The Higher Education Commission (HEC) already has ‘Offices of Research, Innovation and Commercialisation’ in 12 universities. And if they are increased, I would only welcome such a development. However, when a recent document, released on the subject in February, calls commercialisation “Knowledge Exchange” (KE) one regrets at the euphemistic phrase tending to hide the fact that we are still talking about making money with the knowledge we produce. Let us call a spade a spade and not use terms like ‘exchange’ for business. Let me now give my views about the draft of this document.
First, there is nothing wrong with the central concept of this paper that ‘universities can play [a role] in stimulating and contributing to innovation and social and economic growth’. Indeed, the great research universities of the world — the Ivy League universities of America, Oxbridge, Russell League universities of Britain, the Sorbonne and the great European universities — do not depend on students’ fees nor on state funding. They get projects from the military, the corporate sector, NGOs, think tanks and governments to carry on consultancy work and contract research. Some academics have also refused to cooperate with the military or the corporate sector because their research products would create more efficient ways of killing people or making rich people richer. But most do become consultants and the universities get the much-needed money that creates good laboratories and libraries and also makes for merrier academic dinners. Some of this research helps create new drugs, medical equipment, new means of communication, and safer ways of travelling etc. In short, some utilitarian or applied research can be, and has been, useful for humanity though more of it has merely helped the militaries. And one thanks the heavens that there are dentists when one has a raging toothache because even the best edition of Aristotle is no help when you have it. In short, I am not against the idea of facilitating the commercialisation of research or of applied, utilitarian research.
So if KE (using HEC’s euphemism) offices are set up in all universities, its professionals are appointed and KE-friendly policies are followed without prejudice to the primacy of pure, basic research, I am all for it. Indeed, I would ask such offices to look into the possibility of creating services for dyslexia and other linguistic disorders by encouraging research in neuro- and psycholinguistics. I would also ask them to arrange for a proper linguistic survey of Pakistan on the lines of the great survey by George Grierson, almost a century back. Such a survey does have practical uses and it is being conducted in India. In this country, too, the Summer Institute of Linguistics did carry out a similar survey of the Northern Areas and Chitral and — though less thoroughly — of the Punjab too. But a proper survey is still awaited. If it comes into existence we can find out which linguistic community lives where and we can save dying languages. We can even educate children in their mother tongue and create linguistic provinces etc.
But this brings me to the points which I do not agree with. The whole tone of this document is that of building up KE at the expense of knowledge for its own sake. First, the HEC talks of recruiting and promoting people who practice KE (help in commercialising knowledge) by putting them in a new kind of tenure track system in which their activities will be treated ‘equivalent to papers produced or teaching load’. This is shocking! How can any activity be the equivalent of pure academic work. And that, too, in a university — the only institution where nothing but scholarly work should be valued as the rest of the society values money and power anyway.
Secondly, the paper suggests that by July 2014, “all research and development grants” will be indexed to its impact on the “economy and society”. That bit about society may give some loophole to put in some social science research after sexy packaging in the fashionable jargon of development, but the economy side shows the bias against non-utilitarian research. Personally, when I think of undertaking a research activity, the last thing I have in mind is whether it would have an effect on ‘society’ or ‘economy’. All that drives me is the desire to find answers. If someone finds them useful we are in luck but if not; then so be it. Research for me is like playing chess; I do it for pleasure and not for any HEC requirement or for the nation or what have you. And I am not the only person who enjoys research and does it for the fun of it. There are hundreds of biographies of scientists and scholars which bear testimony to this very attitude of mind. Indeed, this is the only real basis of all really cutting edge, paradigm-changing original research. This is the goose which lays the golden eggs and this new emphasis on utilitarian research will kill it. I think all genuine scholars should protest against such a move and prevent the HEC from making us the mere merchants of saleable knowledge.
Yet another shocker is that by 2017, guest lecturers from “fields of practice” — a euphemism for retired bureaucrats, generals, ambassadors, politicians, industrialists and bankers — will lead lectures and seminars in universities at all levels (up to 60 per cent even). Now, while I agree that their input has its uses, they are generally not aware of the theory. Moreover, rarely have any of them kept in touch with the latest literature, which proliferates in the field. So, they may be guests-in-residence and occasional lecturers (if permitted by the academic responsible for the course) or guest lecturers in open lectures, but they cannot be invited to teach proper student courses. This is insulting to academics and must always be resisted.
There are so many other things one finds objectionable: that by 2015 universities must have at least two contract or collaborative research agreements; that vice chancellors should be taught to be ‘business-like’ in their thinking; that all students should do a mandatory enterprise module and so on. Indeed, the whole idea seems to be to further sideline genuine scholars and produce businessmen in our universities. And, of course, the language is that of command. Universities are assumed not to be autonomous and HEC is assumed to be the central controlling authority for all universities. When did universities lose their autonomy? Am I — who has always supported some of the changes of the HEC since 2002 — responsible for creating a central authority which I never knew I was doing? I do not know. But I reject the methods proposed for the commercialisation of knowledge, though I accept the idea that we should sell whatever knowledge we can sell while retaining our primary right to do any kind of research without any botheration, whether somebody finds it useful or not.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 18th, 2012.