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Scientist fired from CSIR cries foul

Scientist fired from CSIR cries foul
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First Published: Wed, Nov 04 2009. 11 02 AM IST

Updated: Wed, Nov 04 2009. 11 02 AM IST
New Delhi: An Indian-American scientist, academic and entrepreneur hired to work with the 67-year-old Council of Scientific and Industrial Research has written to the Prime Minister saying he was fired from his job for criticizing the leadership of India’s largest scientific organization.
“(CSIR) is attempting to remove me (in) reaction to my addressing well-known, intrinsic leadership issues during the course of my professional duties to serve the cause of Indian science and innovation,” said Shiva Ayyadurai in a 30 October letter, a copy of which is with the Hindustan Times.
Ayyadurai, 45, holds four degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US, and has created multiple companies over the course of his career, including one of the world’s earliest email systems. He’s won some of the US’ top awards for innovators.
Samir Brahmachari, director general of CSIR, said Ayyadurai’s services were terminated because he was a “financial mismatch”. “He was demanding too much salary,” said Brahmachari. “Everyone told me I was pampering him because he came from abroad.”
In June, Ayyadurai was in India on a Fulbright scholarship when Brahmachari invited him to join the organization under the Scientist and Technologist of Indian Origin (STIO) programme. Launched by CSIR in 2008, STIO encourages partnerships between Indian scientific organizations and scientists of Indian origin based abroad. Ayyadurai’s offer was withdrawn on 26 October.
Leadership questions: CSIR director general Samir Brahmachari
Under CSIR’s guidelines for the STIO programme, the salary ranges from Rs37,400 to Rs67,000. Ayyadurai did not sign the original offer but replied asking for more money, said K. Jayakumar, joint secretary for administration at CSIR, whose office issued the official offer and the withdrawal letter.
“These Indian-Americans who come back, are they here to help us or exploit us?” said Brahmachari.
A former professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, Brahmachari won praise for promoting the cause of open-source drug discovery, which has the potential to provide low-cost medication to India’s poor. He said he was “not concerned” about criticism levelled against him in Ayyadurai’s report.
According to an original handwritten job description, Ayyadurai was to create a structure for CSIR-Tech, a firm that would work with CSIR scientists to spin off their inventions into money-making products.
CSIR-Tech is one of Brahmachari’s projects. Early in 2009, he had proposed a company similar to CSIR-Tech to government leaders, and a draft proposal for it was approved by the Prime Minister on 29 October.
Founded in 1942, CSIR awards more PhDs and files more patents than any other research and development facility in the nation, but it has struggled with turning those patents into revenue earners. Over the past 10 years, CSIR laboratories have been granted 5,014 patents in India and abroad. The money earned from these was Rs36.8 crore, but the cost of filing them was Rs228.64 crore, according to official figures obtained by Hindustan Times (HT) through the Right to Information Act. HT is published by HT Media Ltd, which also publishes Mint.
“Create a new centre of excellence!” says Brahmachari’s handwritten description.
An official appointment letter was later sent to Ayyadurai. Copies of both letters are with HT.
For the next four months, Ayyadurai criss-crossed the nation many times, visiting almost all of CSIR’s 42 laboratories nationwide and speaking with thousands of its more than 4,000 scientists, he says in the letter. Together with a colleague, Deepak Sardana, he produced a 47-page report called CSIR-Tech: Path Forward. The two businessmen highlighted 12 technologies developed by CSIR laboratories, in fields as diverse as robotics and traditional healing, which had the potential to be worth “billions of dollars” as commercial products. When contacted, Ayyadurai said many of these technologies are better than anything available in the world, but CSIR had not capitalized on them.
But the controversy began when he shared chapter 7 of the report, Challenges. The section described Ayyadurai’s difficulties with CSIR leadership, and also said the organization suffers from a “lack of professionalism” and that some scientists feel a “loss of faith in leadership”. The report recommended CSIR introduce “openness in communication” and establish “accountability of all participants”.
The final report went out on 19 October to thousands of scientists throughout the CSIR network. Ayyadurai says he received hundreds of emails and phone calls from CSIR researchers. One of those was from P.M. Bhargava, founder of CSIR’s Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, a former member of the National Knowledge Commission and the author of a book on Indian science.
“It was a very honest report, and so I had to respond,” said Bhargava. “He has captured exactly the challenges within this organization.” Bhargava worked for CSIR for more than two decades. “There are brilliant scientists at CSIR, but it is very difficult for them to survive,” he said, adding that he has written a letter to the Prime Minister’s Office on Ayyadurai’s behalf.
Another former director of a CSIR laboratory, a well-respected international scientist, agreed that the challenges identified in Ayyadurai and Sardana’s report were real. “CSIR still has to make tremendous progress, we don’t have expertise in transferring technology,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Several scientists took issue with the report. Rajesh Gokhale, director of the Delhi-based Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, a CSIR lab, wrote in an email to HT that Ayyadurai’s report was “highly unprofessional” and “full of personal reporting”. Directors of other laboratories expressed concerns— one of them wrote that Ayyadurai had “an axe to grind”.
Ayyadurai and Sardana planned to follow the report with a video conference, open to all scientists, about how to spin off a technology into a product. Three days before the conference, on 23 October, both men received orders from the joint secretary’s office, forbidding them from having any further contact with the scientists and directors of CSIR. Ayyadurai’s office email stopped functioning.
The order, on file with HT, forbids all “oral or written” communications “until further orders”. In his letter to the Prime Minister, Ayyadurai says he believes the order was issued because he and Sardana criticized CSIR leadership, including the director general, in the CSIR-Tech: Path Forward report.
Brahmachari said Ayyadurai’s email privileges were revoked and his offer withdrawn because he violated CSIR and government code of conduct regulations. A law passed in 2000 forbids employees from using email to spread “annoying” or “slanderous” messages, and Ayyadurai’s report could fall under this category if a judge feels that chapter 7 was unduly harsh.
Ayyadurai also circulated the original draft proposal for CSIR-Tech before the project had been approved by the Prime Minister, which under rules he cannot do.
A few days later, Ayyadurai was out of a job. He received an official letter withdrawing his appointment as STIO. It is impossible to terminate employment by withdrawing an offer of appointment that has already been officially accepted, but CSIR maintains that the STIO offer was never accepted, and Ayyadurai was functioning under a short-term consultancy contract that can be terminated at any time.
Ayyadurai said he still wants to work with CSIR-Tech. “I am confident that if we can overcome the challenges identified (in the CSIR-Tech report), these 12 spin-offs and many more can come from CSIR labs,” he says in his letter to the Prime Minister.
CSIR leadership said it is unlikely Ayyadurai can continue in his role in light of his rule-breaking. “I hired him because I thought he could bring energy to the organization,” said Brahmachari. “But he behaved with low integrity by breaking the rules.” Said Sardana: “Now I wish CSIR had not happened in my life.”
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First Published: Wed, Nov 04 2009. 11 02 AM IST