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The ethics of excellence: improving academic research

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Summary

Improving academic research needs to be a wide-ranging project.

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Many will agree that academic research in India needs to be internationally competitive and our institutions feature in rankings lists. Global research and competition are now increasingly diverse and in this scenario, India rightfully wants to be an important player. In pedagogy too, we face a situation of enhanced expectations. There has been a rapid expansion with the setting up of more Central and State universities which includes more focussed institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Indian Institutes of Management and National Institutes of Technology, enhancing the opportunities for high-quality teaching. Despite the impressive job being done, there is considerable room for improvement.

Excellence as ethics

But what is still holding our nation back from achieving large-scale global academic excellence which is commensurate with our intellectual heritage and calibre? Beyond blaming the government and the bureaucracy, the usual suspects, it is important to look inward and ask whether our academics display an adequate ethical commitment to excellence.

It is rarely appreciated that excellence is an ethical issue. We think of it as something arising from people of calibre coupled with sufficient resources. But how do successful nations spot such people and resources and enable them to achieve their potential? The answer: there is a sincere and stated commitment to cultivating excellence as a goal. Contrasting this with the academic ethos in India raises uncomfortable questions.

Consider this advertisement put out by Stanford University recently: “We seek exceptional individuals who can develop a world-class program of research, and have a strong commitment to teaching at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.” In such institutions, once an excellent candidate is identified, the institution does everything to convince her/him to accept the offer. Loss of the candidate to a rival institution is considered a serious failure, as excellence is seen to be a precious commodity, with the heads of such institutions held accountable.

In India, in contrast, excellence is at best one of multiple criteria in faculty hiring. Though never openly stated, extraneous considerations abound. It is an open secret that these considerations define a large fraction of hiring across India, and often precede considerations of merit. In some places, excellence can actually go against the candidate.

The faults within

One might be tempted to solely blame failed institutions/departments on the calibre of leadership, and, ultimately, the government that appoints such leaders. But the problem persists even in those institutions led by respected academics. The reasons need to be examined. While academics freely criticise personality cults in the political sphere, they are happy to cultivate those of their own. A few individuals, possibly achievers in their younger days, grow into collectors of awards and fellowships and dominate organisations and committees. Factions grow around them. These people, administratively overburdened out of their own choice, make serious judgments without adequate information. Conflict of interest is another, rarely highlighted, problem. For example, within an institution, the leader may provide partisan support for their own subject of expertise and restrain the progress of rivals.

The problem is not just confined to leaders. In many Indian institutions, there is increasing democratic participation of junior academics in hiring and promotions. One hopes that this would propel excellence to the top of the desirable attributes. Unfortunately even in this set-up, research areas that are of global importance are often, out of sheer ignorance, treated with disdain. This is a key point. In the ethics of excellence, ignorance cannot be an excuse. When making decisions affecting the future of one’s institution, it is an ethical imperative to educate oneself on all the relevant facts.

The atmosphere in which academics work has a profound impact on their achievements. Academic leaders need to offer support and mentorship but also impose a standard of excellence. Instead, too often, they veer to an extreme: either scattering resources indulgently or interfering in every minor matter. In the worst cases, they are vindictive towards those who show signs of exceptional achievement.

Study in contrast

Why do we in India accept extraneous considerations that militate against excellence? Of course our political culture is deeply implicated, which makes it ironic when our politicians ask why Indian scientists do not win Nobel prizes. But a part of the responsibility and the power to change lies within the academic community itself. The problem is our collective failure to articulate the goal of excellence and to exert firm pressure on anyone, however important, who blocks the path. The old tale that Indians instinctively behave like crabs, pulling others down, still has well-deserved traction in academia.

This is not to suggest that even developed countries are free of academic politics or these faults. Rather, there are correctives applied from two directions. One is the rank and file of academia which tends to be more professional than ours. Personality cults are met with a sharp push back and conflicts of interest are openly challenged. Even when disputes take place, excellence does not take a back seat. The other corrective comes from the top; institution leaders are evaluated by their funding and accreditation agencies, and made aware that their future leadership opportunities are diminished by every petty action and slipshod committee work. Ultimately, the system is accountable because it is committed to an ethical standard — the standard of excellence.

 

Sunil Mukhi is Chair of the Physics Programme at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune, and Chair of the Panel on Scientific Values of the Indian Academy of Science.

This article originally appeared in The Hindu and has been re-posted here with permission of both the author and the paper.

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