Invest in research: The way forward

There is no research culture as such in the country and researches seem to have confined to production of voluminous reports which lack thorough study, investigation and concrete conclusions

In mid-June I got an opportunity to present a keynote paper on avenues of engineering for the next decade. The participants did listen to me but had some questions like how a plan for the whole next decade in engineering research might work. Indeed, it is a bit awkward plan — if we think of having something in our hand instantly, the plan is certainly going to be but clumsy.

The basic fact is: without due research, it is impossible to achieve pivotal challenges of our times.

The Melamchi drinking water project is an example. Had there been a thorough research before starting the project, we would have by now sufficient water in Kathmandu. The moot point is anything carried out without proper research will never yield desired results.

What is research then?

Is it jumbling everything together to produce a voluminous report to make someone look genius? Or is it something that “elites and neo-elites” discuss between sips of drinks as they wish everyone to pay attention to them? No. On the contrary, research is something which carries immense details that can bring about transformative changes in communities and the nation.

I would like to share what a renowned minister recently had to say.

He was of the view that Nepal “needs researches which can produce as many patents as possible”. That can literally mean if we mix some water from Bagmati with an acid, we can find a solution which was never found before.

Okay, even if that is the case, let’s ask a simple question: What does that do to human civilisation at this point of time — and in the long run? I would rather say Nepal should stop focusing on basic research at least for a decade. Rather we should make efforts on implementing the applied ones. Many people working on basic research might take umbrage at this.

Our quest for a prosperous and progressive state will materialise only when we focus on “first things first”. That is, we must identify our problems first and then aim to solve them.

Many of the self-styled researchers today live in echo chambers. While they continue to throw their ideas here and there, they even harbour the notion that everyone should listen to — and follow — them. This simply divides the society — there are either “for” or “against” views. They leave no space for informed debate and discussions.

For example, “a new international airport” has driven a wedge in Nepal — there are some people who say it must be there and others are saying there should not be one. The self-styled researchers are no better. Nor are they doing any good to society. Same is with the case of public transport. Or, there are some people who are never tired of pontificating on what all can ensure safety during earthquakes and what cannot. Do they even realise what their premise is when they are making such statements? The main question is why the government or agencies are willing to fund projects that do not believe in research. Why are not they willing to cross the “shooting through the air” paradigm and shift towards in-depth and responsible researches?

Due to their clumsiness, some tech-savvies draft or reproduce the same old report to address issues surrounding dozens of projects. In most of the reports, the findings are nothing but repetition as they usually do not give a solid conclusion. The suggestions may end like: “maybe a good choice”.

Here lies the loophole. Some day if they have to defend themselves, they would say “our conclusion was just a ‘maybe’.” This seems to be working fine with the government and its agencies, for such researches benefit everyone except the taxpayers.

How to circumvent the hazard then?

The approach would be easy for Nepal. Every project must pass through the research process, and such researches should be done by ethical and experienced researchers. They may be from universities as well. This way the outcome will be outstanding, the ethics would be restored and the people’s faith in the government, agencies, academicians and researchers would remain intact.

If someone says s/he is a researcher, people tend to ask: “Does this mean you advocate others’ agenda?” This is so obvious that most of the so-called elite researchers who are recognised today are “funded” and they advocate someone’s built-in agenda only.

Millions of people across the globe are helping their countries cope with the current problems. In Nepal, neither the government — and its agencies — nor the people believe that research can transform the society. There is an utter lack of authenticity.

For instance, immediately after the 2015 earthquake, many self-declared earthquake experts came up with their views saying “these certain structures will collapse and these many will survive” in the event of another major quake. They even went on to say that there won’t be another major quake for another 80 years, or so on and so forth. People tend to believe them. But the question is who would be responsible for the damage as a result of such miscalculations. It’s high time that the government started working on projects based on facts established by researches rather than conjectures. Furthermore, academicians and researchers should now speak out and put their foot down to hammer home the point that any project or effort made without proper research would fail.

Gautam is researcher at Interdisciplinary Research Institute for Sustainability