The question is not whether university professors should produce new knowledge. It is how we can optimize our research, how the university can support it, and how we can do the most useful work possible
Can universities in developing countries help advance global repertoire of knowledge through research and publication? Should they instead focus on applying available knowledge in response to their own nations’ or local societies’ needs? Do our universities have the resources and ability to advance new knowledge in medicine and agriculture, economics and technology, philosophy and history, especially if that knowledge has to be unique and substantive?
The yes/no questions above represent the first roadblock against turning our universities into centers of knowledge production: A thorny set of simplistic, prevalent assumptions about research and publication. So, we must turn the spotlight of public discussion on those obstacles first and foremost.
In the course of many interactions with colleagues in Kathmandu earlier this summer, during discussions about research, I was struck by two particular reactions, both from scientists in Tribhuvan University, both in the context of TU. Their arguments represent two of the most dominant myths about research and publication of universities in developing countries.
One colleague, a mathematician, argued that the salaries of TU professors are not sufficient for us to expect them to do research and publication. The argument, for which there was not enough time or appropriate context to explore during the meeting, seemed to be based on the assumption that only well-paid scholars at prestigious institutions can do research. It also reminded me of a corollary myth: Research always, or at least typically, requires substantive funding, of which there’s little in developing countries.
The other, a physicist, disagreed with an argument that I had made during a group presentation that even scientific research can and should be localized for advancing national interest and maximizing social impact. He insisted that all science is a single global store of knowledge. He was perhaps thinking about basic research as the default in the natural sciences, or he probably overlooked developing societies’ ability and need to at least advance their own “applied” science.
Problematic assumptions and arguments about research are, in fact, abundant even among prominent scholars around the world, including the likes of Philip Altbach, a famous scholar of international education. Thus, instead of reacting with surprise, I think we should engage the assumptions seriously.
So, what is wrong with the arguments? Or, rather, in the case of the first argument, if scholars in our largest public “university” should pursue research and publication as much as they can, in spite of all the limitations, then why must and how can they do so? I will address the second assumption about scientific knowledge and developing societies in the next essay. Here I focus on the first.
Universities are not technical or vocational colleges. They are by definition research centers, as well as centers of learning and teaching (and often cultural or spiritual hubs, community centers and entrepreneurship incubators, repositories of historical knowledge, and so on). And, when it comes to their major responsibility of knowledge production, while university professors must demand more time, resource, and other support for increasing and improving their research and publication, they cannot blame their salary or even a relative lack of time or other resources for not advancing new knowledge. They should not continue to be in their venerated positions, as many do now in many societies, by primarily counting the number of years in teaching and service while producing limited or substandard research and publication.
The first demand and justification of research in universities is that teaching in them is inextricable with research. Professors must help students do research, teaching them the skills and fostering lifelong curiosity and passion for it. And they must continue their own research—whether that means continued study of emerging knowledge in the field or research done for discovery and invention/innovation—to become effective educators.
University education must be used for training and habituating new generations to advance knowledge, rather than to just passively acquire it. It must show students the social value and personal excitement, including through respect and impact on society, that pursuing research can bring about. The work must begin with university professors, whether they are paid well or paid modestly, because that is in the nature and description of their profession. Period.
As university professors, we have the explicitly stated job description of doing research to produce new knowledge and disseminating that knowledge through publication and public engagement. We must do research not just because we are in the business of curiosity and discovery, problem solving and perspective-building. Ours is also a profession of seeking to know what is not known yet. Whether our society is economically advanced or not, we’re expected to not just “apply” current knowledge but also synthesize or update it while exploring issues and exposing problems. That already blurs the line between using and producing new knowledge.
Research is needed for an excellent faculty, for sure. University professors who advance a research agenda are naturally more studied, more updated and more capable educators. They can better guide and mentor, as well as teach, students better.
But, more importantly, research also serves national interest and creates social impact. Especially if their research agenda is driven by those forces, university professors who are productive in their research and publication can greatly contribute to important areas of national priority and social demand. If we are to pursue the vision of education as a social good, if we are to advance institutional goodwill, and if we are to pursue specialization in a landscape of research-driven programs and colleges, then our research and publication must be front and center for university professors.
Professors with a productive research profile are more respected in the society. They have more to offer when they are consulted by the government, the media, and other agencies. Professors’ ability to offer critique and guidelines to society heavily depends on whether they are active in research and publication. And they are trusted by society and looked up to by students for broader knowledge, rather than teaching from the textbooks someone else wrote.
Obviously, research helps faculty advance fundamental knowledge in their disciplines. This type of research leads to improved international recognition of professors. Such research is the most effective means with which they and their institutions can make a presence on the global arena of knowledge production and can collaborate with their counterparts in other countries. Universities should also make a name locally, nationally, and globally with applied research, by solving problems, by developing new products, by filing patents, by presenting theories and findings and discoveries and inventions to the world. Institutions must indeed brand themselves by the kinds of innovation they make or what they invent, discover, or develop. Applied research is also the best way to engage and mobilize diaspora Nepali scholars, tapping into their potentials and interest for contributing to Nepali’s social progress.
Then there’s research focusing on the university itself. While often invisible, “institutional research” involves gathering and use of data about the operation, challenges, and growth of the university itself. Such research can help with strategy, planning and programming. It can be done by professors, as well as administrative staff.
Finally, research can increase grant and other financially beneficial opportunities for the university. As more money is allocated for research in developing countries, good research by professors can create a supply of new federal grants, put pressure on the government to increase university grants, and inspire private firms and other agencies to offer sponsored grants. Competitive projects could also win grants internationally.
The crux of the matter is that university professors must first of all define their very vocation in terms of advancing and disseminating new knowledge. They should try to show what they are capable of in order to attract more support.
Doing our jobs
For university professors, most excuses against doing the best possible to explore their field of study, to apply and disseminate knowledge for social impact, and to integrate research into teaching are logically lazy and ethically wrong. I put those responsibilities in such stark terms because the advancement and application of knowledge is our primary business. Part-time or full-time contract lecturers are in different situations but tenured and full-time faculty members sign up to do three things: Teaching, research and service. And if they cannot do one or more of the things on their contract, they are billing the public for services they didn’t deliver. If we won’t pay for any food item that never arrives at a restaurant, it should be the same with public service based on tax money as well.
So, the question is certainly not whether professors should produce new knowledge. The question is why should and how can university professors optimize their research and knowledge production. And how can faculty members produce the most productive and useful work? Why must the university better support that productivity? I will address a few more myths related to these questions, and possible solutions, in future essays.
The author is Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at State University of New York in Stony Brook