Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Research Focus Areas - 1: To Have or Not

1) An academic department should promote diversity in research (as many topics as its faculty strength). 2) An academic department should promote only few focused research areas. Which one do you believe is the 'right way' forward for an Indian academic department that has an established research program?

You may agree that the 'few topics of research focus' is a model adopted in the USA. The topics are decided primarily by the availability of research grants, which is determined largely by entities and policies that may not be connected to the department. So, the 'focus topics' get renewed or transmogrify every few years. This re-sizing of the legs to the available size shoes is accepted as the norm in that model. Of course, growing new legs in place of a numb or phantom one is possible.

The 'unity in diversity' model is more in line with the philosophy of what academia should be. Essentially democratic, housing all possible knowledge, without characterizing them as (only) useful. This model promotes all research topics pursued by the faculty members and likewise distributes its annual funding equally. It does encourage group research in similar topics by teams, but can only expect such groups to seek their additional funding (for some concerted research effort or common resources) from external sources.

So, question: Which one of these models do you think an Indian academic department with an established research program should follow? Any other (better) model for Indian academia?

Some open thoughts to get us discussing:

To the question, "What are you good at?" should a department answer, say, "mechanical engineering" and remain deliberately vague about further sub-divisions or should it answer only with a list of topics related to mechanical engineering?

In general, a department may be 'known for' one or two research topics. Should it stick to them, promote them more if necessary, and become the 'top' in those topics? This could be easier with concerted efforts, in as many years. Problem is, these topics may or may not be the 'latest' or 'useful to the society' or 'with funding potential' and so on. View this in the Indian context.

A list comprising few to many topics projected upfront as 'strengths', could provide peers worldwide, industries and funding agencies, media and the public (during admission-time, at least) to view the department in a defined perspective.

In India, the topics for research focus may not be driven only by funding availability. Funding, when sought through paperwork, is available. Of course, the total research budget (say, when compared to the USA) is small, but that provides a context to this discussion.

In India, accountability is understood in several ways. For example, some academicians believe they teach (well) for their salary and do research as a personal endeavour. Is there relevance in making a 'list of research topics to focus' without a commensurate accountability mechanism?

Supposing the way to go is to spell out the research focus, how to make the list of topics? A plan of action coming up in the next post.


  1. Chandramouli Padmanabhan said...

    I think any department develops strengths in certain areas over the years and this needs to be nurtured. Of course faculty freedom to pursue research of their choice should not be tinkered with. We do not want a "corporatization" of the University system where only certain topics are pursued to the exclusion of others as is done in US.

  2. Narasimhan Swaminathan said...

    I believe that a department, in its view must be open and democratic. In my viewpoint, focus areas develop over the years from collaboration amongst faculty, and the institute/department projects this as its strength or focus area. I don't think the department develops or spells out the focus areas and encourage faculty to work in that.

    Over the years, several faculty in the department may naturally come together to start a group and claim that the group has a common research focus since the selected individuals (and their groups) in some way or the other, work on a specific domain. Now, the department could project this group's research domain as a focus area that the department has developed. Several such collaborative efforts give us the various focus areas.

    It does not appeal if the department has to lay down the focus areas because it cannot be done mutually exclusively of the expertise or interest areas of the faculty in the particular department. Even though a faculty will claim to have expertise in one specific area, we should understand that this expertise and interest can all evolve over time and this should be allowed so that the ideas mature to something that is related to the ideas of another colleague in the department or the university. As I understand, this can take some time. Instead of coming up with a list of focus areas, the department must instead foster collaboration among faculty belonging to seemingly non-related groups. Only such collaborations and healthy interactions, can result in strong, sustainable focus areas.