Catalysing Quality Research

Research aiming to explore new frontiers in sciences and socio-economic domains is highly critical for growth and development in different spheres of life. Higher education institutions are considered ideal places for conducting research, which on the one hand would help country to invent new technologies/ solutions to socio-economic problems being faced and on the other hand helps in providing quality education.

Evidence from the world’s best universities throughout the history has shown that the best teaching and learning processes at the higher education level occur in environments where there is also a strong culture of research and knowledge creation. But merely conducting research serves little or no purposes, what matters the most, is the quality of research? Conducting cutting edge research in the areas of biotechnology, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence etc. is important for the country like India, which is striving hard to get a place of prominence at the global stage.

India is confronted with the number of challenges like; pollution, poverty & inequality, regional imbalances, environmental degradation etc. All these and other problems necessitates universities to conduct quality and actionable research to mitigate various problems being confronted by the economy/society.

A robust ecosystem for research is perhaps more important than ever with the rapid changes occurring in the world today, e.g., in the realm of climate change, population dynamics and management, biotechnology, and the rise of machine learning and artificial intelligence. Since the last few decades, universities in India have been placing greater emphasis in the conduct of research, however, still our universities have to go a long way, particularly in terms of quality of research. 

Most talked about reason, particularly among academicians is the lack of funding for conducting quality research. The lack of funding is also being attributed in NEP-2020 as one of the reasons for such a gloomy picture. There are no two opinions about the lack of requisite funding for conducting research which is amply clear while comparing funding towards research in India with the developed countries of the world.  As compared to 2.8% in  USA, 4.3% in Israel and 4.2% in South Korea, only 0.69% of GDP is being invested in research in India. But given the huge commitments towards the social sector, it would be highly unrealistic to expect India to match developed countries when it comes to the funding of research. So whatever little or more funding is available, the funding agencies and the researchers are duty bound to use those funds most effectively in order to derive maximum dividends. To grow and catalyze quality research, in addition to the host of institutions that currently fund research, NEP-2020 has recommended the establishment of a National Research Foundation (NRF), aimed to provide a reliable base of merit-based peer-reviewed research funding, and by undertaking major initiatives to seed and grow research at state universities where research capability is currently limited.

Establishment of NRF most likely would end up to the extent of an addition of one more institution, funding peer-reviewed grant proposals. It is good to try to address the problem of the lack of sufficient funding but it was equally important to address the other issues inhibiting the conduct of quality research of  international standards in the Indian universities. The formulators of NEP-2020 were also required to seek an answer to a ‘Multi Dollar Question’ that is, “Has the funding that has gone into the research so far, yielded the due dividends to the nation, if not, why?” On an average, every year Rs 4500 to 5000 crores  goes into the funding of research, such an amount is not little by all standards.

With this amount, every year, the nation would have established one large university or a large hospital. There is no denying the fact that the quality of research conducted in Indian universities is far from satisfactory by all standards which is evident from the very dismal performance of the Indian universities in the global rankings. None of the Indian Universities figure in the list of top 200 global universities mainly for the lack of quality research. UGC recently invited proposals to retrospectively assess the quality of Ph.D. theses awarded by the country’s universities over the past 10 years. The fundamental reason for undertaking such a massive exercise cited by the UGC is to address the rampant allegations and concerns being raised globally over the quality of published papers and Ph. D theses of Indian researchers.

There are no two opinions that the quality of research in Indian universities is marred by many other factors. Unless and until those factors are identified and addressed holistically, even increased allocations towards the conduct of research will do little or no good. The ecosystem for research in Indian universities is also constrained by the expected role failure of funding agencies, universities, subject experts and the researchers.

Funding agencies have failed to liaison between researchers and relevant branches of government as well as industry, so as to allow breakthroughs to be optimally brought into public policy making. Besides, funding is done without making any honest and meaningful outcome based assessment of the research, as a result of which many inefficiencies have blurred the landscape of research. It is in view of these facts that the public investment of Billions & Billions of rupees that has gone into the research so far, has failed to yield concrete results whatsoever.

This is explicitly evident from the fact that the huge research conducted by the universities in India has hardly led into any breakthrough, when universities are the only places where the solutions to the various challenges and issues being faced by the country are to be found. Since at the huge expense of socially and economically backward sections of the society, tax payers money is invested in the conduct of research, therefore, it was all the more important for the funding agencies and the universities to see that the funds provided are optimally used to achieve a greater good of  the country.

