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Tete-A-Tete with Prof. Ramgopal Rao; Director, IIT Delhi

Q. What do you feel is the greatest contribution you have had to IITD? What were the high points of your tenure as a director?

While IIT Delhi had filed around 500 patents until 2016, in the last 5 years, we were able to add another 500 patents. Another thing we were able to achieve was the boosting of research budgets from 100 crores to 400 crores, a 4 times increase in a short span of 5 years. Some of these have happened through very careful planning and design by managing the structures inside the institute and if you think about it, we have started 7 new academic units. Major academic restructuring has taken place. We have two new departments, 3 new schools, and 2 new centers. For whatever reason there is, they were all stuck in some administrative issues, and we were able to resolve those issues and get them on the ground and they all are doing very well. There is a school of public policy, a school of AI, a school of interdisciplinary research and center for automotive research. All of them have taken up, and are attracting good faculty. These were needed and have put the institute on the right path. If you think of it, we were able to create a new IIT within IIT.

Q. What agendas did you have in mind while you were offered the post?

I was at IIT Bombay for 16 years and I always had an image about IITD. There are some good people here. There are problems in every institution of the country, and the reason I took the director position was because I wanted to change them, at least in one institute and that could percolate to other institutes.

One of the problems in all Indian institutions is the siloed approach, we do not interact with each other. All sub departments work independently. That siloed approach is coming in the way of us becoming impactful. If we work in our own narrow area, we can write papers and we cannot do anything beyond that. We are generating knowledge. But that knowledge cannot be applied anywhere, because it’s very narrowly focused in a particular area. You cannot generate a product out of it. People outside take that knowledge, apply it in a system and sell it back to us. That is a current challenge.

If an industry makes a chip today, there’s an IP which is generated jointly with IIT. But no one knows that, because they don't go out and tell the world that the research they used is done in IIT. No industry does that. As a result, the general public is of the impression that there’s nothing happening in our institutions worthwhile, which is actually opposite to the truth. To address that, we require a multidisciplinary background. Therefore knowledge to wealth transition is what I found is the biggest bottleneck in our institutions.

The second thing is, internationalization. IITs are great places, but when you visit any institute abroad, the one immediate thing that strikes you is that people from all over the world are coming and studying there. That multicultural atmosphere that exists on the campuses, with people of diverse cultural backgrounds interacting with each other, that is completely missing. And because we don’t have enough international footprint, we are losing out on our ranking as well which depends on the internationalization, international student, international faculty and faculty-student ratio.

Ideally, both students and faculty should also be able to come from any place in the world and study with us. But the JEE is a big bottleneck for them. I don’t think anyone other than an Indian can clear JEE right now with the kind of complexity required. But who stops us from getting international students for the PhD program? We have opened up our PhD program for all good scholars all over the world. Anyone should be able to come here for a PhD, and to some extent the masters program.

The third thing is the industry connect. How do you do research so that it becomes a product? When you do research in academia, you are just doing a proof of concept, nothing more. To develop a product, you show a proof of concept, that an industry picks up. It’s not happening because there is no industry working with us. But if the industries cannot be involved, can we encourage more startups? Can we have faculty members starting companies?

Q. What changes were done to meet these agendas?

I call them the three I’s. The first I is interdisciplinary research, the second is internationalization, and the third is industry connect. The same ideas existed for a long time, but it was not visible at the ground level. We have to do it in a structured manner. Through these three programs, we had very specific targets.

For interdisciplinary research, we launched a program called the FIRP (Faculty Interdisciplinary Research Project). This is a provision, if two faculty members from two different departments would come and work together, the institute would give them a seed grant. So we started a program called FIRP and at least 100 faculties came forward from different departments. We spent about 10 crores in seed funding that research.

We started this about four years ago, and now when we look back,the whole project funding has gone up by about a hundred crores. Even for B. Tech students, we launched the 1234 Discover and Learn Program. IIT Delhi, in 2016, was doing research projects of eighty to hundred crores per year. Now in 2020, despite Covid, we have now achieved the target of four hundred crores, a four-fold increase. They are going out and writing proposals.

We have also recruited new faculty. At IIT Delhi, the faculty recruitment was taking too much time. It happened once every two years. We were able to reduce it to six months. The IIT Delhi faculty strength was around 400 when I joined. Now there are close to 650 faculty members. So there’s more people, more research and more people writing research papers. IIT Delhi would soon be touching 500 crores in 2021.

So that’s a five times growth that we have seen. The interdisciplinary research, which is being enabled through these schemes, has given us a big boost. But we thought to take it one step further. Our faculty should go out and connect with other institutions too. So we met with the AIIMS director. I said, we’ll fund our faculty, can you fund your faculty, so that they can work with each other? This model is called the multi-institutional FIRP. We started more than 50 projects with AIIMS in the process. We have done the same thing with at least 6 other institutes in Delhi.

