| Wasted energies
Economic growth, the rise of large Indian corporations and globalization have not significantly increased the low expenditures on either natural or social sciences research in India. Patent filings and publications in reputed journals have improved after the efforts of R.A. Mashelkar as head of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. But they are still very poor for a wannabe “knowledge society”. Indians in foreign countries have contributed greatly to their hosts with the latest developments in software, telecommunications, biotechnology, and pharmaceuticals. Overseas Indians are leaders in research and publications in the social sciences like economics, management, political science, anthropology and so on. Within India we lag far behind other countries that do not claim to be “knowledge” societies.
Remedial measures are in place in the natural sciences. The weaknesses remain, but are much more marked in the social sciences. Why has research suffered so much in a country recognized for its brains the world over and whose nationals have earned laurels for their research work outside India'
A major reason is the distancing of research from teaching and practice. In the natural sciences, most research has been confined to government laboratories. These laboratories engaged in research games that they played for their own satisfaction. There was little connection with the needs of users. Hierarchy, age and seniority ruled facilities and promotions. All were on the same scales of remuneration, irrespective of performance. Most laboratories were separated from colleges and universities. The available research talent was spread thinly between the government laboratories and the teaching institutions. Both suffered. Those few institutions that were structured to do both in the same campus, like the Indian institutes of technology or of the sciences, produced better research outputs and attracted superior students.
All these characteristics exist also in the social sciences. Distancing from teaching, spreading a thin layer of good academics over teaching and research institutions, the principle of the lowest common denominator that places mediocrity over merit comprise the work culture in social science institutions.
Teaching and research in the same campus expose students to current work. Researchers can test ideas on raw but good minds. Science education in colleges also suffers from poor laboratory facilities because funds are limited. Those universities that are better equipped suffer because of the growing drain of good scientists to independent research laboratories in India, mostly started by foreign companies, and to overseas facilities. Many scientists pretend in government laboratories to do ‘basic’ work when even applied research is of poor quality and application.
In the social sciences, private corporate research and financial undertakings take away good teachers and researchers too. Most social scientists in India work on sponsored research, not on hypotheses or concepts they have developed. They are poor disseminators of their work and regard popular writing as dumbing down. They depend on government largesse, and make no effort to find funding for work that interests them. Most have little connection with public policy formulation arising out of their work. Increasingly, as government freezes its funding, social science research is becoming sponsored research and the attention to basic research has declined. We need to redress the balance by increasing government funding in relation to ‘contract’ funding.
The best social scientists go overseas, or join companies. Because the best students have gone abroad and the teachers are poor scholars, the flood of mediocre graduates and PhDs of very low quality continues. Most PhDs are mediocre, they become teachers, and mediocrity is recycled.
The trade union-like nature of academic institutions compounds the problem. In very few are promotions based on merit, research and quality of publications. Quality of teaching is almost never measured by those directly affected, namely the students, user industries and policy-makers. Workloads vary and there are many research institutions in which academic employees do hardly any teaching, research or administrative work. They are salaried ‘thinkers’ with no output.
Given the poor quality of most research and teachers, the quality of academic publications is also low. High-quality writing appears rarely, if at all, in Indian ‘learned’ publications. Such work is published in foreign publications. Output from the Indian institutes of management is not much better than in other social science institutes.
Funds for research, especially basic research, are a major problem. Government departments in earlier years doled out money almost as charity for social science ‘research’, usually to economists and rarely to sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists. Much of the output remains on dusty government shelves, rarely available to other scholars or the public. Government sponsors infrequently use the output. The Indian Council of Social Sciences Research, created to finance research, has in the past spent more of its money on its own bureaucracy. Its funds are severely constrained and what it gives is a pittance compared to what is needed, with no provision for inflation.
The A. Vaidyanathan Committee reviewed the ICSSR and recommended that government give 0.1 per cent of the public sector plan outlay to social science research, to be distributed through the ICSSR, which is to be an independent Indian academy of social sciences. Without increasing core funding for research institutes, it will directly fund research, reducing dependence on sponsored research and increasing basic research output. This could transform social science research. The paranoia of the Indira Gandhi years raises doubts whether foreign funding can result in objective work. Corporate funding for social sciences is almost non-existent. If competent scholars are to be attracted to it, we need far more government funding distributed by an objective body with no preferences for one or the other institution, deciding only on meritorious capacity.
We should have an ‘exit’ policy for research institutions, particularly in the social sciences. Too many institutes vie for the small funds available. The funding does not satisfy any of them. We must amalgamate, close down or attach research institutes to teaching institutions. Research (like teaching) faculties must have work norms, allowing for teaching and research, and measured for classroom teaching and publication in reputed journals. Automatic promotions must stop. Those who do not meet minimum output and quality norms should be encouraged to leave the academic world. Financial rewards should be available for those who rate highly on teaching and research. Penalties must be levied on those who do not perform, including dismissal from service. Researchers must attract funding for projects they are interested in. The ICSSR must be independent, with less bureaucracy, demanding good quality and timely completion.
The larger question is about the deteriorating quality of undergraduate teaching and education in the country. It is not addressed here but has serious adverse effects on the quality of post-graduate and professional education.
Most of these suggestions will not be accepted. Most academics are more conscious about their ‘freedom’ than their academic responsibilities. They are satisfied with limited remuneration. They resist measuring performance and rewarding it when it is achieved. They prefer a ‘democratic’ environment in which all researchers are equal irrespective of competence. Few people of high calibre enter teaching or research. Few institutions have high reputations for teaching and research, like the IIMs or IITs or the Delhi School of Economics. Their reputation attracts outstanding students. Institutional reputations also attract good teachers and researchers. Even reputed institutions have difficulty today in locating and attracting good teachers.
Until we are able to combine research with some teaching, improve funding and incentives, and do at least some research that is usable by practitioners, there is little hope of raising research quality.