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How the Indian Government Can Help Improve the Ease of Doing Research

How the Indian Government Can Help Improve the Ease of Doing Research

The following article was originally published by the author on Medium and has been republished here with permission, in full with light edits for style.

The Department of Science and Technology (DST), along with the Principal Scientific Advisor (PSA) to the Government of India recently started a new initiative to draft a new ‘Science, Technology and Innovation Policy’ (STIP), scheduled to be released in 2020. Apparently, it has been a while since an official STI policy has been put out; the last one was in 2013.

The Science Policy Forum (SPF) has been organising a number of events to gather feedback from various stakeholders in the Indian STI ecosystem, before providing a policy draft for public consultation. Personally, I prefer a stakeholder driven process much more than the traditional, top-down mechanism for pushing out policies, which is the common case in India. The top-down approach fails to take into account real issues faced by actual stakeholders. And any policy that fails to account for variation in the experiences of stakeholders is bound to fail.

So far, I have attended two events. The first was the inaugural STIP Townhall meet and the second one was the thematic panel on R&D ecosystem. At the inaugural event, top officials, including the Secretary DST, Prof. Ashutosh Sharma, PSA to the GoI, Prof K VijayRaghavan and head of STIP/DST Dr Akhilesh Gupta came together on a public forum and provided details, timelines and committee memberships of the process. It was extremely heartening to see a concerted effort towards making the drafting process as transparent as possible.

There was an overall consensus from all panelists that things need to be done differently than they have been in the past. The process of devising this policy needs to be more inclusive, and should incorporate honest feedback from various stakeholders. Everyone admitted that bulk of the support for R&D activities, including outreach is being provided to a small number of centrally funded institutions, and that institutions where most of India studies – the state and private universities – need to be provided equal opportunities and a level playing field. The second event was the thematic panel on research & development ecosystem.

I believe myself to be a stakeholder in all three parts (S, T and I) of the ecosystem represented by the policy. However, in this piece, I want to focus on the science and technology (S&T) and provide some perspective and feedback from a researcher’s perspective. In order for the new policy to work well, it should focus on what I would like to call the ease of doing research.

Producing new knowledge

Scientific research is done by humans. Fancy equipment, novel data analysis techniques and everything else that powers scientific research are only as good as the humans behind those machines. Empirical sciences are effort intensive: they require experiments to be designed, data to be collected and analysed. Eventually, in the event of a new finding, the final results have to be communicated to the world in some form. All of this requires a tremendous amount of human effort.

In S&T research, a bulk of this effort is put in by the frontline workers of research everywhere: PhD and other research students, research and support staff, and the principal investigators (PIs) and co-PIs of the research project. In fact, the amount of time (and hence human effort) spent carrying out experiments for theories that don’t pan out sometimes far outweigh the successful experiments.

At the heart of this human effort is time, and that is the currency in the academic world. There are many things that researchers based in academic institutions need to do: teach courses, advise students both under- and postgraduate, committee service both institutional and of the profession, grants to write and reports to submit. All of these take substantial amounts of time. In addition, producing knowledge in the form of research is not trivial: a lot of time needs to be spent reading existing literature, generating ideas, setting up and carrying out experiments, analysing data, and so on. It is this side of any R&D project that advances human knowledge.

The other side of carrying out research is the administrative one. This requires hiring staff, purchasing equipment, writing and providing project progress reports and presentations and creating budget utilisation certificates, among a myriad other things. Although important to maintain accountability, especially for taxpayer funded projects, these could end up taking a large fraction of the time of the PIs and project staff. The amount of paperwork that needs to be filed for projects funded by government agencies will merit a complete blog post, if not a book chapter, by themselves. If not checked, too much focus on these activities ends up taking time away from the real aspect any research project: producing new knowledge.

As a result, I believe that the new STI policy should strive towards maximally utilising this human effort, and making sure that frontline workers in the R&D ecosystem spend their time on scientific endeavours and not other, administrative tasks, which are many, especially for R&D projects funded by government agencies. This calls for the policy to focus on ease of doing research, for all researchers involved in a project.

Most suggestions that follow are based on either personal experience or on the experiences of researchers in the Indian R&D ecosystem, and are primarily geared towards government funding agencies, since they currently fund a majority of the S&T research in India. Some of the ideas highlighted below may seem prescriptive, but that is the point of highlighting them before a policy draft.

