Sections of the press recently reported on the questionable status and quality of research produced and communicated through doctoral dissertations in some universities in the country. It was argued that the pattern of literature review, quality of narration, interpretation and analysis fell short of the usual acceptable standards cited all across the globe.
This observation is of grave significance at a point when the edifice of Higher Education Commission at the federal level is facing a precarious future. With hyped up actions to devolve and disintegrate the functions to the provinces under the 18th Constitutional Amendment, the future of quality and its monitoring in the teaching, research and management functions in universities is uncertain. It appears that research, its support, management, quality assurance and dissemination shall be a direct victim of transition.
The basics of research need to be understood to take this debate further. By definition, research is termed the systematic inquiry towards the creation of a body of knowledge or addition to it. This definition thus establishes the clear focus of the research process and its essential ingredients — systematic inquiry and creation of knowledge. The scientific knowledge is typically categorised into three traditional heads; pure sciences including physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology and similar disciplines; applied sciences including engineering, medicine, architecture, planning, surveying etc. and social sciences comprising languages, religion, philosophy, history, ethics and various related subjects. Each of these disciplines has numerous fields and sub-fields where research is carried out on a continuous basis, adding knowledge to their respective spheres.
Research is conducted by researchers. Conventionally, the researchers have to be highly qualified people possessing a research degree such as M.Phil or Ph.D — normally considered as the minimum adequate qualification to allow a person to do research. Elsewhere this definition may apply where the academic system is structured on sound footings.
In this country where higher education is extremely limited and only a fraction of the population is fortunate to have access to this experience, this definition does not fully apply for practical purposes. For this reason, any learned individual with an understanding of research methodology and approach may undertake research at least in applied and/or social sciences.
Several qualities are usually considered essential for researchers, especially those working in social research. A researcher must be unbiased in his approach without taking sides under any circumstances. He must be analytical in his working. A researcher should possess sharp observational skills to see through the objects making optimum use of his human senses. He should be communicative both verbally and graphically. Writing skill is also an essential quality of a good researcher. A researcher should be able to organise his work according to the identified goal and corresponding work plan.
And above all, he must be well versed in the subject and field in which the research assignment is being undertaken. Temperamentally a good researcher should be capable of creating an interface at the inter-disciplinary level with professionals/researchers of different professional backgrounds.
Why is research conducted or in other words, why it is important to conduct research at all? This academic question keeps coming back for debate and discussion leading to lengthy arguments in some cases. However, the purpose of research can be justified on several grounds that are common to a larger section of scientific disciplines.
One, research is an activity that adds to knowledge — itself a noble and humanly pursuit. Knowledge helps mankind and tends to benefit the society at large. Two, research is a vehicle that is vital for advancement of knowledge across the scientific disciplines. Three, research helps resolve the persisting problems around the society. Four, research facilitates informed decision-making. And five, it also acts as a process to discover the hidden truths.
For majority of our daily life issues, research is needed to provide practical solutions. For instance, housing for low-income groups is a pressing issue. Several projects, programmes and schemes have been founded without catering to the plight of the needy. In the same domain, a research-based solution has been developed in the form of incremental housing. It is a concept that facilitates shelter through provision of land at affordable prices and with appropriate communal amenities. Although recommended by local and international experts and successfully demonstrated on three distinct sites in Sindh, it still awaits a wider application.
A dilemma often confronted in the domain of research projects is that the research is too distant from application. The research either focuses on the classical path of discovering a fact — simply for the sake of it or conducting an exploratory exercise in departure from priority aspects. Many pressing issues related to our national life remain unanswered.
Choice of the source of power between hydal and thermal (both long and short term); water logging and salinity in relation to the existing farm drainage techniques; desertification; low-cost but sustainable flood protection options; effective and sustainable methods of urban sewerage disposal and treatment; sustainable forestation; efforts to initiate literacy and awareness; making development projects compatible to ecological considerations; minimizing the re-settlement impacts of transportation and/or power projects; regulating the informal economy; providing social support to economically invalid social groups in the context of market economy are only a few areas which requires unabated research input for evolving workable alternatives.
A very important constraint to be tackled is the application of research based options into the real life situation. The problem is that the regimes often ignore even some of the most pertinent solutions worked out through the course of research. For instance, it was found that the typical approach of developing large scale sewerage treatment plants and building a network of sewers created afterwards is an expensive and non-performing option.
Contrarily, the approach of studying the prevailing disposal pattern in consonance with urban geography, its consolidation and development of low scale/appropriate treatment facility at the mouth of disposal forms a logical alternative. However, the latter is dropped simply it was not under the prescriptions of the donor agencies providing funds for the project. Besides, lack of tolerance to accept a truth unearthed by a research exercise is also a point under consideration. For instance, the status of human rights as researched by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan is never seriously considered in the policy making process. The stereo typical processes of policy making continue in which the conventional methods of project planning and funds disbursement are endorsed.
Another critical issue is the limited number of research journals and other media of communication of research. With very few exceptions, the publication and dissemination of scientific journals is limited. Some of the journals published do not fulfill the minimum criteria to be called a research publication.
The matter of establishing the significance of research in the various scientific fields needs an open debate on appropriate fora. These fora may also list the priorities of research in relation to the pressing issues of national development. Academic research, which is a core area in this regard, needs to be strengthened on priority basis.
It is a welcome move taken by the newly-formed Higher Education Commission to recommend an increase in the research grants of the universities. However, provision of funding may be tied up with a process of guiding the expenditure of the research grants and overall monitoring of the process.
The country’s institutions of higher learning should be encouraged to interact with the foreign institutions to obtain feedback and support in their respective research exercise. Incentives must be ensured for the scholars engaged in serious and original research. Generous prizes for research work of substance can be a means of encouragement. Assessment of the same can be done through research participation assessment (RPA) of the faculty and scholars — a standard exercise which is conducted in universities around the world. Unless such measures are taken, the research despite its invaluable potential for national development shall remain an obscure entity!