26 Dec 2011

Without freedom of thought, discussion and debate, a thriving research atmosphere cannot exist for long. Researchers should have the absolute freedom to pursue what they deem worth doing research on rather being told what to do.


Without freedom of thought, discussion and debate, a thriving research atmosphere cannot exist for long. Researchers should have the absolute freedom to pursue what they deem worth doing research on rather being told what to do.

One of the most eloquent and pithy articulations of the scientific approach to research can be found in Jawaharlal Nehru’s address to the Indian Science Congress in 1937, some 10 years before India’s independence from colonial rule. He said:

“The applications of science are inevitable and unavoidable for all countries and peoples today. But something more than its application is necessary. It is the scientific approach, the adventurous and yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on preconceived theory, the hard discipline of mind- all this is necessary, not merely for the application of science but for life itself and the solution of its many problems.”

Nehru was advocating a scientific approach to all human interaction and behaviour, not just to the pursuit and generation of knowledge. Undoubtedly a scientific approach has to be the bedrock on which all research, teaching and training have to rest. This is particularly the case for institutions such as universities and professional schools as well as research institutes within and outside the formal university system.

There are only a handful of universities in the world that are widely believed to be global research universities. This is no accident. The primary reason is that the process of spawning or creating an atmosphere that encourages and sustains a community of scholars and researchers is both difficult and time-consuming.

Without freedom of thought, discussion and debate, a thriving research atmosphere cannot exist for long. Researchers should have the absolute freedom to pursue what they deem worth doing research on rather being told what to do.

There is a much deeper issue of whether freedom of thought, discussion and debate can exist in research institutions in societies where such freedoms do not prevail in the social and political spheres. Notwithstanding examples of success in research in authoritarian societies and also in secrecy-dominated research establishments in non-authoritarian ones, freedom cannot be kept out of the equation.

Organisational forms

Clearly there are no trade-offs for freedom with other desiderata of research atmosphere. Once the basic necessary condition of freedom is met, there often are alternatives, each with its own strengths and weaknesses for ensuring other desiderata. For example, in some countries research is carried out primarily in universities and in others in research units, including the research departments of private enterprises that cater to the market. At least in practice, research is mostly done at universities, special centres within university departments as well as in private enterprises. Often how research happens to be organised is a historical legacy and not so much a conscious choice based on a comparison of the merits of alternative organisational forms, including the fact that teaching and research go together in research universities reinforcing their interactions to the benefit of both. Nonetheless the difference among organisational forms in how they are run and in particular how researchers are recruited, rewarded and promoted and the freedom in choice of research areas and topics do matter both for the research atmosphere they create and for the nature and quality of the research output. A case in point is Yale, an outstanding global research university.

The process of recruitment and promotion of faculty as well as admission of PhD students is very rigorous at all levels. In principle, the pool of potential applicants is global and the availability of a faculty position is made known globally. The goal is to recruit the most qualified candidates in the world and as such the nationality and citizenship of potential candidates are irrelevant. The qualifications of applicants and non-applicants deemed worthy of consideration by the faculty are carefully vetted by a committee of faculty and a few are interviewed. The select few are then invited to give a job talk on campus which is attended by the faculty who evaluate the content, presentation and responses to questions by the candidate. The faculty meets to discuss the candidates and their performance after their talks and formally vote in a secret ballot on who they would like the department to make job offers to.

When considering an existing faculty member for promotion to a higher rank, the process is also very rigorous. In fact, each junior faculty member from the time of recruitment to the time of consideration for promotion is monitored and encouraged to do well and advised on matters that need improvement. A system of annual reporting to the department chair and higher authorities by each faculty member of his/her research (completed but as yet unpublished as well as published), teaching and other department service, etc. is mandatory. These reports serve as inputs into the annual faculty evaluation process. A promotion committee of the faculty evaluates the work at the time of consideration of promotion and makes appropriate recommendations for the faculty as a whole for their decision. For promotions rather than reappointment for another term in the same position, letters of evaluation of the candidate are also sought from established scholars in the candidate’s fields of research and placed before the evaluation committee. Whether or not a “tenure track system” that assures a position would be available for a faculty recommended for promotion becomes relevant when a faculty member is recommended for promotion and not otherwise. In places where there is no such system as in Yale’s Economics Department, a candidate deemed qualified for a promotion may still not be promoted if a position is not available.

