The Sciences

Research Has to Be Nudged Into 'National Interest' Areas – Not Sledgehammered

The Central University of Kerala's intention to curtail research in areas not of "national priority" penalises the discovery of new solutions to old problems, and is itself not in the national interest.

Approaches to public policy in higher education are usually either sledgehammers or nudges. The sledgehammer assumes a straightforward link between policy and outcome, and seizes on the most obvious way to connect them. The nudge recognises that individual agency is important, that the road to an outcome may not be immediately obvious and that the management of change is important, especially when working within a pre-existing structure.

Sledgehammer approaches are easiest to understand and explain, but the nudge can be more effective in the long term.

As an example of the sledgehammer, consider the academic performance indicators (APIs) that the University Grants Commission (UGC) introduced in 2010. The APIs were intended to provide easily evaluated and quantitative criteria to assess academics’ performance. Among other things, it assigns a numerical score to papers published by college and university teachers in academic journals. A higher API was intended to correlate to faster career advancement.

Unsurprisingly, the APIs also introduced a perverse incentive to publish as much as possible, since quality was not an explicit consideration. And many academics quickly seized this opportunity. A host of India-based predatory open-access journals, in which authors could pay to have their papers published with minimal scrutiny, emerged. In response, the UGC prepared a whitelist of journals, and declared only papers in these journals would be considered.

Also read: University to Scholars: Work on ‘National Priorities’, Not ‘Irrelevant Research’

In another example of this paradigm, the UGC in 2017 asked all central universities in India to sign a joint agreement with itself and the Ministry of Human Resource Development. On the face of it, the intention was to make publicly funded higher education more self-sufficient. Eligibility for government funding was tied to the institution accepting the tripartite agreement.

A review meeting of vice-chancellors from these central universities was held on December 15, 2018. After the meeting, the registrar of the Central University of Kerala (CUK), Kasaragod, issued a letter addressed to the deans and heads of departments at CUK saying that the vice-chancellor had proposed to henceforth “discourage research in irrelevant areas”.

The letter goes on to state: “When fellows are being admitted for PhDs, the topics for the thesis should be in accordance with the national priorities”.

It further instructed the heads of departments and their colleagues to prepare a “shelf of project (sic) to be taken for research study pertaining to their subject considering national priorities”. The students could opt only from this “shelf of project” for their research.

India’s “national priorities” certainly include the core areas of energy, environment and sanitation. The Government of India’s flagship schemes also count among them. Clean energy, water technology, air pollution, cyber-physical systems, quantum information science, geospatial capacity and technology development for rural livelihood have all been highlighted as areas of study that are particularly relevant to India at this time.

There is no doubt that Indian science and technology is far less integrated with national needs than it should be. But what might have served better here: a sledgehammer or a nudge? CUK’s policy addresses the gap between requirement and supply in a particularly direct way; it’s the sledgehammer. But the example of the APIs should alert us to the especial risk of adverse consequences.

Universities choose their faculty members for their ability to teach and to conduct research. While teaching is usually primary, a commitment to research and training PhD students are both almost always essential as well. The students receive training that prepares them to undertake good, original research.

As a result, it is usually considered a good idea for a department to cover diverse areas of research. Only then can PhD students choose from a variety of subjects to work on, identifying those problems that best fit their own abilities and interests.

In this context, the idea of a “shelf of projects” addressing “national priorities” raises several issues.

The first is practicability. A typical department has hired its faculty members over many years expecting they will teach and conduct research across a broad set of topics. However, a mathematician working in algebraic geometry might not be the appropriate person to address problems in power generation. Similarly, a particle physicist would be ill-suited to study water pollution.

If students are to work on projects that will spur them to do good, original work in an Indian context, why limit these to be drawn from a “shelf of national priorities”, that too set elsewhere and guided by someone with little to no background in thinking about them? The most likely result would be uninspired work in those very areas of national importance that should attract the best and most committed.

Second: Who will decide the quality of a proposal under the “national priority” category? “National priority” problems are unusually interdisciplinary. For example, any reasonable approach to cleaning the Ganga should call on the joint expertise of hydrologists, environmental engineers, chemical engineers, applied mathematicians, microbiologists, public health experts, sociologists and political scientists.

The CUK registrar’s letter is noticeably silent on this point. It likely assumes that the faculty member who proposes a project will also do due diligence on the relevance and feasibility fronts. But this is just unrealistic.

The third, and final, issue is the assumption that a pre-packaged project addressing national priorities is more likely to succeed than simply training students to be good academics and then exposing them to hard problems. If the training that PhD students receive is superficial, the projects they will undertake will be equally superficial.

On the other hand, a well-trained student steeped in the methods of a specific discipline, and interested in crossing disciplinary boundaries, should clearly be the ideal output of a successful programme aimed at national priorities.

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Here’s one nudge alternative: 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.

These proposals would be cross-departmental, even cross-institutional. The corresponding 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, for one, 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. They can continue to provide – as they are required to – broad academic training to students in a disciplinary context. The very presence of a focused centre should draw the students with specific interests.

With time, it’s possible that more academics and their students might want to explore the possibilities such a centre would provide. This nudge would allow them agency – and not penalise them for retaining their primary interests – while providing for an environment that organically welcomes new disciplinary approaches.

For those who – by virtue of their training, abilities and interest – are motivated to study projects related to national priorities, there are several advantages. These projects will cut across departments, bringing a wider range of cross-disciplinary academic training to bear. They will be assured of flexible funding towards a well-defined goal. These projects are also likelier to keep local interests and problems in mind, strengthening links between the university and the immediate community to which it belongs.

Gautam I. Menon is a Professor at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. The views expressed are his own.