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Shubhashis Gangopadhyay: An outward-focused research culture

Social science research out of India is below par because of state action

Shubhashis Gangopadhyay 

An outward-focused research culture

I was present at an interesting discussion held at the Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi Centre (ISID) the other day. The event was organised by the International Growth Centre, housed in the Institute, and the panel and audience discussed the role of researchers in policymaking. The discussion was not only topical but also very rich as there were both Indian policymakers and national and international researchers. Among many things that were put on the table, I will concentrate on two points that were raised: (a) the difference in objectives of the policymakers and the researchers; and (b) how both working towards their respective objectives could help each other so that policymakers are better served. 

There was a general feeling that what Indian researchers do in their research is not always what policymakers are looking for. The good thing about the discussion was that researchers did not directly oppose this, but tried to grapple with the reasons why this could be the case. Since the session was held at ISID, the researchers were from the social sciences, and mostly economists.

The first point that was made was that there is no resource support for the kind of research that policymakers are looking for. The first problem faced by young researchers in academic institutions is the lack of funds. While science institutions get direct funding from the government, much of the funding in the social sciences goes to the so-called “think tanks”. Whatever academic funding there is in the social sciences comes either because a senior researcher with good connections in the government attracts funds for what the government wants analysed, or because Indian researchers tie up with foreign researchers who get the funds from their universities.

The first type of funding is not always good for what researchers love doing the most: generating anticipatory research, i.e searching for solutions to problems before they actually become a crisis. The second type of funding, often, is for areas that attract foreign researchers or sponsors, and their priorities may not exactly be valid for India. One particular example cited was the paucity of funding for research on local environmental issues in India that affect our poor more immediately. In other words, there is nothing wrong with money going to think tanks, but if it is viewed as a substitute for what academic researchers can do then there is a serious problem.  

In addition to funding, the other issue that was brought up was the difficulty of obtaining Indian data. Any researcher reading this will, I am sure, be able to recall many instances of this. In my own experience, I can think of at least two instances that stand out in my memory: (a) in one I could not get the type of access that a foreign researcher could; and (b) in the other, I got access from the foreign researcher at a time when the government organisation in charge of the data was refusing me access to it! In fact, what has helped research is the Right to Information Act and I know of many academics who have obtained data through this Act. This is a strange situation where Indians find it easier to work with foreign data than with Indian data. This increases the cost of research on India because the only way out is to use primary data, which means running one’s own survey which, in turn, requires funding not available to the young researcher. This has a large negative impact on original research in India since young researchers are more likely to open up new areas.  

A third dimension of the problem is the apparent disconnect between what researchers want to do and what the policymakers want of them. Many of the studies that the government wants researchers to do are direct applications of what researchers learn during their training process.

For instance, calculating the incidence of a tax is not necessarily what excites researchers — most good masters’, and certainly doctoral, students should be able to do that. Researchers feed on questions that challenge their imagination and knowledge. They would like to work on problems that have no solution as yet, or to work on bettering an existing solution. Applying generic solutions to a specific problem is a waste of their expertise. If this is what is expected of them, they would be better off as a consulting group rather than lowly-paid researchers. And, indeed, that is what is happening — more and more people are joining think tanks rather than staying on in academics. 

While these are problems of the institutional set-ups outside of academia, there is an internal problem too. Youngsters in crack research places in India suffer from two types of difficulties. First, most of the good subject journals are international and their priorities are less geared towards issues that are specific to India. Unlike the sciences, social sciences are disadvantaged in this regard; social problems are highly contextual and the real challenge lies in customising generic solutions or coming up with entirely new solutions. However, promotions are dependent on publications in good journals. Young researchers trying to make a mark in the profession are, therefore, attracted to problems that are of international interest.

The second difficulty is that universities are treated largely as teaching machines and not as research institutions. Research and its funding are reserved for specialised institutions. Look around and you will find that for each sub-discipline there is an “Institute”. Unfortunately, stand-alone institutions specialising in parts of a discipline are not the best ways to encourage new and original ideas.  

Higher education leading to original research is a must for creating a knowledge-based society. The latter is an imperative India cannot ignore if it wants to survive in a global economy. It is time to reconsider how we deal with researchers and encourage them to use their expertise for solving Indian issues.

The writer is research director at IDF and director of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, SNU

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First Published: Sat, December 24 2011. 00:42 IST