Q. What effect did you see on the IIT culture regarding research and technology after the implementation of these changes?

In 2016, IITD was filing 15-20 patents. But in 2020, despite Covid, IITD has filed 153 patents. In 2021, we’ll be crossing 200 patents. The increase in the number of patents has given a boost to the start-up ecosystem and innovation on the campus. Consequently, our number of start-ups have grown as well. For startups, we have schemes for faculty now as well. In some departments at IIT Delhi, every fifth faculty member has a startup. A lot of IPs are getting generated and out of these IPs, a lot of startups are coming out and people are seeing the impact of IIT Delhi.

Regarding internationalization, we now started a joint PhD program with The University of Queensland. The UQIDAR (the first joint PhD IIT Delhi program) is very successful now. We’ll have 300 students in that PhD program in another two years. It has crossed 50 students now, in just a year. Similarly we have a joint PhD program with NCTU in Taiwan. We would identify the top university in each continent and have a joint PhD program.

We are now connected with industries more closely. We have more than 350 projects that we have done in the last five years and we hold an industry day on the campus. Start-ups are coming out which are being funded by these industries. We have created a dean corporate relations office on the campus. We also have a research and innovations park coming up.

We started almost 700 crores worth of projects in the last 4 years which are now nearing completion. 1.8 million square feet of space is what we created. All this growth also needs infrastructure as well. We have more buildings now. New faculty housing is coming up, new girls’ hostel, new boys’ hostel, R&I park, 2 engineering blocks, an additional floor on SAC. Lot of new space is being created.

Another thing we are doing is provision of central facilities. When I joined IIT Delhi, there was no central facility concept. Everybody had some equipment in their labs, access was a problem. So we now have a central research facility. From 7 or 8 tools, CRF had at that time, we now have something like 80 tools. During my time, IIT Delhi spent something around 300 crores, in upgrading our central research facility. Many tools worth 150 crores are still coming. This was a major change. The access to facilities has made a lot of difference for everyone. It made the research quality also go up.

We are pretty active on social media, both the institute and I. Otherwise, IIT Delhi did not even have a Public Relations Office (PRO), and no one could know what was happening on the campus. Now almost every week, we hear something good about IIT Delhi in the newspaper. The infrastructure, and all these new schemes, I think we are quite well off. IIT Delhi, in the NIRF ranking (the MHRD ranking) was at the 4th position, after IIT Kharagpur. Now we are at the 2nd position in the country, after IIT Madras. We have overtaken IIT Bombay, last year. In QS, the world university ranking, we are at 47th rank for engineering. All these rankings are reflecting some of the growth that has happened now.

It’s not happening automatically. It’s happening by a plan, by some actions that we have taken. So, I think, the image of IIT Delhi is definitely much better now. People value what is happening. All this has happened through design. I’m quite happy that we are on the right path.

Q. What were the downtimes of your tenure? How did you power through them?

The biggest problem running IITs is autonomy. We don’t have autonomy. For everything, we are dependent on the government of India and on the ministry. I have written many concept papers on a variety of matters for the ministry. There’s no financial model for IITs. I have written articles in newspapers. I have also sent the ministry my views on how to run IITs. Some of these are now not within the purview of IITs but they are within the purview of the government of India. The national educational policy talks about all the right things. So I’m hoping that through the implementation of NEP, many of these issues will be taken care of. But otherwise I think IITs need to be run very differently, from what the government is able to do right now.

Q. What do you feel was the most important lesson you learned in these past few years?

Getting anything done in the senate, akin to making decisions in a democracy, takes a lot of time. I learnt when to be assertive and when to be flexible. If you’re not strong, nothing will happen. But you also need to know when to be flexible. If you take a rigid stand and say I think this is correct and nothing else is true, things don’t work well. In this position, this is the most important lesson I have learned. On the other hand, managing IITD is like managing a small organisation. One person’s right is another person’s wrong. So in such cases, assertiveness becomes essential in a democratic setup. It was, to me, a crucial management lesson.

Q. How did the pandemic transform your role as a director? What are the changes that have been up and about at IITD in these trying times?

The coronavirus came very suddenly; there was no time to prepare for anything. In just a few weeks, the campus had to be closed down, and everything had to be shifted to the online mode. Our biggest challenge at the time was to ensure that the academic year is not lost. The pandemic took place in March, but the students had to get their degrees by June. Plus, there was the additional baggage of their placements.

One thing we did differently than other IITs was concerning our research initiatives. IITD kept its laboratories open and provisions were made for students to stay back in the hostel and work in the labs for any researcher who wished to work on a problem related to corona, may it be prevention (PPE kits were limited), detection, diagnosis (RTPCR was too expensive) or treatment (medicines.) Almost 15 research groups started functioning normally, heavily driven by their motivation. The Kusuma school started to reorient their work towards corona and kickstarted research in viruses and vaccines. The textile department, which has earlier worked on nasal filters, air pollution masks, reoriented itself towards PPE kits.

