Can Directed Research Work?

Rajeev Srinivasan

May 03, 2019, 02:19 PM | Updated 02:18 PM IST

Army computer scientist delivers solutions in combat.
Army computer scientist delivers solutions in combat.
  • Are constraints on research always bad? Evidence shows that research produced under direction has been socially valuable than those produced otherwise.
  • There has long been a debate about the efficacy of government policy on innovation and intellectual property rights (IPR). It seems intuitively right that if there are strong IPR then individuals and firms will be incentivised to invent and innovate because they could enjoy monopoly rents. That is, nobody else will be able to copy their ideas for, say, the 20-year duration of a patent, on pain of litigation and punitive damages.

    That is the theory, anyway. But researchers in the area, such as Petra Moser, of MIT and Columbia, (see her paper “Patents and Innovation: Evidence from Economic History”) have not been able to find a strong correlation between IPR and invention. At best, the link is tenuous, so it is even harder to claim a cause-effect relationship. And it turns out that weak IPR protection and placing of inventions in the public domain may not be such a bad idea, either.

    This is what the Indian practice had been before our Dark Ages of invasion (our creative people often didn’t even attach their names to their inventions); and today, the same applies to open-source software such as GNU/Linux, Apache, Firefox and TensorFlow, and to the way companies like Hyperloop Technologies and efforts like SETI (the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) are bringing crowd-sourcing front and centre for innovation. Counter-intuitive, but it produces results.

    How Successful has Indian Research Been?

    There is the question of whether directed research works or whether it constrains creativity. This issue was in the limelight in March, when the Central University of Kerala put out a circular directing researchers to choose topics that are in accordance with ‘national priorities’. It suggested that it wanted to “discourage research in irrelevant subjects”.

    Prima facie, this sounds like the heavy hand of a government imposing its will on the untrammelled flow of academic free-thinking. It would fit in with the general meme in Lutyens media that ‘freedom of expression’ is under grave threat under the Narendra Modi government.

    It appears this change in direction was not confined to the Central University of Kerala: it was discussed and agreed upon by the vice-chancellors of all the central universities. Nevertheless, let us consider the underlying logic of those opposing it.

    Logic of those Opposing the Central Universities Directive

    One objection appears to be that there is a certain Soviet-style or Chinese-style, or even Orwellian, attempt to create ‘groupthink’, whereby any deviation from the ‘approved truth’ would be penalised.

    A second suggests that there has been a flowering of original research in India, which would be threatened by this dictatorial fiat to conform.

    Alas, neither of these premises holds water. Paradoxically, the very fact that the media, academics and various politicians and officials have all been berating the Modi government without fear, suggests that the alleged assault on ‘free speech’ is a red herring. In addition, despite expectations that school textbooks would be de-toxified from the accumulated dross of 70 years of ideological metastasis, the Human Resources and Development Minister was heard proudly declaring that he had “not changed a single page of the textbooks”.

    Prakash Javadekar, Union Minister for Human Resources and Development.
    Prakash Javadekar, Union Minister for Human Resources and Development.

    On the other hand, India has a perfect score of zero in its research outcomes since 1947. I have often lamented that there’s not one, repeat one, globally-recognised result that has come out of India in that period. Remarkably, that was not true of the period under imperial rule: we had geniuses like C V Raman, Srinivasa Ramanujan, Jagdish Chandra Bose and Satyendra Nath Bose. And others like Subrahmanyam Chandrasekhar, Har Gobind Khurana and Yellapragada Subbarow came up with world-class results after their early education in India.

    Here’s a damning indictment of Indian research outcomes, from the distinguished engineer, scientist and academician Gangan Prathap in Current Science, August 2016:

    Thus, India’s research performance has been dismal.

    In the social sciences, despite the eager embrace of every Western fad that comes down the pike, the results are even more abysmal. I can’t think of many Indian social scientists, before or after 1947, who had or have a global reputation. Maybe there’s Jagdish Bhagwati, T N Srinivasan, and M N Srinivas, but that’s a poor outcome for the investment.

    I have some anecdotal evidence in the social sciences, having gone on inspection visits to several institutions of repute in that area. My observations are that, with exceptions, the work done there is:

    • highly repetitive, charvita charvanam (regurgitating) of ideas that have been beaten to death 500 times elsewhere,
    • based on poor methodology,
    • of no practical value,
    • based on predetermined conclusions to which the data is fitted,
    • based on little actual fieldwork,
    • often undigested hypotheses based on foreign presumptions that have little relation to the situation in India,
    • impossible to replicate, or
    • all of the above.

    So that is the alleged research that has come in a regime of unfettered ‘freedom to do research’.

    In other words, billions of rupees have gone down the drain with no discernible value. India’s educational institutions are producing so-called research, and so-called graduates, that have no idea how to advance the state of knowledge, and it shows: there are almost no Indian institutions in the top 100 in world rankings.

    A Case for Directed Research

    Given all this, it is a little presumptuous to assert that the way things have been done so far are so good that they must be sacrosanct. To put it bluntly, tertiary education and academic research have been cozy little rackets, and they have wasted taxpayers’ money for decades. No wonder there are few good research and development (R&D) jobs: there are few people who could perform.

    So is the answer to force researchers into narrow, defined tracks? Is there any evidence that this works?

    Well, actually, yes. Consider DARPA-funded research in the US. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funded work that ended up creating the Internet, much of the electronics in Silicon Valley, and a significant amount of space research, among other things.

    In addition, China has shot up the league tables in education over the last few years, with their declared goal of placing a few universities in the top 100, and even in the top 10. While, admittedly, there is a lot of bogus research, and games played with publishing papers (a Springer journal, Tumor Biology, retracted 107 papers in April 2017 in one fell swoop for fraud, all of them Chinese), there are areas in which the Chinese are now top-notch. One example is artificial intelligence (AI). They have come from nowhere to now be neck and neck with the Americans.

