IT was a chance reading of the Biometrika - the premier scientific journal on statistics - on the advice of his Physics professor at Cambridge University that introduced Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis to statistics. Mahalanobis would go on to found the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), sowing the seeds of an institution that would gain world renown, and which has recently celebrated its Platinum Jubilee.
On his return from England, around 1915, Mahalanobis joined Presidency College, Kolkata as assistant professor of Physics. However, his interest in statistics remained and, alongwith a few like-minded scholars, he started a statistical laboratory in 1920 in the Physics department laboratory itself. His initiation into the practice of statistics was in 1917, through an assignment entitled Statistical Analysis of Examination Results of Calcutta University, probably the first important work on statistics produced in India in modern times.
With research on the subject being almost non-existent in India at that time, despite the county''s long mathematical tradition dating back to the Arthasastra, Mahalanobis established the ISI for advanced research and training in statistics, in 1931. In another pioneering effort, he also started publishing Sankhya, the Indian Journal of Statistics, which attained international recognition instantly. The monthly magazine keeps up its hallowed reputation to date. Initially, ISI was envisaged as a research institute on statistics, and in fact, till 1995, students were awarded only diplomas. In 1959, an act of Parliament recognised ISI as an institution of national importance. The institute remains well-known for its unique teaching methodology and is especially known for its Bachelor of Statistics and Bachelor of Mathematics courses.
A strong emphasis on research
Research still remains the core strength of ISI. It undertakes numerous projects on behalf of government departments or corporate houses, and even conducts its own projects. As Madhura Swaminathan, a professor at the Sociological Research Unit (SRU), says: "Though not a university, ISI has a wide spectrum of teaching in doctoral research." An economist by training, she points out that SRU combines expertise in many disciplines - history, sociology, economics, etc, making it multi-disciplinary. Swaminathan appreciates ISI's encouragement of field-research by its scholars. "I have been working on rural economics. So it has been an advantage since field-visits and other resources are made available if any of my proposals finds approval." This is decided by an internal review committee, comprising experts. Once the concept by a researcher is approved, funds are made readily available. As a result, her department has undertaken fieldresearch projects in different parts of the country, reaching beyond West Bengal in the last four to five years, Swaminathan informs. Apart from its main campus on the sprawling grounds in northern Kolkata, which also houses a museum dedicated to the founder, ISI also has two major centres in Delhi and Bengaluru, and a branch in Giridih, Jharkhand. Recently, a centre has also come up in Chennai. Over and above these, the institute has a network of Statistical Quality Control and Operations Research units in Vadodara, Coimbatore, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Pune.
The Kolkata campus has nearly 350 students. Tuition fee is 'zero', and the hostel fees are nominal, being highly subsidised. Non-sponsored students and research fellows receive stipends, fellowships, and contingency grants and book grants. "We don't have a 'seat' concept," clarifies Aditya Bagchi, currently Dean of Studies. "We take in as many students but frankly, we sometimes can't fill in the expected number of seats," he says. This is due to a strict selection system. Bagchi says around 7,000 applications are received annually, and out of that, around 60% appear for the entrance exam, which is a three-stage process. The first stage is a multi-choice test and the second is a paper on solving problems. The cut-off point in the first test ensures that those who are rejected at that point do not merit screening at the second stage and their papers are not checked at all. Then comes the third stage with interviews. "We do not compromise on quality and would rather receive fewer students than do that," says Bagchi. From July 2009, ISI will also be covered under the government's reservation policy on admission.
This insistence on excellence has paid off well as students get offers from wellknown IT companies, banks, insurance and manufacturing companies and research organisations, among others. However, with the current world-wide recession, the shadows have fallen on recruitment here too. "But not to the extent that our students do not find employment," reiterates DP Mandal, professor of Computer Science, and currently convener of the Placement Committee. "Formerly, perhaps, there were three offers per candidate now it may be one offer per candidate," he adds. The compensation packages have also been whittled down, in keeping with the downturn trends. Mandal says 70% of the eligible students have already secured jobs, pointing out that generally 30-32% go abroad for further studies. Bagchi confirms that most of the toppers go abroad for further studies on scholarships. However, some of them also opt to do a PhD at the institute itself as there is a high likelihood of getting absorbed into the faculty should all requirements be met.
However, Swaminathan wants more: "We really need to expand. There should be more fellowships, more Ph.D students, of course, keeping the quality intact." She suggests making selection "more inclusive", perhaps giving more opportunity to talented students who could be nurtured through more individual guidance. This is especially important since many students seek opportunities elsewhere and the number of students or researchers some departments falls far short of the seats on offer.
Presently, there are approximately 250 teachers in the faculty, comprising well-known statisticians, mathematicians, computer scientists and fellows of prestigious scientific institutes in the country. The institute, which had a UGC-norm pay scale, has been recently upgraded on a par with the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.
More bytes than you can chew
The ISI campus is integrated through a local area network, which also covers the residence buildings. In fact, ISI installed India's first electronic computer, a HEC- 2M, in 1956 and one of the foremost formal courses for computer science in the country was launched at the institute in 1962. The Central Library is at the headquarters in Kolkata, but its network extends to the institute's other locations. The library is one of the most extensive resource centres in the country, particularly in the field of statistics and related disciplines. Presently, it has over three lakh books and journals besides many official reports, reprints, maps, microfilms and microfiches. It receives nearly 1,000 scientific and technical journals annually. The library also has databases on CD-ROM, while other facilities are being further computerised. There is a separate collection of books and journals in mathematics and statistics known as Eastern Regional Centre of NBHM collection, which came out of the grants from the National Board of Higher Mathematics. The institute offers a course leading to Associateship in Documentation and Information Science, conducted by the Documentation Research and Training Centre of ISI Bangalore. The centre and the library constitute the Library, Documentation and Information Sciences Division of ISI.
While admission into ISI needs meticulous preparation, once in, the student is offered a wide field of study and research. The institute has won numerous awards, national and international, for excellence. Mahalanobis used to invite eminent scholars to the Kolkata campus and almost every Nobel laureate in the area at that time visited ISI the photographs in the Memorial Museum bear witness to it. This tradition continues even today as renowned statisticians and mathematicians of the day continue to be associated with this premier institute.