In a recent article in the Hindustan TimesAmitabha Bhattacharya, a retired ERA official, defended the Center's defunct policy that research at central universities should be aligned with "national priorities" and avoid "irrelevant" topics. His defense was ostensibly to improve the quality of doctoral research.
However, he did not mention how work on government-specified topics could increase the quality of research, nor is there any clarity about what "irrelevant" research is, and what research is of "national importance." Will the government present a list of topics that scientists and scholars can study? Will they prevent people from studying esoteric topics as green algae move?
If there were any questions about what could be a "national priority" topic, the author gives a clue, although it does not have an official sanction.
Any neutral person would be able to observe the dominance of center-left scholars, especially in the social sciences, and even more so in Kolkata and Delhi. Within the constitutional structure, it would be natural for his opponents to expand his domain. While the other's views must be relentlessly questioned, they should be tolerated as well.
The issue began with a circular issued at the Central University of Kerala in Kasargod that read:
According to the decisions of that meeting, the deputy chancellor has been directed to implement the following at the Central University of Kerala: a) Discourage research in irrelevant areas …
When scholarship holders are admitted to doctoral degrees, the topics for the thesis should be in line with national priorities. The assignment of privilege (sic) topics to doctoral students should be waived.
After the widespread indignation in the media and the resignation of a faculty member from the university's Study Council, the government made a turnaround and blamed it on an enthusiastic "junior bureaucrat." However, this idea was the result of a meeting at the Ministry of Human Resources Development and the minutes were distributed to all central universities.
While academics have accused the government of trying to suppress dissent, deny research on caste issues, and promote higher education, it is difficult to gauge the spirit of the message itself. Talking to The wire Previously, K. Vijayaraghavan, India's chief scientific advisor, had considered a failed attempt to improve the quality of the research.
But the quality of doctoral research can not be improved by narrowing the fields of study but increasing the breadth of research areas along with funding. The quality of research depends – and is even a proxy – of good monetary and intellectual resources; the second can only be nurtured in a culture that rewards fearless thinking that is creative and critical. This, in turn, means that academic and research institutions may have greater autonomy.
Liability other than zero
The second argument of Bhattacharya is responsibility. He writes:
Can the state be an impotent testimony to the abysmal quality of research that many of our universities produce? While academic freedom should be valued and defended, should degeneration be allowed in a zero liability system in which attempts to deviate from the norms of the past are ridiculed?
The government is well within its rights to worry about the quality of the research, but it is an exaggeration to say that there is "zero responsibility". Academic infrastructure includes academic researchers, students, technicians, bureaucrats and politicians, and all these people must share the blame for that failure. In addition, it is logical that the same issues also attack research in areas of "national priority".
Bhattacharya also points to the dangerous phenomenon of "false theses," but fails to elaborate how research on areas of "national priority" will be exempt from this problem.
In fact, India ranks among the prolific publishers in the world of predatory journals, and the government has taken some (of varying effectiveness) measures to reduce them.
However, predatory publication has become more pronounced after the University Grants Commission has implemented its Academic Performance Indicators (API) for career growth of university and college professors. The scheme forced them to post to qualify for promotions, etc., but did not provide them with the necessary funds or training. Indeed, the government introduced a top-down solution to increase the quality of research, but backfired so much that the government was forced to change API standards.
On the one hand, it is encouraging to see the government try to improve scientific integrity among the country's students. But, on the other hand, misconduct-including plagiarism-and predatory publication continue to be beasts still to be killed.
There are also uncomfortable issues about the people at the top of the food chain as the problem seems systemic. For example, Pondicherry University fired its deputy chancellor after a protracted battle for plagiarism in his PhD, only to find his successor under a cloud of similar allegations.
A large part of India's impression as predatory advertising capital of the world is thanks to the OMICS group. Recently, he was fined $ 50 million by the US Federal Trade Commission for misleading researchers in publications on his pages. If it is the responsibility that Bhattacharya seeks, the government should end OMICS – although this is not likely given the partnership with the Uttar Pradesh government – rather than limiting the search options for its academics.
The attempt to focus research in certain "impulsive" areas is not new. All the government funding agencies that define the research agenda already have these foci. However, academics fear that the new movement may be inspired more by nationalist fervor and that it be implemented in an arrogant way.
There is also a talk about whether what works best: research in "national priority" areas or passion-based research. As Gautam Menon wrote to The wire:
Allow each university to propose a buoyancy area that they think is best to contribute, in the form of a center. This area of momentum could be decided for reasons of geographical location and departmental forces, as well as community and possibly private support. A coastal university may want to address problems of overfishing and its environmental impact, while a university in northern India may be in a better position to solve problems of depletion of groundwater. …
[The] the centers could incorporate specific academic members with a clear idea of how their skills could help solve the larger issues. The government could support these centers by funding leadership positions, doctoral students working at the center and even the research itself. In this way … academics whose work is not directly related to national priorities but who are doing what would be expected of them under normal circumstances could be spared the need to get involved.
Space for passion
Top-down authoritarian control of science is harmful for three reasons. First, it can influence the natural process of reaching a scientific consensus among competing theories. The weight of the mechanism of government may favor the wrong theory because of ideological affinities. Second, governments should protect their bets by investing in the future of science. By predicting the next great scientific breakthrough and focusing on a few areas of research, we could lead us to lose future benefits.
Third, and most importantly: it does not make room for passion. This may be a radical idea for an educational system that places students in professional learning flows based on standardized test results. However, a PhD is an arduous personal endeavor and research suggests that the students who do best in this are those who are passionate about their research topics. Therefore, research topics on forced feeding will only make the problem worse.
The nationalist fervor that works against the scientific practice has historical precedence, being the one of Trofim Lysenko the most (in) famous. Instead of getting students to produce knowledge that they find useful, government should encourage research in all directions – even those without immediate economic benefits – and should not mark them using pejorative as "useless."
For example, studies of how green algae move toward light sources have led to advances in optogenetics, promising new ways to treat brain disorders. That's enough to say let's leave the search to the researchers.
Leslee Lazar is a cognitive neuroscientist and a visual artist. He currently teaches at IIT Gandhinagar and tweets @leslee_lazar.