    There are also counter-examples. One is the failure of two of America’s greatest industrial research labs. I used to work at AT&T’s Bell Labs; and I had friends at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. Both were, to use an Indian idiom, ‘institutions of national importance’, which, though private, funded fundamental research that complemented government funding such as that through DARPA. But after a certain point both have ceased to be the forces they were.

    My conjecture is that the lack of discipline killed them both. Both institutions were famous for doing blue-sky research, things had no immediate practical value to AT&T and Xerox respectively. The researchers were free to pursue anything they wanted. I knew a Xerox PARC researcher, who was doing work on electronic preservation of thangka, Tibetan religious paintings, under threat of extinction. Surely, noble work, but not clearly in Xerox’s domain.

    Unless you are doing things that are sellable or that people will value, then you have no business doing it. Bell Labs invented the transistor, the laser, and the communications satellite. They also got several Nobel Prizes. Unfortunately, for complicated reasons including government regulations, Bell Labs was unable to monetise these inventions.

    Similarly, Xerox PARC invented virtually everything you see on a PC: the mouse, the graphical user interface, Ethernet networking. Others, notably Microsoft and Apple, profited mightily, but Xerox didn’t. Yes, they both did superb R&D (unlike in India), but they ended up having to scale down.

    In both cases, the problem was that there was no direction, even though they were spending enormous amounts. But there’s some theoretical justification as well for constrained research.

    The Innovation Sandbox

    The late C K Prahalad, one of the best management consultants of his generation, had the idea that putting constraints on innovation is the right answer (“The Innovation Sandbox”, strategy+business, August 2006). Prahalad considers several Indian cases, including Ginger Hotels, a chula hearth, Aravind Eye Care, Narayana Hrudayalaya and the Jaipur Foot.

    C K Prahalad meeting with a group of MBA students from Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School.
    C K Prahalad meeting with a group of MBA students from Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School.

    Prahalad suggested that you must put conditions – even impossible-sounding conditions – to come up with breakthrough innovations:

    1. Innovation must be a product or service of world-class quality.
    2. Innovation must be a product/service that costs no more than 10 per cent of the US cost.
    3. Innovation must be scalable, produced and used in many locales.
    4. Innovation must be affordable to those at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

    These seem like extraordinarily difficult criteria to meet but the above-named entities came up with business models and product innovations to meet them.

    The key, said Prahalad, may be in identifying the specific peculiarities of the situation under consideration, for example, in healthcare, considering the example of Aravind Eye Care and Narayana Hrudayalaya, he suggested the answers might include: specialisation, pricing, capital intensity, leveraging talent, improved workflow, customer acquisition, and values/organisation.

    Indian Exceptionalism

    Yet, the analogies only go so far. India is fundamentally different from the West and from China. There is, one might say, an Indian Exceptionalism. Researchers must understand, without prejudice, what Indians really think, or need, or want.

    Especially in the social sciences, we can’t be regurgitating what a Noam Chomsky or a Gloria Steinem said, without putting it into the Indian context. It is interesting to note that even harsh critics of the West, such as the atheist Richard Dawkins, admit to being “culturally Judaeo-Christian”. That makes them blind to the realities of a different civilisation.

    The IMPRESS Programme

    A principal target of the “Freedom of Research” hullaballoo, in my view, is the set of guidelines that MHRD (yes, the same MHRD that has not altered a single line in textbooks) has come up with, in conjunction with ICSSR (the Indian Council of Social Sciences Research), to direct research in the social sciences under the IMPRESS (Impactful Policy Research in Social Sciences) programme, which has a budget of Rs 425 crore over two years.

    The identified domains under IMPRESS are (I quote from their website):

    1. State and Democracy
    2. Urban Transformation
    3. Media, Culture and Society
    4. Employment Skills and Rural Transformation
    5. Governance, Innovation and Public Policy
    6. Growth, Macro Trade and Economic Policy
    7. Agriculture and Rural Development
    8. Health and Environment
    9. Science and Education
    10. Social Media and Technology
    11. Politics, Law and Economics

    Under these rubrics, some 150 sub-domains have been identified. Scholars have been invited to submit proposals broadly matching these sub-domains. For example, the sub-domains under State and Democracy are:

    • The Nature of the Indian State
    • India as a Welfare State
    • Indian Democracy: The Experience thus far
    • Elections: Participation, Frequency and Economics
    • Federalism: Nature and Trends
    • Regulation: Trends and Challenges
    • Defense Policy and Capability

    To be honest, I don’t find any of these areas to be exceptionable: many of them are issues of great interest to academics and lay people. A large number of scholars submitted proposals for research. I was a reviewer for the final review in the Science and Education domain, and I did find several projects that were interesting, and not the same-old stuff that we usually see.

    If this is what constrained research is, it’s not all that bad. Obviously, there have to be checks and balances to ensure that the heavy hand of bureaucracy is kept under control.

    But to throw out the baby with the bathwater, and to insist that your pet topic of the “Impact of Perseid meteor showers on an 11-scale Happiness Index of forcibly repatriated Persian Gulf returnees in Wayanad District” is the only one you will work on is a bit like King Canute ordering the waves to retreat. It’s pointless.

    Directed research may not be perfect, but since un-directed research has produced nothing whatsoever, we might as well give it a shot. It may surprise us. The Tata Nano did (it was a technical triumph, though a marketing fiasco).

    Rajeev Srinivasan focuses on strategy and innovation, which he worked on at Bell Labs and in Silicon Valley. He has taught innovation at several IIMs. An IIT Madras and Stanford Business School grad, he has also been a conservative columnist for twenty years.

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