Academic research is necessary, but not sufficient

Investment in research can translate into national development only through pursuit of post-academic research

Updated - August 07, 2020 01:35 am IST

Published - August 07, 2020 12:15 am IST

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The Government of India is in the process of revisiting the Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Policy. The policy will guide the agencies of the government mandated with funding research in higher education institutions and national laboratories. At this stage we need to ponder the question: what kind of research should be funded? That leads one to look at the nomenclature used by researchers for this purpose. Here it is pertinent to recall what William Shockley said in his Nobel lecture in 1956, that words like “pure, applied, unrestricted, fundamental, basic, academic, industrial, practical etc.” are being used frequently “in a derogatory sense, on the one hand to belittle practical objectives of producing something useful and, on the other hand, to brush off the possible long-range value of explorations into new areas where a useful outcome cannot be foreseen.”

Alternate frameworks

Experts in science and technology studies have come up with alternate frameworks and terminology to provide a comprehensive picture and avoid any value judgement. One approach was proposed by NASA in the form of Technology Readiness Levels (TRL), a type of measurement system used to assess the maturity level of a particular technology. TRL-1 corresponds to observation of basic principles. Its result is publications. TRL-2 corresponds to formulation of technology at the level of concepts. Then the TRL framework advances to proof of concept, validation in a laboratory environment, followed by a relevant environment, and then to prototype demonstration, and ending with actual deployment. The framework uses terms as applicable to aerospace applications, but one can come up with alternate terms depending on the field of application, including health sciences where the term ‘translational research’ is commonly used. The number of levels can also be adjusted to suit the application.

Comment | Innovation is the key

An alternative is to use the terminology ‘Academic Research (AR)’, and ‘Post-Academic Research (PAR)’. One can easily establish correspondence with the TRL framework, with AR corresponding to TRL-1 and the rest to higher levels. To provide some granularity, one can divide PAR into early-stage PAR, and late-stage PAR. Late-stage PAR has to be done by large laboratories (national or those supported by industry), while AR and early-stage PAR can be done at higher education institutions and large laboratories.

Both AR and PAR generate knowledge which is necessary for national development. When examined from the perspective of national development, pursuit of AR alone, while necessary, is not sufficient. AR and PAR when pursued together and taken to their logical conclusion will result in a product or a process, or a better clinical practice, or a scientifically robust understanding of human health and disease, or provide inputs for a policy decision.

It is often said that India’s investment in research is lower than that by advanced countries. Here two observations need consideration. First, countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report research statistics according to the Frascati Manual, which was first drafted in 1963, and has gone through five revisions since then. We cannot compare data with other countries without having correspondence between India’s data and data reported by others. Second, India has to decide where to increase investment: in AR or in PAR. Investment in research can translate into national development only through pursuit of PAR.

This is not a call for abandoning AR, but a call to look for useful outcomes including via spin-offs and serendipity, and to prioritise research in areas that relate to national development.

During my talks with academics on this topic, some observed that our industry has not reached a stage where they can absorb research being done by higher education institutions. This observation reveals that research being pursued is either not addressing national needs or is limited to AR. The lukewarm response of industry is a message for academia to orient its priorities to address national needs and engage in both AR and early-stage PAR and provide inputs necessary to raise the technology intensity of industry.

Pursuing AR and PAR

One can cite several examples to illustrate how AR and PAR can be pursued together. A programme in high energy physics can be designed to pursue accelerator technology along with high energy physics. Research in electro-chemistry can be accompanied by development of battery technologies.

Judging the growth of S&T based only on publications provides an incomplete picture. Why is it that industries that have high technology intensity, such as aircraft and spacecraft, medical, precision and optical instruments, and communication equipment, have a low presence in India? What should be done to increase value addition to raw materials in India? The answer lies in increasing the technology intensity of industry, which was identified as one of the goals of the STI policy issued in 2013 . This needs reiteration and a mechanism should be devised to monitor progress with the objective of becoming an ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’.

The STI policy should emphasise PAR to ensure that investment in research results in economic growth. To motivate the research community to pursue at least early-stage PAR, the reward system needs significant reorientation. The current system for rewards relies heavily on bibliometric indicators despite the knowledge that publications alone do not lead to national development. The reward system in higher education institutions and national laboratories should be reoriented to promote PAR. Academics in higher education institutions pursuing AR should pursue early-stage PAR themselves, or team up with those who are keen to pursue PAR.

In short, academic research is necessary, but not sufficient.

R.B. Grover is Emeritus Professor, Homi Bhabha National Institute, and Member, Atomic Energy Commission

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