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In Conversation With Varun Aggarwal

Ranjani Saigal

Varun is a researcher and entrepreneur. He earned his Bachelor of Engineering degree at Delhi University and later dropped out of a PhD program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a Masters degree. He co-founded Aspiring Minds in 2008 to drive meritocracy in labour markets. Aspiring Minds is one of the largest employability assessment companies in the world. Varun heads research at Aspiring Minds. His work has led to the world’s first machine learning-based assessment of coding skills and the world’s first automated motor skills assessment. He has published more than 30 research papers and takes pride in the fact that the fruits of his research have improved millions of lives. 

Varun is also a promoter and advocate of data science. In conjunction with colleagues, he runs ML India (www.ml-india.org), to build India’s data science ecosystem, and also organized world’s first data science camp for school children. Varun’s work has been covered in The Economist, MIT Technology Review, Wall Street Journal, HT Mint, Economic Times and IEEE Spectrum. He has a passion for writing about science. His earliest works include an evaluation of Jagadish Chandra Bose’s contribution to the invention of radio, which won him the AWA award. He also writes poems and stories.

He recently wrote a book called Science Satyagraha describing the importance of science and technology for India’s progress.  

You can get more information about the book at 

Can you give us a little overview of this book? 

There are books on economic policy, social development, entrepreneurship in India and so on. I wanted to talk about the importance of science and technology for India’s progress. The book argues that a vibrant research ecosystem is a necessity for India’s development. It then delves into how India can build such an ecosystem to create new knowledge and use it for its socio-economic development. The arguments in the book are based on data – I present substantial new data, surveys and new analysis of public data to explain the current Indian research ecosystem. 

The book is written for a general audience and I tell a number of stories from MIT, my startup and others to illuminate the world of research for the uninitiated. It is a book for anyone who wishes to know how we reached this fantastical point in science and technology, what it means for each of us and India.

What motivated you to write this book? 

Given my close ties with MIT, I have the good fortune of being in constant touch with the new research results coming out and their impact. We are in one of the most exciting times as far as science and technology is concerned. I am pained to see that India has little participation in it, despite its huge potential.

There is little discussion on the importance of research and innovation for India. I felt people didn’t realize the importance of research for India to solve its social and economic problems. I give six reasons in the book why focus on science and technology a necessity for India’s progress. 

Second, we do not appreciate the importance of research universities in fuelling innovation. We think startups will do it all. To really succeed, we need to build a vibrant ecosystem of research universities collaborating with startups. We have no university in the top 300 universities in the world. As result, we hardly have any startups in India with globally competitive products/services. We need to change this. The book is a first step towards it.

Why did you choose this unusual title?

My publisher chose it! We discussed various titles including “Scientific India”, “Making India a Scientific Superpower” and so on. Finally, we felt the current title best captured the content of the book. Also, we wished to provoke our audience with the question whether India can be the next scientific superpower and how. 

I call the larger movement to make India a science leader as Science Satyagraha. It is much broader and holistic – using science to find satya and a culture to insist (aagraha) that truth in all aspects of our life.

What are the major obstacles in India to make scientific innovation possible? 

I would like to mention couple of big picture issues. First, we historically divorced research from higher education. Our higher education institutions were to teach, while government research labs were to create new knowledge. This hasn’t worked well. Research has to be combined with teaching, continuous fresh ideas from graduate students and PhD training to them. This was the Humboldtian model of Germany. US created hugely successful research universities like MIT, Stanford, UC Berkeley based on it. We did not.
Second, we have not focussed on creating excellence – we have spread our resources thin, wide and unconnected to merit. When in 1960’s, the Kothari Commission proposed creating 5-6 major research universities, the Parliamentary Panel shot it down saying it was elitist and discriminatory. Nothing can be worse for research progress. Research progress is all about meritocracy, accumulation of resources and promotion of great ideas.

Indians love science and math. Where did we loose our way? 

Indians love science and math and at are great at it. Our institutional structures do not allow this to manifest into great research to solve big problems. We lose people who want to do research to the US – most of our research institutions are mediocre. Second, we lose our great minds to jobs in corporations, where they execute things rather than creating fundamental new knowledge. A survey I did for the book, showed that only 18% of our top undergraduates are interested in research – 46% are interested to go to the US and 35% are interested in jobs. We need to create an environment to attract our best talent to the research career and make them super successful.

What changes can be made to achieve results quickly? 

The first is will – both public and political. Public needs to understand the importance of science and technology for India and demand the government to focus in it and perform. The Indian masses have already seen the fruits of research – mobile phones, MRI machines and most lately, disruptions in artificial intelligence. They need to demand from our government that India leads in these areas. 

The government has to take up the cause of science and technology seriously. It has to take holistic measures over the next 10 years to reform the system completely. China started this towards end of 80’s and has been very successful. First, the government has to liberalize the research environment like it liberalized the business environment in the 1990s. This means promoting both autonomy and accountability. Our research institutions need independence in raising money, investing money, deciding salaries, etc. At the same time, government needs to demand performance from institutions and allocate resources based on performance. Our institutions need to respond and aspire to become world class. This way we can promote excellence and multiply our success.

I see an opportunity with artificial intelligence. There is great interest in the government, private sector and students at large, in it. We can probably start our reforms to develop this area, run experiments and then generalize.

Does the private sector and individuals have a role?

Governments are slow, but create long term impact. Private individuals and organizations need to step in to accelerate and complement the process. They need to create policy and advocacy bodies to lean on the government for change, help them in policy formulation and grow capacity in science and technology. A MIT Professor remarked to me that if one private research university sets an example in India – rest will follow. I cannot but agree more to him.

Your work has also shown that 95% of people graduating from Engineering colleges are unemployable. Is anything being done to address this crisis? 

We have been now publishing data on this for the last 8 years. It has greatly influenced the public discourse and got attention to the topic. AICTE recently took a number of steps, which we had recommended. These included reducing engineering seats, orientation programs for first year students, revision of the syllabus and so on. All these are good and well placed. However, we cannot come out of our unemployability problem till we improve the quality of our teachers in engineering colleges. We need to attract high achievers to teaching and train them well. Second, we need to work on creating real innovation. Think about an artificial intelligence based teaching assistant for programming– it can revolutionize technical education.

Where do you see the future of India? 

India is a nation with huge potential and it has big opportunities ahead. Unfortunately, I do not think we are making good use of these. We need to think long term in solving our problems. More importantly, we need to use the scientific method in developing solutions, testing them and implementing them at scale. We need to depend on science for our social and economic development – we do not have another choice. 

What has been the response to your book in India? 

It is still early days, but it has led to substantial invited articles, talks and dialogues. A quiz based on the book was attempted by 500+ people. The book is helping influence folks to think about science policy and build institutions for pursuing it. Similarly, it has started to spark interest among private individuals to build world class research institutions. 

As I say in the Preface of the book, “If this book instills in you any greater confidence in the power of science, if it motivates you to do your part to improve the Indian research ecosystem, and if it supplies you with the tools for it, then I will consider that I have succeeded in my goal.”

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