Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Research Focus Areas - 2: How to Make a List

Read first, the earlier post for context.

Let us suppose a list has to be made by an academic department with established research program, spelling out their research focus for the future. How to make the list? Here is a scheme. Can this procedure be bettered in the Indian context?

1) Check the present strength -- core competence -- of the department. Analyse what the existing faculty members have been doing as successful and significant research in the recent past and choose some or all of those topics.

2) Do the analysis in 1), but put all of the topics that have been worked so far, by grouping them together (using band-aid) into impressive phraseology a.k.a the said focus topics

The major difference between 1) and 2) is, the topics of 1) will be a sub-set of those made in 2) thus excluding possibly few faculty members from the 'research focus' of the department.

3) Discuss with the faculty members and come up with a list of topics that should be looked into in the immediate future, irrespective of whether the existing faculty members have the expertise.

Obviously, the outcome of method 3) in a few years is uncertain. But it ensures every faculty member is included into the 'research focus' of the department.

4) Do as in 3) but make sure at least a few of the faculty members are involved in the selected topics. For the other 'focus' topics, recruit new faculty members stating the mandate to them -- their research plan in the initial years is cut out.

If 4) is followed, some may again be 'left out'. One solution is to do the exercise in 1) or 2) with them and include those 'additional topics' into the main list.

5) Do as in 3) but tell upfront to all the faculty members to align themselves into at least one of the topics floated. There need not be any fresh recruitment, at least, not in this context.

6) Seek the list from 'higher authorities', outside of the department, or institute or country. This is only familiar. All of us eventually fall in line.

7) Make the list with topics that address the current need of the nation -- society at large.

This could be impressive and disruptive. Impressive for obvious reasons. Prevailing thinking perceives the (/any) department, by its current functioning -- generating excellent man-power at various levels, a sizable percentage of whom are recruited to serve the institutes and industries of the nation -- is already serving the nation. The role of research is to generate new ideas that may or may not translate into useful technology to the society; Constraints on research activities to serve the society will only lead to developmental work rather than new ideas.

8) Why should all the faculty be necessarily involved in the research focus areas? Let the list be made with some logic and let the faculty choose to be in one or several of the topics. Or not. They can continue to work in areas dear to them and excel.

If this is the way, then how to ensure such faculty do not feel 'left out' of the department's research plan. For instance, will the department allot funds to their research (as it was doing until now, going by the logic of equitable distribution of department grants among faculty as mentioned in the previous post)? Would their topics of research be suggested to potential students during time of admission?


  1. Unknown said...

    Very recently, I appeared in person for interview at a few institutes in India, as a faculty candidate. At one particular institute (I will not name the institute or the department to be politically correct), I was repeatedly told by almost all the faculty members that they were not going to diversify to an area X from their strength in area Y. I have specializations in both X and Y (40-60) ratio although the department (for some reason) believed I was more in to X. I tried explaining that although I have expertise in X, I am equally interested in pursuing Y as my research area in that institute, to which, I was once again told that the institute is almost NEVER going to diversify in to X since historically, they are known to be experts in Y.

    I thought I should mention it in this context of the post. I lack experience to comment if such an attitude is positive for the department thereby enabling it to climb higher in its traditionally strong areas of research, or, if such an attitude of not diversifying to other research areas is detrimental to the overall growth and progress of the department.

  2. Ankur Kulkarni said...

    I am an Indian academic, and I think the discussion on "research focus for a department" is somewhat premature. It is suited for departments that have several top-class faculty who have made a name for themselves in their own area, and one is faced with the problem of how take this momentum forward intellectually and in time.

    In India we would do quite well for ourselves if each individual in the department makes sure he/she is at the top of whatever is his/her focus area. In short, we should not bother about the area, only about excellence. After this is done, the meta-question of direction/focus area becomes relevant.