Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The all too predictable tale of the failed CSIR Tech initiative.

I am sure you have heard that one of the key personalities in the CSIR Tech saga is in the news again.  Dr. V. A. Shiva is planning to run against Sen. Warren and he is taking on a Trumpesque persona in the hope of achieving a major upset. This is not out of character for Dr. Shiva, he loves being the eye of the storm and a controversial fame.

I want to briefly touch upon the CSIR Tech episode. You can find Dr. Shiva's view of the affair on his website. I just want to put out my take on this as I feel it is relevant to judging the viability of non-establishment candidates.

So lets go back in time to the 2000s, there was a lot of back and forth within the GoI about what was limiting the pace of scientific and technology progress in the country. The economy had just come out the 1990s recession and there was a sense of optimism in the air that long fear problems could be resolved if resources were applied to them.

One persistent cause of concern was the slow pace of innovation. The cycle time associated with taking ideas from bench top to industry was very long. Some of this was due to poor infrastructure development and a great deal was due to the timescales associated with material science and engineering which tend to be in the decades.

The GoI took two approaches to this, the first was to trying lure back exceptional scientists of Indian origin. The other was to reach out to the Israelis.

In the case of CSIR (which contrary to the name is actually a vast enterprise supporting hundreds of labs and thousands of scientists) the idea that gained ground was to create a kind of CSIR - "Lite and Fast" or "Diet" version. This was called CSIR -Tech, and its job was to find ways of quickly taking research out of CSIR labs into industry. To make this happen in 2009 Dr. V. A. Shiva was hired by DG-CSIR Dr. Samir Brahmachari himself.

Right from the outset there were two major problems.

1) The "outsider" who was brought in didn't understand the nuances of CSIR's culture and didn't understand how CSIR was already productive to begin with. The "outsider" came in with a "this place is not working" perspective and proposed radical changes.

2) The "insiders" who had grown up within CSIR became mistrustful of the "outsider" and didn't welcome the idea of these outsiders gating their already painstakingly written research proposals. They also reacted poorly to the outsiders being given extremely high ranks within the government that are usually given only to career bureaucrats or Nobel Laureate quality scientists.

The CSIR leadership quickly found itself in a mire. The gap between the internal view and the external view was so large there was no way to bridge it. Dr. V. A. Shiva became trapped in that mire. Having approached the entire problem of long innovation cycle times with a "revolutionary" outlook, his found his political stock completely depleted and that was the point at which Dr. Samir Brahmacharri DG-CSIR backed out completely. With the main establishment backing away from him, Dr. Shiva felt isolated and lashed out. This made matters worse & he ultimately had to leave. The unpleasantness in that episode was quite high, but Dr. Shiva was not the first or the last person to experience this.

Dr. Shiva went back to M.I.T and CSIR went back to doing things its way and building on relationships with Indian industry that it already had. As India's market matured, a number of transitional entities appeared in key sectors that help incubate new technologies emerging from CSIR labs. The revolution that Dr. Shiva advocated and the change that CSIR craved for came less as a Tsunami but as a gradual erosion of the traditional organizational approaches. As each generation of mid-level managers retired, the positions were filled by more commercially sensitive subordinates. This process continues to this day and Indian commercial science grows like weeds on the GoI's lawn.

Was Dr. V A Shiva wrong in his approach? I feel it is valid to say that. I think his "tear it all down" approach only served to antagonize the establishment. It achieved nothing of substance but created a massive distraction that quite frankly India really didn't need at the time. By playing up the stereotype of the "outsider" mentality, Dr. Shiva alienated powerful groups inside CSIR that would otherwise have supported serious change. Like Daedalus, he flew too close to the sun with predictable consequences.

Was CSIR wrong in its approach? Yes - that can be said too. Institutional expectations were not properly defined and it was not made clear that what was necessary was a careful sorting of existing projects into short (less than 5 years), medium (5-10 yrs), and long (10 or more yrs). Internally CSIR was not ready for this kind of classification system to be put into place. CSIR craved change but didn't realize how much it would cost.

So where does that leave us?

It seems oddly familiar in the DJT context. A person's success in one context does not translate into success in another context even if superficially the two jobs look similar.

To be a successful politician - one needs to be able to bullshit convincingly but one also needs to be able to work with large complex bureaucratic systems. If you are not from the establishment - you have to go the extra distance in earning the trust of the insiders that your intentions are above board. If you are seen as a wannabe dictator - then most likely you will not be able to come up with workable ideas.  Without the ability to come up with workable ideas, you are indistinguishable from a conman.

Our government in the State and Federal in the US is as complicated and as intricate as India's CSIR. Unless you actually put a lifetime into working within it and learning all the nuances that go into making workable policy, you really have no hope in hell of succeeding or meeting any promises you make.


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