The Sciences

Let's Leave Research to the Researchers

Top-down authoritarian control of science is detrimental for three reasons, and the most important among them is that it doesn't make room for passion.

In a recent article in the Hindustan Times, Amitabha Bhattacharya, a retired IAS officer, defended the Centre’s now-defunct directive that research in central universities must be aligned to “national priorities” and avoid “irrelevant” topics. His defence was ostensibly to enhance the quality of PhD research.

However, he failed to mention how working on topics specified by the government could increase the quality of research nor is there any clarity on of what “irrelevant” research is and what research is of “national importance”. Will the government come up with a list of topics that scientists and scholars can study? Will they stop people from studying esoteric topics like how the green algae move?

If there was any doubt about what a “national priority” topic could be, the author gives a clue, although it doesn’t carry official sanction.

Any neutral person would be able to observe the dominance of the left-of-the-centre academicians, especially in the social sciences, and more so in Kolkata and Delhi. Within the constitutional framework, it would be natural for its opponents to expand their domain. While the views of the other should be relentlessly questioned, they should be tolerated as well.

The issue started with a circular issued in the Central University of Kerala, Kasargod, which said:

In accordance with the decisions of the said meeting, the vice-chancellor has directed to implement the following in Central University of Kerala: a) To discourage research in irrelevant areas …

When fellows are being admitted for PhDs, the topics for the thesis should be in accordance with the national priorities. Allotting privilege (sic) topics to the PhD students should be dispensed with.

Following widespread outrage in the media and the resignation of a faculty member from the university’s Board of Studies, the government did a volte face and blamed it on an enthusiastic “junior bureaucrat”. However, this idea was the result of a meeting at the Ministry of Human Resource Development and the minutes had been circulated to all central universities.

Although scholars accused the government of attempting to stamp out dissent, denying research on caste issues and saffronising higher education, it’s hard to gauge the spirit of the message itself. Speaking to The Wire earlier, K. Vijayaraghavan, principal scientific adviser to the Government of India, had played it off as a botched attempt to improve research quality.

But the quality of PhD research can’t be improved by narrowing the fields of study but by increasing the breadth of research areas together with funding. Research quality depends on – and is even a proxy for – good monetary and intellectual resources; the latter can only be nurtured in a culture that rewards fearless thinking that is both creative and critical. This in turn means academic and research institutions can have greater autonomy.

Non-zero accountability

Bhattacharya’s second argument is one of accountability. He writes:

Can the state be a helpless witness to the abysmal quality of research that many of our universities produce? While academic freedom has to be valued and defended, should it be allowed to degenerate into a system of zero accountability in which attempts to deviate from the past norms are scoffed at?

The government is well within its rights to worry about the quality of research but it is a stretch to claim there is “zero accountability”. The academic infrastructure includes research scholars, students, technicians, bureaucrats and politicians, and all of these people must share the blame for this failure. Moreover, it only stands to reason that the same issues will also assail research in “national priority” areas as well.

Bhattacharya also points to the dangerous phenomenon of ‘fake theses’ but does not elaborate on how research on “national priority” areas will be exempt from this problem.

Indeed, India is among the world’s prolific publishers of predatory journals, and the government has taken some steps (of varying efficacy) to cut them down.

However, predatory publishing became more pronounced after the University Grants Commission implemented its academic performance indicators (API) for the career growth of college and university teachers. The scheme forced them to publish in order to qualify for promotions, etc., but didn’t give them the requisite funds or training. In effect, the government introduced a top-down solution to increase research quality but it backfired so much that the government was forced to change the API’s norms.

On the one hand, it is heartening to see the government attempt to improve scientific integrity among the country’s students. But on the other, research misconduct – including plagiarism – and predatory publishing remain beasts yet to be slain.

There are also uncomfortable questions about the people on the top of the food chain, to the extent that the problem seems systemic. For example, Pondicherry University fired its vice-chancellor after a protracted battle for plagiarism in her PhD only to find her successor under a cloud of similar allegations.

A large part of India’s impression as the world’s predatory publishing capital is thanks to the OMICS group. It was recently fined $50 million (Rs 347.1 crore) by the US Federal Trade Commission for duping research scholars into publishing in its pages. If it is accountability that Bhattacharya seeks, the government should shut OMICS down – although that is unlikely to happen given its partnership with the Uttar Pradesh government – instead of limiting research options for its scholars.

The attempt to focus research on certain “thrust” areas is not new. All government funding agencies that set the research agenda already have such focuses. However, academics fear that the new move might be inspired by more by nationalistic fervour and that it will be implemented in a high-handed manner.

There is also a conversation to be had about whether what works better: research on “national priority” areas or passion-based research. As Gautam Menon wrote for The Wire:

Let each university propose one thrust area that it feels it can best contribute to, in the form of a centre. This thrust area could be decided by reasons of geographical location and departmental strengths, as well as community and possibly private support. A coastal university might want to address problems of overfishing and its environmental impact, while a university in northern India might be better placed to address problems of groundwater depletion. …

[The] centres could incorporate specific academic members with a clear idea of how their abilities could help tackle the larger questions. The government could support these centres by funding leadership positions, the PhD students who work at the centre and even the research itself. This way … academics whose work does not directly relate to national priorities but who are otherwise doing what would be expected of them under normal circumstances could be spared the need to shoehorn themselves in.

Room for passion

Top-down authoritarian control of science is detrimental for three reasons. First: it can influence the natural process of arriving at a scientific consensus among competing theories. The weight of the government’s machinery might favour the wrong theory because of ideological affinities. Second: governments should hedge their bets when investing in the future of science. In predicting the next big scientific breakthrough, and focusing on a few narrow areas of research, could lead us to lose out on future benefits.

Third, and most important: it does not make room for passion. This might be a radical idea for an educational system that bins students into professional streams of learning based on standardised test scores. However, a PhD is an arduous personal undertaking, and research suggests students who who do better at it are the ones passionate about their research topics. So force-feeding research topics will only make the problem worse.

Nationalistic fervour working against scientific practice has historical precedence, that of Trofim Lysenko being the most (in)famous. Instead of getting students to produce knowledge that it considers useful, the government should encourage research in all directions – even ones without immediate economic benefits – and should not brand it using pejoratives like “useless”.

For example, studies of how green algae move towards sources of light has led to breakthroughs in optogenetics, promising new ways to treat brain disorders. That suffices to say let’s leave research to the researchers.

Leslee Lazar is a cognitive neuroscientist and a visual artist. He currently teaches at IIT Gandhinagar and tweets @leslee_lazar.