Research demands an inquisitive analytical mind that is not content with the status quo, perseverance and more. “An age when the pizza delivery companies promise you a free dinner if they take more than half an hour to deliver is counter to the mindset needed for research.”

In an age where attention spans are as short as the time needed to swap channels, do students have the perseverance to take up a career in research? Three minds dedicated to research tackled this question head on.

Rupak Biswas, acting chief of NASA Advanced Supercomputing, NASA Ames Centre; Rajesh Kasturirangan, associate professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies, IISc, and N. Venkateswaran, founder and director, Waran Research Foundation, spoke to EducationPlus at the inauguration of Dhi Yantra ’09, fourth workshop on brain modelling and supercomputing conducted by Waran Research Foundation recently.

The need to research is linked to what kind of a society you want to create in India, said Dr. Kasturirangan. With a majority of young people, given the demographics today, you have a society where most of its population is dissatisfied with the status quo. This dissatisfaction fosters the mindset needed for research, he said.

“Research needs an inquisitive mind which is never satisfied with the current solution or state of affairs,” said Dr. Biswas.

Open-ended problem

But it is not sufficient having a drive to research; it requires discipline too. The problem then is with the explosion of information — it leads to too much instant gratification, said Dr. Biswas.

Research is an open-ended problem, he said, and when a mind seeking immediate returns works on it, it is easy to get disheartened and bored. An age when the pizza delivery companies promise you a free dinner if they take more than half an hour to deliver is counter to the mindset needed for research, he said.

When looked at from a different angle, an age of information explosion requires an analytical mind, said Dr. Biswas. “You need to parse all the information that comes to you.” In the past it was easy as you would read a book and that would be the end of it. But today, you have conflicting reports on the same topic on the Internet, and you need to be smart to be able to understand them, he said.

Children brought up in the era of the Internet will be fluent in assimilating information in ways adults won’t be, said Dr. Kasturirangan.

Quoting from a book, he said, “Everything that is bad for you is good for you.” When the printing press came, people were concerned it would spread too much information and that concern turned out to be misplaced. The same argument would hold good in this case too, he said. “Information by nature is good.”

“Human brain is like a sponge,” said Dr. Biswas. The more information you have, the more it would absorb.

But in all the discussion about information explosion, it was necessary to remember that there were two classes of people in India — those with access to online information and those without. Hence it was important to address the issue of connectivity, else a huge pool of talent would be left out, he said.

From a student’s perspective, there is a lack of motivation and guidance from parents and faculty, said Dr. Venkateswaran.

The faculty says that the management concentrates on finishing off the academic syllabus and there is a lot of pressure to keep up the grades.“Certain colleges do encourage students to research,” he saidParents tend to believe that research is a risky proposition, he said. “After 6 to 7 years of research, he or she will become old. How will they get married, get a job,” are the questions parents grapple with. If your goal is money, research may not be the right career for you. “The number of job options available also narrows down once you do a Ph.D,” said Dr. Biswas.

It was like the story of the hare and the tortoise, said Dr. Kasturirangan.

If you have a mind trained for research, you will be the tortoise — the climb would be slow and steady, but eventually you would win the race.