Effective research environment in academia and industry

Dr Mohammad Abbas Uddin,  Assistant Professor, Bangladesh University of Textiles (BUTEX) Technical Editor of Bangladesh Textile Today     
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Education is a journey towards unknown. A researcher is supposed to deal with this unknown situation and phenomena and let it be known to the world. Tackling these unknown is itself a very difficult task, as it requires passion, dedication, hard work and perseverance. Contrary to popular belief, most researchers fail 99 percent of the time and therefore, the 1 percent of the success usually very welcoming for the researcher. This motivates the researcher to continuously move further on working unknown. The satisfaction and joy that brings after conducting a successful experiment knows no bound.

However, one of the most challenging aspects of conducting research in Bangladesh for both academia and industry is the research environment. The universities are nowhere in the ranking, and the industry does not have the patience nor the trust on the universities to solve their problem through research. Almost everyone wants a quick fix with very less inclination to provide adequate fund and time to come into a suitable solution. A researcher needs to be loved and mentored and guided in an environment that nurtures the creativity. Research is driven by the mindset of researchers. Collaboration and constant challenges within the internal and external peers facilitate the process.

Research Excellence Framework (REF), which is the system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions, considers research environment as the combination of strategy, people, income, infrastructure facilities, collaboration and contribution to the discipline. In that context University of Sheffield in the UK defined an effective research environment as ‘one which supports the behaviors and practices that are expected in world-leading research environments, as well as supporting world-leading research of the highest quality. Glorianna Davenport, Principal Research Scientist of MIT Media Laboratory articulated that a good research environment required three essential elements: Creativity, Openness and Sociability. Therefore, new faculties are encouraged to redefine their ideas with a five/ten/ or even fifteen – year horizon leaving their past work behind.

Bland and Ruffin (1992) have conducted extensive review of articles and books on the research productivity from 1960s to 1990s. They have identified 12 consistent set of characteristics were found in research-conducive environments: (1) clear goals that serve a coordinating function, (2) research emphasis, (3) distinctive culture, (4) positive group climate, (5) assertive participative governance, (6) decentralized organization, (7) frequent communication, (8) accessible resources, particularly human, (9) sufficient size, age, and diversity of the research group, (10) appropriate rewards, (11) concentration on recruitment and selection, and (12) leadership with research expertise and skill in both initiating appropriate organizational structure and using participatory management practices. Reviewing above in Bangladeshi context is very difficult as, in my opinion, most of them are not prevalent in our social context. However, it is possible that a clear goal with policy, continuous communication, encouraging collaboration, providing funds and resources, awarding researcher and finally a bold and visionary leadership are essential.

In this context, I would like to distinguish between role of academia and industry based on the types of researches those need to be conducted. As a developing country and also trend in worldwide, the most focus is on the applied research i.e. to solve a particular problem with existing knowledge or create a new application based on the known field. However, all these existing knowledge and known field were usually outcome of fundamental research. The OECD defined fundamental research is primarily to attain new knowledge of the underlying foundations of phenomena without regard for a particular application.

Many of the important applications, which was not anticipated at the time, was led by fundamental research output. Fundamental studies of electromagnetic fields by Hertz and Maxwell led to invention of radio and television, was unimaginable during the time of research. Similarly fundamental research by W. H. Carothers (1928 to 1937) at DuPont led to discovery of first synthetic fibre, Nylon which revolutionized the fibre world. Most often than not, the time period between fundamental discovery and eventual application are long compared to the applied research, therefore, not encouraged or pursued. Fundamental research is inherently a high-risk and high-cost processes with no end goal in sight. Therefore, universities are the best places to provide an independent environment for fundamental research because they are supposed to be free of bias towards a desired outcome. It is comparatively easier to provide the infrastructure needed to conduct fundamental research.

The decision makers in an institution should be visionary and at least 20 years ahead of time. Given the complexity and multidisciplinary nature of research in today’s environment, collaboration is the key. Hence encouragement to participate in local and international conference through travel grant and/or full payment of salary; assistance in taking a short or long term post as post doctorate researcher, research associates; agreement for faculty/student exchange in research lab could be the key to unleash potential. Position should also be created to invite visiting researchers/scientists from abroad to work in local laboratory for three to six months, a platform for many young faculty/student/researchers to learn in hands-on approach. This is an investment that universities, particularly, had to make to be ahead of the game. Universities should target ranking in 15 to 20 years in terms of research and learning and but split into more meaningful and achievable target, for example, 20 to 100 articles (depending on the university profile) in an international peer reviewed publication where experiment/study has taken place inside the respective campus.

The government of Bangladesh is trying to build a culture of research by providing funds and initiatives. Every university is allocated a sizeable amount of research fund but most of the research funds are going back due to the bureaucratic procedure and paperwork, which hinders the momentum and creativity. The government also taken initiatives like to establish ‘Innovation Hub’ at every university under the Access to Information (a2i) programme of the Prime Minister’s Office to ‘encourage students to develop new ideas to resolve civic problems’. Similarly an ‘innovation lab’ (http://a2i.pmo.gov.bd/innovation-lab/ ) has been established to tackle  biggest challenges faced by society and people (in issues like employment, disability rights, and agriculture) by fostering a hands-on, action-oriented for a team brilliant research to  devise innovative solutions for the country. University Grants Commission (UGC) of Bangladesh, on behalf of the Ministry of Education (MoE), is also currently implementing the Bangladesh Research and Education Network (BdREN, http://www.bdren.net.bd/) under HEQEP with assistance from World Bank. It will be a high performance data Communications network providing connectivity among education and research institutions in both public and private sectors.

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