What is the Purpose of Research?

A significant proportion of research must have a clear purpose that improves reality in the near future

Meeta Sengupta
Updated: Apr 10, 2014 12:07:38 PM UTC

Image: Shutterstock

The world rankings started it all. Or maybe it was the faint light from the specialised research institutions as many slipped into genteel middle age. Or maybe it was the wonderful outcome of ISRO’s Mangalyaan. Research has received a boost recently - India’s volume of research now is not unimpressive, ranking fairly high in the world. Cross border research collaborations with Indian universities and institutes have also risen - not least because of the comparative advantage that India offers with lower cost laboratories and qualified research staff. Universities have been reminded that some of their purpose is research, and not just teaching. And so, faculty now have targets for the number of papers they produce each year in order to get their next increment or promotion. Some also have cash incentives for papers that are registered, ready to be cited.

But what is all this research for?

Some research clearly is an end in itself. Higher order questions that need to be answered for the advancement of science. Or intriguing questions that will not let the researcher rest. There are some that have become useful decades later - some research investment has to be for pure science.

But all research cannot be so. A significant proportion of research must have a clear purpose that improves reality in the near future. India has declared a sense of urgency in the education sector. All the higher order goals of education, while acknowledged, have to take a back seat as the country deals with the demographic bulge. Higher education has clearly been given the mandate to create employable youth. Research too must step up and respond to the immediate needs of the emergent population.

The state of research in India has been bemoaned often. There is little that is invented here that has had a great impact on the world. There are few questions studied here that have changed our understanding of the world. There are few academics (or even non academics) who could be said to be in line for the Nobel prize or some such global recognition. A visit to the hallowed halls of research reveals a mixed bag - some excellent work that receives little support and recognition, some mediocre research and some research done to meet mandated requirements. The quality of the research is variable, as is its reliability. Rumour has it that often even simple research such as market surveys are suspect as all agencies do not work to the same standards. Those engaged in data collection in the nation will share the hurdles and challenges of gathering clean and verifiable data at scale. Much of this is of course work in progress, but the sad truth is that the portfolio of indigenous research that India holds is not of much value. The reports of research into Defense too bear this out - India has the distinction of being the largest importer.

This is hardly surprising given the incentives to research. Most research allocations are a fraction of those in the west. Large parts of preparatory research for any design process are eliminated or imported. There is almost no market for planning and design before creating a product. A prototype, a pilot or a product may receive support - but the initial greenfield research often receives little encouragement. The costs of these are high - and have to be borne by the developers. Many good ideas die at this stage for lack of funds. Others survive as jugaad - frugal innovation to some, but also - in reality - partial innovation with some crucial elements of safety and sustainability missing. In research too - often one has to resort to jugaad research and planning.

Let me not take the examples of high science, but a simple everyday example - and in my area - education. Before creating content in education one needs to invest in understanding the audience and their needs. This applies to textbooks, textbook based content, additional study materials and interesting non fiction books and materials that will stimulate curiosity for those who may want to excel in that area. There is a very small and closed market for this research, and little of it is available in the public domain. Only a few producers of content have pockets deep enough to invest in this research - or are willing to invest here. Consequently study materials continue down the hackneyed path of the National Curriculum Framework - and our students find the path to rote learning lined with similar looking materials of varying quality. Potential funders blame the markets for this - there is little advantage in creating well researched, high quality materials as the students and parents are not willing to pay the premium for such quality. Investments in research are not appreciated by the market, yet.

Does that mean that we continue to underinvest in research? And continue with the same old sharp materials in seat belts, roads that yield to wear and tear in a year or so, use lighting that continues to consume more electricity than we can produce, and deal with dengue epidemics when they occur? Obviously not.

And yet these areas and others are under delivering in a nation that is crying out for a better quality of life for all. Maybe this is what the purpose of research for the decade ahead should be - Find smarter and more efficient ways to create a better quality of life for all. In order to make that happen it is time to invest in understanding the business of research - what is its purpose, what value does it deliver, what is the timeframe for investments and value harvesting, its profits and payback cycles and most importantly - incentives along this chain. Where there is purpose and value, there is no reason to be left behind.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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