Saturday, September 08, 2007

Whither change?

The Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) lets out a rant on decline in social science research in a recent editorial in the journal. Read it here.

At the outset, the editorial lays out a sound argument which caught my attention and interest:
It is an irony of sorts that at a time when far-reaching changes are taking place in India’s society, economy and politics, we have an inadequate understanding of the underlying processes and larger trends. The unseating of the established order of things over the past two decades as evidenced in, for example, the assertion of the backward castes and dalits, the rise of the market economy and the jettisoning of single party rule, are a few of the many changes that should have excited social science research in India.
In a nutshell, three things seem to carry the blame for the condition- the deteriorating level of higher education, the rise of private and international funding, and a lack of funds.

The editor seems to carry a vendetta for privately funded research, often going overboard on its criticism. For instance, competitive bidding for research funds is projected as an "unhealthy practice...which has naturally contributed to the dilution of quality". I would like to understand how a merit-based distribution of funds would affect the quality of research.

A recent set of recommendations from the ICSSR (Indian Council of Social Science Research) seems to fall in the editor's favor. However, I cant help notice that all the three main proposals (increased funding, restructuring the bureaucracy, and promoting research) are staid and cannot be, I imagine, much different than what the recommendations would have been in the 1980s or the 1960s. While the field of social science research is, by its very nature, likely to stay a largely publicly-funded phenomenon in the future, that is no justification for a fixation on a singular bureaucracy and dismissal of alternative routes towards the goal of better research products.

To paraphrase a line from the editorial itself: I find it ironical that at a time when far-reaching changes are taking place in India's society, economy and politics, the editor of EPW and his friends at ICSSR seem to be caught in a time-wrap.

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