Sunday, September 28, 2008

‘Research interest growing in India’

Microsoft Research India on the trends shaping the scene..

“The situation here is always improving. We at Microsoft Research India got about 60 to 70 submissions when we started. Now we get about 400 a year. The numbers have doubled in other institutions, too.”

Ravikanth Nandula

Compared to a thousand doctorates in computer science that come out of American universities every year, India produces 50. But the situation here is improving, P. Anandan, Managing Director of Microsoft Research India, says.

Excerpts from a chat with eWorld:

Could you tell me a little bit about the idea behind setting up a computer science research lab?
I was already interacting with the Indian research community for close to a decade before this lab was conceptualised.

As part of my job (leading a group researching into computer vision at Microsoft, Redmond) I would attend various technological events where research papers are presented by professors and IITians. And a lot of those papers were from third year and final year students.
At the time when I did my B.Tech (in 1977) from IIT Madras I could not tell what writing a paper even meant! That was one of the first things that made me realise that a change was on.
A second point is, back in 2003-2004, a certain area of research was becoming interesting — ICT (information and communication technologies).

It made sense that if you wanted to do research, the developing countries were the place to go to.

And India was the best place, with its opened economy, strong educational foundations and the resulting opportunities. It is still easily a leading destination.

But wasn’t the talent flying out of India at that time?

That is true of today. And that is definitely true of yesterday. But reverse migration is also happening. People who have gone abroad in the 1970s and 80s want to come back and contribute.

The economy had opened up and opportunities for people who wanted to come back were there.
In fact, setting up the labs was a recognition of these changing conditions.

How does the research environment in India fare, say, vis-a-vis, the US ?

We produce about 50 Ph.Ds a year in computer science. The US, about one thousand. Last year was especially good for them with 1,500 Ph.Ds. But don’t ignore the fact that about a quarter of them are from Indian students.

To do research, we need a critical mass of people. We need four or five faculty members who’re interested and a few students rally around them and then things get to happen.

Is this situation changing?

The situation here is always improving. We at Microsoft Research India got about 60 to 70 submissions when we started. Now we get about 400 a year. The numbers have doubled in other institutions, too.

Can you tell me how your research activities are structured?

We have about 60 people; 52 do research. Each research area has one or two top people, world-renowned, who attract other researchers.

At the middle, we have fresh Ph.Ds from around the world, not just India. The third one are an interesting group: fresh graduates from B.Tech and M.Tech who come and work with us.
These are assistant researchers who work with us and eventually go for a Ph.D. They are really good! Very bright!

You are a research facility that’s attached to a company. How different is it for a prospective researcher from working in an academic institution?

There are two things that stimulate a researcher: One is peer recognition and the other is the impact his research has on the larger society.

The best way a technological researcher can affect the society around him is to work through the company that makes the technological products. There is a satisfaction when a thousand peers cheer you in a seminar hall and then there is an altogether different satisfaction when a billion people use the products that your research made happen. We offer them both.
You also hold an annual research symposium. Tell us about it.

It’s called TechVista. It is part of our efforts to create awareness about what research is and the potential that research has to make a global impact. It is a one-day symposium that brings together some of the world’s leading researchers, scientists and academics.

A number of Turing award winners (the most prestigious award in computer science) have been speakers at previous editions of TechVista and this year will also feature a Turing award winner,

Prof. John Hopcroft, as a speaker.
We’re holding it in Chennai on October 1. It’s open to all.
Source: Hindu Business Line

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