The process of admission of PhD students is stringent. Major research universities seek to admit the most qualified students from around the globe and provide financial support as needed. Their teaching, including the processes of qualifying for proceeding to the dissertation stage, process of choice of topics for dissertation, supervision of dissertation, and finally the evaluation of dissertation are also rigorous. Last but not the least is the process of placement. A record of placement of its graduates in good academic and non-academic positions is a signal both of the quality of a PhD programme and of its attractiveness to prospective students.

There are many components of atmosphere that are integral to outstanding research. The most obvious is the record of publications in well-established and refereed journals by the faculty. Another is a set of regularly scheduled seminars and workshops during the academic year at which speakers present their completed research or often their ongoing current research. There would also be PhD prospectus workshops for students to present ideas on topics for dissertation they are exploring for comment and suggestions from fellow students as well as faculty. Also important are mutual interactions among students and with faculty, including social interactions. How extensive and active the seminar/workshop series is and how rigorous and deep the set of questions, comments and responses is from participants serves as a good indicator of the health of the research atmosphere.

Evolution of global research universities

Leading global research universities emerged after the Second World War, and the advent of the Internet is changing them continually. Singapore, for instance, has successfully leveraged its historical networks and harnessed information technology to establish and maintain outstanding research facilities both within and outside its university system.

In her book, The Cold War University: The Transformation of Stanford, Rebecca Lowen provides a fascinating account of the transformation of American universities since the end of the Second World War into what she calls ‘Cold War universities’, and cites Stanford as such an example. Similar transformations occurred in major universities in the US and in Europe, though in a far more muted fashion. Lowen notes:

“Before World War II, America’s universities were peripheral to the nation’s political economy. They were committed to promoting the scientific method, to allowing academic scientists and scholars to discover and study “truths”, and to developing the character of businessmen who were, for the most part, the sons of the nation’s business and professional elites. While some universities included service to society as part of their mission, none of them conceived this service as direct assistance to the federal government. Autonomy from the federal government was in fact central to the definition of the university as well as of the science and scholarship conducted within it. Similarly, the concept of autonomy, from private industry, and more broadly, the world of commerce, distinguished the university from the mere technical institute. Universities were in their own imaginary ivory towers.”

Universities underwent vast internal changes consistent with the move of leading universities from the periphery to the centre of the national political economy after World War II. Lowen writes:

“Large laboratories staffed with myriad researchers having no teaching duties and working in groups with expensive, government- funded scientific equipment became common features of leading universities … As the organisation and funding of science changed, so did the kinds of knowledge produced and taught. Universities made room for new fields of study … which have obvious relevance to nation’s geopolitical consensus. Traditional social science disciplines also shifted their emphasis, stressing quantitative approaches over narrative ones and individual behaviour and cultural studies over sociological ones.

Most commented upon then and now (around 1997) were changes in the education of students and in the role of university preferences … professional advancement in the post war university depended wholly on research and publication [the cliché “publish or perish” was not entirely a caricature], which in turn depended on development of patronage. Thus, undergraduate teaching received short shrift as professors, not surprisingly, showed more interest in and loyalty to their patrons outside the university than to their own institutions and students. If the university before World War II was a community of scholars and scientists, the post-war university was … a large collection of academic entrepreneurs-scientists and scholars perpetually promoting themselves and their research to potential patrons .”

The tendencies observed by Lowen in 1997 have since accelerated. Even wellendowed private research universities in the US depend significantly on research grants from public and private sources to finance a major share of their annual expenditure rather than on income from their own endowment and from tuition and other fees charged. This dependence could possibly compromise broadly the academic freedom of the universities and their faculty, and also the portfolio of their research.

The changes that came about in American universities were not universally welcomed. In his widely read Godkin lectures of 1963, Clark Kerr, Chancellor of University of California in Berkeley, a leading state research university, regretted the loss of a sense of community and the emphasis on undergraduate education that had characterised the pre-Second World War university. He nonetheless appreciated the transformation of the university into a “multiversity” with a strong emphasis on research. Others were not so welcoming of the change.

Six years after the publication of Lowen’s book, David Kirp’s charmingly titled book, Shakespeare, Einstein and the Bottom Line, appeared in 2003, with its subtitle as “The Marketing of Higher Education”. While Lowen’s book focused on the implications for the education and research missions of a university of its dependence on and its active development of patronage both from the government and the private sector, Kirp’s focus was on the impact of market forces and market-based competition, and once again the character and mission of a university. In his words:

“Priorities in higher education are determined less by the institution itself than by multiple “constituencies” – students, donors, corporations, politicians- each promoting its vision of the “responsive” (really the obeisant) institution. Strong leadership used to be regarded as crucial in the making of great universities, but nowadays presidents are consumed with the never-ending task of raising money. The new vocabulary of customers and stakeholders, niche marketing and branding and winner-take-all, embodies this shift in the higher education “industry”. This is more than a matter of semantics and symbols, for the business vocabulary reinforces business-like ways of thinking. Each department is a “revenue centre”, each student a customer, each professor an entrepreneur, each party a “stakeholder”, and each institution a seeker after profit, whether in money capital or intellectual capital.”

