No curbs on research

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We academics of India are shocked and dismayed at the decision of our educational authorities to confine research at university level to areas of predetermined national importance and ‘relevance’. We believe this proposal will terminally impair the pursuit of knowledge in this country. It will thus be grossly detrimental to the national interest, irrespective of the specific benefit an individual project may or may not confer.

Research, by definition, is guided by the spirit of free inquiry. A knowledge order, of which the knowledge economy is a part, must explore all avenues of inquiry, for two reasons. The first is intrinsic to the material or content of research. All fields of study are potentially linked to all others. Fundamental and theoretical research, apparently of ‘academic interest’ alone, underlie all technological progress and social uplift. The course of such research is impossible to foretell, let alone prescribe in advance. The greatest discoveries often come about by defying standard bounds and assumptions; some might be literally ‘un-thinkable’ until they materialize, so that there is no question of including them in a pre-set list of topics. To tie down research to such a list will stifle the creative potential of the academic community, especially the young researchers on whom our knowledge order must rely in days to come. As it is, the greater part of such talent tends to go abroad, sometimes achieving a success there which, it is claimed, our own research environment does not allow. The present decision will make this brain drain total. The Indian research effort will be reduced to new applications (if even that) of fundamental research carried out elsewhere – often, ironically, by researchers hailing from this country.

The second reason for an open knowledge order is motivational. Research is a process of intellectual adventure. If a researcher feels her work must follow the beaten track of pre-set norms and expectations, it will obviously affect the free course of her inquiry. It is wrongly assumed that this risk chiefly applies to the social sciences and humanities. Research in ‘pure’ science and technology is no less affected by human factors and power relationships. As a particularly pernicious outcome, the damage will percolate to students at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, the researchers of tomorrow. As it is, we often complain that they are restricted to rote-learning and set patterns of thought. This unhappy situation will now become the desired norm, permanently destroying our hopes of a future research culture.

The basic reasons for condemning the current proposal are thus intellectual and methodological. It is the more alarming that its guiding motive appears to be political. There may always have been a certain unease between educators and researchers on the one hand, and administrators and politicians on the other; but there was also a working relationship and a modicum of mutual respect. In recent years, this working order has been destabilized by open distrust of and attacks on the professionally most committed section of the academic community. The new proposal will reduce the conflict by virtually eliminating the articulate and free-thinking body of academics. This may bring about a temporary lull in campus unrest; equally, it may greatly increase unrest as academics and researchers struggle to retain their already precarious space. Either way, the long-term damage to India’s knowledge eco-system will be incalculable.

As yet, the proposal has been implemented only on a few campuses, with little practical consequence. We earnestly appeal to all educational authorities to repeal their directives in this respect, and to refrain from issuing future directives seeking to control the academic programme of universities and research institutions. Freedom of operation is the mother element of academic inquiry. It is in the nation’s interest to protect it.