But unfortunately reckless funding is being done by the funding agencies without making any objective assessment of the funded research in terms of the intended outcomes in a transparent manner. As a result, there are widespread speculations of financial improbity in funded research which if true, unfortunately implies that the rot has infected the foundations of the temples of “Intellectual Curiosity, Honesty, Pity, Equity & Justice”. In the absence greater transparency and accountability, such speculations are bound to take place.

Achieving greater heights in research to a great extent depends upon the professional ethics and inquisitive behaviour of the researchers. It is this lack of  intellectual curiosity, no other scientist from India has received Nobel Prize after C. V. Ramman. Unlike true scientists or researchers like C. V. Ramman, unfortunately, the research in Indian universities to a majority of the researchers have become a “Mere Means to an End Rather Than an End in Itself”.

Generally so called scientists/ researchers in Indian universities have been found toiling hard to gain administrative positions which is unheard in the universities of Western World where all breakthroughs in technologies, sciences or social sciences has taken place. This is reflective of the lack of passion for research in our researchers.

It is also true that the researchers cannot solely be blamed for such a sad scenario. Actually the rot lies in the overall ecosystem in which the academicians/ researchers are made to work. Unlike the Western World, the academicians/ researchers are deprived of their due role in shaping the socio-economic destiny of the country.

There is a complete divorce between the systems of public policy making/ governance and the research being done in the universities. There is a need to re-establish academicians/ researchers in the country, at all levels, as the most respected and essential members of our society and public policy making, because they truly shape our next generation of citizens and are capable of acting as a catalysts for effective policy making and governance.

It pains to say that gone are the days when academicians were known not only for the knowledge they possesbut equally for their commitment to professional ethics, and selfless devotion to their duties. Such professors have become very rare in our country. It is because of these unscrupulous elements, the quality of research has deteriorated to a great extent in Indian universities.

It is also a fact that there are many scrupulously honest and meritorious academicians but unfortunately due to the widespread nepotism, favouritism and corruption which has pervaded all our institutions, are pushed to the margin. 

So unless and until the institutions whether educational or regulatory place premium only on merit, performance and integrity, things are not going to change. Rather, if we continue to operate with the current corrupt and inefficient systems, things are going to get bad to worse regardless of how much more we are going to invest in the education.

The most important “Silver Lining in the Cloud” is that there is no dearth of scholars and academicians having great intellect and passion for enquiry. The only problem is that we have failed to provide them a very stimulating and rewarding ecosystem.

The key elements of an enabling ecosystem for research and development includes; well defined research policy both at the university and funding agency levels, administrative flexibility and support for quality research, mentoring of young researchers, greater focus on collaborative research, incentivisation of the conduct of high quality research and the availability of seed capital for incubation and innovations.

The institutions should prioritise its research by focussing first on the local issues and challenges, followed by national level and global issues. The key to success would greatly lie in “Research Audit” conducted regularly, however, quality of research needs to be redefined in the context of changing global realities.

Universities in India have lost some sheen in the public view for obvious reasons. To regain lost public faith and image, there is an urgent need to improve the quality of research conducted in the universities, which among other things requires to redefine the measures of research quality. Currently “Bibliometrics” like; ‘h-index’ or quantitative methods such as, ‘Citations or Journal Impact Factor’ are taken as reliable measures of research quality. Critics have argued that time has come to move beyond these quantitative methods towards more qualitative or outcome based measures. Besides, “Bbibliomatrics” tools are found to be indicators of quality in some areas of social sciences, such as psychology and economics but not in many applied or policy related areas.

In the changing landscape of higher education, it is vociferously argued that we need to embrace “Altermatrics” which are qualitative and outcome based. These include ‘Citations in Public Policy Documents; Part of Industry Practices, Patents; Discussions on Research Blogs; Main Stream Media Coverage; Bookmarks or Reference Managers. Since these measures are outcome based, therefore, are sure to bring researchers nearer to the real world, which in turn will bring universities and its researchers into the greater public viewing.

Author is Former Registrar & Currently Professor in the Dept. of Commerce  University of Kashmir.