His book looked at “how the pull and tug of competition plays out across the landscape of American higher education”. He rightly asks whether the narratives in the book “show the benign workings of the invisible hand, the decline of the West, or – like it or not – the shape of things to come?”

Some conclude that universities have learnt to combine the best of academic commons and the market place. Others conclude that universities in fact have struck a Faustian bargain by meeting private demands of the market at the cost of their social missions, a bargain that they will come to rue. The book concludes that the university “might conceivably evolve into just another profit seeking business. The metaphor of the higher education “industry” was brought to life in a holding company called “Universitas Inc.” Krip cites in his footnote 17 on page 314 an apparently half-in-jest suggestion of Richard Chait, Professor of Education at Harvard University, that the university “become a publicly held firm whose shares are traded on the New York Stock Exchange, its market value rising and falling with the ‘knowledge products’ it develops and the calibre of the ‘knowledge workers’ it recruits”, ignoring the fact that the current US tax laws preclude a non-profit institution such as Harvard taking such a step. But who knows the US Congress in all its wisdom might repeal this provision of laws!

In a rapidly globalising world, what happens or is likely to happen in the future in the marketisation of higher education where research belongs will inevitably have its impact on nations that aspire to build and sustain global research universities. It is of course natural and indeed appropriate that funders of research, be they governments or private foundations, charitable organisations and corporations, have their own preferences and priorities in funding what research and which organisations they fund or contract with in getting the research done. The issue for universities is how to protect their educational missions and above all their pursuit of knowledge wherever it might lead and freedom from being compromised in raising resources for their functioning. Any compromise of academic freedom will inevitably extinguish creative research in the end. And freedom cannot be compartmentalised – it has to encompass the social and political arena besides academia.

Singapore and NUS in a globalising world

Professor Robert Klitgaard, a Visiting Li Ka Shing Professor at the LKY School with whom I had exchanged emails on the issues discussed here, not only brought my attention to Krip’s book but was also extremely generous with his thought-provoking comments. I can do no better than paraphrase his main observations and also his reading of research in Singapore.

First, he notes that Singapore does not organise research almost exclusively into non-teaching research institutes and teaching in universities which do not engage in research. Since I believe such separation is harmful to both teaching and research, Singapore is wise not to separate the two. Moreover, in his view, there is a well functioning system of peer review and quality control in research. In India, where universities do not do research, none of the universities were among the top 100 in the world according to one ranking, whereas NUS was ranked 27. However, Klitgaard has concerns about the atmosphere in Singapore for policy- relevant research. Second, he notes that the narratives in Kirp’s book include studies of successful and unsuccessful businessuniversity partnerships. Although he thinks such partnerships do exist in Singapore – not just with the government but with private corporations as well – in his view, a crucial question both in Singapore and elsewhere is how to take advantage of the partnerships to pursue basic and applied research, while guarding against the risks. Lastly, the LKY School’s own research centres seem poorly integrated with the faculty and teaching. I share this last observation and find it unfortunate that a fruitful integration of mainline departments and the LKY School has yet to develop. I have often heard it said that Singapore should take advantage of its strategic location in Asia and lessons of its rare success in transforming Singapore in one generation from being a less developed to developed country to cultivate and promote an “Asian approach” to development. Whatever the merits of an Asia focus in other areas of policy, pushing it too far in research would, in my view, be counterproductive and lead to some of the worst features of the higher education industry that Kirp warns against. On Klitgaard’s crucial question of making the best use of partnerships to pursue basic research in particular, I am somewhat sceptical of its feasibility, primarily because the very nature of basic research is such that its fruits are more uncertain and their potential applications are not only uncertain but also likely to be in the far future features that are not attractive to most risk-averse and myopic private businesses.

T N Srinivasan is the Yong Pung How Chair Professor at the LKY School. He contributes frequently to the research and debate on India’s economic reforms in a comparative perspective, particularly in relation to China and South Asia. His most recent book is Growth, Sustainability and India’s Economic Reforms.