Sunday, October 28, 2012

India needs to be cautious while following the American model of higher education and research

It's almost unanimously accepted that quality of Indian education and research is steadily declining since last few decades despite of huge increase in funding and number of schools, colleges, universities and institutes. It's also well recognized that we need drastic reform. Whenever we talk about reform in Indian science, we generally end up talking about the American model as the gold standard. Many do not consider analys­ing the US system and its limitations in more detail. Others think that we should first reach the current state of American research and only then talk about further modification, probably following the same US model.

There is no doubt that developing countries like India can learn and more to gain from the American model of higher education and research, e.g. transparency in funding and recruitment. But we also need to be aware of probable pitfalls so that we do not repeat the same mistakes and end up wasting our scarce resources and lose few more generations of scientists.

Since early 18th century when France led the world, till today, history and sociopolitical events indicate that emergence of science super powers generally follow economic uprising. Not the other way round. Scientists must not take undue advantage of a nation’s appetite for heroes. It becomes more important in this era of economic crisis where almost all national governments are hard pressed to fund research projects. Here, I mainly discuss the issue in the context of the US, which we generally try to follow in India.

Lately, the whole assembly line to manufacture "scientist" is becoming dysfunctional as evident by slowing down of innovation and invention. Even the mighty pharmaceutical R&D sector is now suffering from acute shortage of new drugs. Few policy makers in the US already started asking serious questions about the relevance of once highly productive post World War II ‘input–output model’, where monetary input was assumed to be directly proportional to knowledge output, to judge the efficacy of today’s public funded research. Many argue that scientific output should be judged in terms of its capacity to achieve the desired social outcome.

We generally forget that immediately after the World War II, the US had no serious scientific and economic competitor. The US higher education and research enterprise was, and still is, much larger than that of any other country. The most successful and dominant player for American research was the Department of Defense (DoD). With (i) end of cold war and the declining role of DoD in translating public funded R&D into tangible social outcome; (ii) rise of many serious challengers (mainly the emerging economics in East Asia and South America); (iii) newly emerging issues (e.g. public health care, global warming and energy crisis) that require greater scientific understanding, needed a different approach to quantify and prioritize national scientific need. These issues arose mainly during 1980s and put the traditional ‘input–output’ model under serious threat. India never has the luxury of being an economic superpower to invest heavily to build a massive infrastructure on science education and research, naively thinking that quantity will ensure quality. Here I should mention that India already has the second largest higher education system in the world, only after the USA! 

Some people already started demanding that the universities should be restricted to teaching, without wasting public money in the name of research. Now US universities are more interested to select those candidates as faculties who have developed suitable network and mastered the art to attract grants, than to identify and select candidates with original thinking ability who can innovate and/or invent to generate revenue for the university. Present model completely absolves the universities from the responsibility of spending tax-payers’ money. In its most optimistic and fair terms, keeping aside the regular allegations of nepotism and corruption in recruitment and funding, Indian research institutes and universities are no different.

The lack of strategic thinking, focus and coordination between government, other funding agencies and universities, and by unrealistic expectations of what money could buy are becoming more evident these days. Some of the problems, including that of the ‘publish or perish’ model started long ago during the 1970s, as indicated in the book, Hera­clitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature, by the famous biochemist Erwin Chargaff. Later, it became more of a global problem as initial success of the American ‘input–output’ and ‘publish or perish’ model was adopted by many countries, including India, albeit half-heartedly.

The problem worsened as the most important parameter to quantify productivity and efficacy of our publication based academic research started losing its credibility. The ‘monopolistic’ business of the academic publication industry has become one of the fastest growing lucrative businesses without much self-regulation and government oversight. Today almost anything can be published in journals claiming to be peer-reviewed. It has significantly contributed towards deterioration of the peer-review process, rising incidents of scientific misconducts and higher acceptance of such misconducts among researchers. China is a good example in this regard with increasing incidences of plagiarism and other forms of scientific misconduct. Chinese journals find a whopping 31% of submissions are plagiarized.

It has serious consequences not only on over all scientific environment but also on careers of individual researcher – as recruitment, funding, promotion and fame, which can be defined as ‘institutional power to influence future direction in any specific area’, depends largely on that single parameter. Credibility of data, its interpretation and conclusion seem to depend more on individual researcher. Any researcher adhering to the higher standard of professional ethics and scientific understanding is now under severe threat.

Lack of accountability partly explains low financial remuneration for non-tenured researchers and students, poor working condition, poor mentoring that contributes to low attraction and lower retention of talented students in the US. It reduce support towards science not only among talented students, but also among policy makers and general public for this vital sector, which was, still is and will remain crucial for industrial competitiveness and higher quality of living in western countries. Any country ambitious enough to have a knowledge based economy, as some Indian policy-makers like to achieve, needs to acknowledge that increasing dominance of mediocrity is a serious threat today than ever before.

Companies are running out of new blockbuster drugs, other novel products and technology that can generate high profit to pay its shareholders and executives as the quality and integrity of scientists are steadily going down and mediocrity flourishes. It's one of the major reasons why companies are increasingly taking illegal routes by undertaking deceptive marketing and illegal promotion of drugs not approved by US federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or similar regulatory authorities in other countries. Its impact is also becoming more common in research publications, scientific seminars and conferences. Almost all, if not all, major drug and medical device companies now seem to be involved in systemic and massive fraud (AbbottGlaxoSmithKlineMerck, Pfizer, Novartis, BASF). They are increasingly bribing doctors even in developed countries like USA. Now more than 90% of doctors in US receive favors from drug companies who paid more than $2 billion to different health professionals. Keep in mind that it's only the disclosed value, that many believe to be the tip of a massive iceberg.  It's now reported that at least one big pharma company invented the drug first and then the disease that it claim to cure

We need to understand that past achievements will sustain competitive edge for a shorter period of time in this age of higher mobility of manpower and increasing reach of communication technology. It demands   faster development of novel, innovative products and technology. Many times the policy makers and scientists either could not understand or conveniently ignored the bigger picture, as there are not many subject matter experts willing to play the role of a devil’s advocate.  Scientists with vested professional and financial interest generally evaluate scientific projects and invariably recommend specific projects that benefit them personally.

It seems that exaggerated data fueled the hype for Jatropha based biofuel programs in countries like India and ended up wasting huge public money. Another recent casualty of over-selling or culture of hype became clearer when many high profile players in the pharmaceutical industry dropped their plans and altogether pulled out from much hyped technique, RNA interference, popularly known as RNAi.

Deteriorating scientific climate and rising incidences of misconduct in both public and private funded universities and R&D units, even in developed countries like USA, have far reaching consequences for the organization, the country and, most importantly, science itself. Developing countries like India with fewer resources need to learn from both the successes and mistakes of more successful countries like USA. Ignoring their mistakes will be no less fatal. India needs to prepare itself to adopt the changing world where, probably, there will be no science superpower to follow.

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