Q. How do you think IITD has fared under your leadership and guidance during the pandemic?

As a result of 15 functional research groups, within 3 to 6 months, IIT Delhi developed the world’s most affordable RT PCR kit. The minister of education launched the kit, priced at Rs. 399, opposed to the then hefty Rs. 4500 it was being sold at, making testing cheaper and hence, more accessible. Even after the additional masks and paraphernalia, the cost remained between Rs. 900 to Rs. 1000. Not only this, IITD licenced the technology to 10 companies, some of whose production ramped up to one million extra RT PCR kits every month. The textile department sold masks and PPE kits with an antimicrobial coating, meeting all the WHO standards. Five million PPE kits have gone into the market from IITD. 40% of them are getting exported. For the treatment aspect, many ancient Indian medicines were studied for their effectiveness against COVID. Those studies were published in top journals of their areas. Using AI, ML technologies, our researchers developed algorithms to predict the spread of COVID. They started monitoring the spread in every district in the country. All these things were made available to the government of India.

So I think that the decision of not closing the institute for everybody has made a huge difference for IITD. I’m surprised with the depth of research at our institute that has achieved so much in 3 to 6 months. It’s pride worthy how much IIT Delhi has contributed during the COVID situation. In my opinion, no other university in the world has contributed as much. IITD is set to launch its low-cost rapid testing kit.

On the education side, the online classes are being handled very well. The examination was a big concern. However, the challenges of controlling cheating and curbing unfair means remains. Unfortunately, no one has found a solution to it, hence we make do.

IIT Delhi offers about sixteen hundred courses in a year. To move all those courses to the online mode has not been easy. More than 1500 courses have been moved to the online mode in such a short time.

Things are getting better.It’s not been perfect for anybody. These are the most difficult times, and nobody was prepared for it. But given all the challenges, I think we have handled the situation very well.

It’s not easy, but I think everyone is learning on the job, and we are becoming better and better.

Q. What are your plans for the upcoming semester, hopefully when all the students are back on campus?

For now, on campus, there are at least 1500 students who have come back. PhD scholars, M. Tech and B. Tech. final year students. For the upcoming months of July, we are hoping that the situation improves and hopefully we can have all the students back on campus. In my opinion, when the students come back to campus, the best approach would be a hybrid approach. We are hoping for it to be a regular semester, but all lectures would be recorded and available to students in their hostels.

Q. Would you like to recount any interesting incident from the past five years?

The President once hosted an event inviting donors who had donated to the IITD Endowment Fund. He hosted it personally and every donor would get to have tea with the President. We had the tea organised at the President’s home, the Rashtrapati Bhawan. The next question was, who would they invite? So they donated this formula that those who have given ten crores and above would be invited. So we had a lovely event in the Rashtrapati Bhawan and on the first day, we collected Rs 265 crores.

After our endowment fund, the President gave back to his alma mater. We even released a Bollywood-like song, the journey of the creation of that song was fascinating. Some of these were the emotional moments that touch you somewhere.

We even started a few more academic sections. In a government setup closing down anything is more complex than starting anything. When you want to close a centre, there are students in the centre, alumni who are emotionally connected and faculty members who work there. So when you think of closing something, you need to deal with the emotions of the people. The alumni will think that the place where they got their degree will no longer be there and the students who are there would seem like a bleak future. The faculty who have been recruited for a lifetime, where will they go?

In the last 30 years, IITD has not started any new academic unit. Whenever you are about to start another centre, people say, look, we already have centres which are not functioning, why do you want to build more centres. Our inability to close was coming in the way of our ability to take new initiatives. Once we were able to close them, it opened to us multiple pathways as to what we could do. We could start two new schools, two new centres, two new departments, and start the school for interdisciplinary research. We were able to create an IIT Gandhinagar at IITD. It is a good and new healthy thing for the future.

Q. Do you have any message for the student community before we close this session?

I see so many bright students entering IITD, and in my time at IITB I have even taught many IIT students. I somehow feel that IIT students could have done better in many more fields. I see students who come here with fixed ideas on what they want to do, and they spend their four years pursuing that. They don’t explore other opportunities.

Every student at IITD can be assured that they will leave with a decent job at the end of these four years. Students should take time, explore and not make up their minds since day one as to what they want to do in life.

Minds to me are parachutes; they won’t be used until they are opened. Students come here with preconceived notions, they don’t even want to see what else they could have done. They just choose the path because their destination is there, but they don’t want to pick up anything else on the journey. That is not what they should do. They should explore opportunities and see what they like. If they kept an open mind, many IITians would be doing something very different, much bigger than what they currently do. I think this should change at some point.

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