a lot of strangers, travel frequently, attend far too many worthless meetings, and grapple with too many official documents and reports. They also end up spending a lot of time with the same small handful of colleagues; this is by design, not chance! The director is thus condemned to be a very lonely person, unless he makes a significant effort to break free.

Poorly paid: Finally, and this is a serious concern by itself, the director of a national lab is very poorly paid especially if you consider the nature of his responsibilities and the variety of roles that he must play. The numbers simply don’t add up! Scientists who grew through the system might still covet the director’s post, but for most others this is simply a very thankless job.

1 “Usefully”? It may be easier to describe what is not useful. Examples: (a) sitting in a meeting for 2 hours, when 15 minutes are sufficient, but the meeting meanders on with a lot of irrelevant talk; it’s usually about rules, and what Swamy says or doesn’t say, or some gossip about what’s happening at the HQ; (b) signing at least a hundred files or notes every day, every week, every month! (c) presiding over a farewell meeting — preceded by high tea — to eulogize the achievements of a retiring colleague (d) declaring open the 13th annual basketball meet at the other end of the town (e) deposing in the Sessions Court in the “illegal” ad hoc appointments case; (f) receiving a memorandum from some aggrieved group and countering their searing hostility; or (g) travelling to Delhi for a meeting with the Minister which had to be postponed “owing to unforeseen circumstances”.

 2 I write “he” deliberately; we’ve had very, very few lady directors.

 3 The greatest change inhibitor is what is collectively called the “administration”: this entity is supposed to support the R&D establishment’s core functions and activities; in reality, it often grievously hurts performance.

— This article first appeared in Current Science in 2007.

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