In order to enable good research, there is a simple rule that needs to be followed: put people first (PPF). Once this is taken care of, many – hopefully good – things will follow.

Photo: eak_kkk/pixabay

1. Reduce paperwork

I don’t think this needs much explanation. The amount and frequency of administrative paperwork that needs to filed, especially for government-funded projects, is too high and unwarranted, and should be reduced as much as possible. I will paraphrase a quote from Prof Gagandeep Kang during the thematic panel on research & development ecosystem that will succinctly provide adequate feedback on this issue: “I have spent my entire career avoiding having to seek government funding.”

2. Release funds, timely

Scientific staff are frontline workers of R&D projects, and it is imperative that their needs be take care of. These include providing promised salaries, benefits, etc., on time. Timeliness is extremely important. If researchers, including PhD students, are worried about getting their monthly stipend on time, research is not going to be their top priority. There are multiple reasons for these delays. Many times, administrative processing at the funding agency delays the on-time release (sometime by many months) of funds to the institutions, which results in delays for researchers.

These situations should be completely avoided. The agencies should make sure to release the money on time, as promised. This is easily achievable with a bit of advance planning, especially if the money earmarked for the projects is available with the agencies. Best practices for these events are adopted by a number of agencies in the world, and can be easily adapted to the Indian ecosystem. Delays in release of funds from the funding agency should be the exception, not the norm.

Also read: CSIR Scholars Complain They Haven’t Been Paid for Several Months

3. Provide feedback on proposals

Many times, a proposal submitted to a funding agency is rejected without providing any feedback to the PI. Sometimes, the feedback is provided too late. Even more commonly, the feedback is not very useful. Any reasonable researcher expects many of their proposals to get rejected. However, every researcher expects feedback regarding why a proposal was rejected. Not providing feedback is analogous to disrespecting the time that PIs put into writing the proposal, which is substantial.

As a matter of policy, it should be made mandatory to provide every proposal a timely, technical, peer-reviewed feedback. No proposal should be accepted or rejected without providing feedback to the authors. If a proposal was rejected due to deficiencies in the idea, point them out. If there are many good proposals for the call, but not enough money – tell that to the PI. Or if the proposal’s goal don’t align with the call, maybe include things like, “If you could change the proposal to incorporate so-and-so, we’d consider funding it.”

But feedback is crucial, and there is no reason why providing feedback as a matter of policy should not be enforced.

4. Civility and mutual respect should be the norm, not exceptions

I have heard a few stories regarding project presentations in front of the committees where potential PIs were treated badly, if not with disrespect. These situations should be avoided at any cost. Many times, (real or perceived) disrespect is caused due to miscommunication. Other times, it is due to lack of training of the support staff dealing with such matters. Most of these can be solved by providing appropriate training to all involved parties, and conveying information clearly and well in advance.

For example, if there is an update presentation scheduled, it should be made sure that all details regarding the time, venue, directions, etc. are communicated to everyone well in advance so that they can make appropriate arrangements. Sending a message to someone sitting in Delhi to do an in-person presentation the next day in Jorhat can and should be avoided. Again, this can be relatively easily achieved with a bit of advance planning.

This need for respect goes both ways. The new PIs and researchers should also be sensitised to be respectful towards colleagues from funding agencies.

5. Provide mentoring

Lack of formal mentoring mechanisms for young and early career researchers is one of the biggest challenges in the Indian R&D ecosystem. Very few institutions have formal mentorship programs. As a result, most incoming researchers are left to figure things out for themselves, which is not only time-consuming but also very confusing given the bureaucratic nature of the paperwork involved.

As a result, significant portion of a new PI’s time is spent figuring out the system, which should have ideally been spent doing research, teaching or communicating results. Some of this can be made simpler, if formal training programs are provided for all the new (or first-time) PIs being funded by an agency. Not only will this help save the new PIs time and energy, it will also help build relationships with the programme managers of various programs, which for most PIs are either a voice on the phone or an email address.

6. Incorporate feedback from early-career researchers

If systems are to improve for the better, taking and incorporating timely feedback regularly from relevant stakeholders is of utmost importance. In this context, stakeholders who would have the most relevant feedback are the ones who are navigating the system for the first time: early-career researchers, postdocs, assistant professors – essentially everybody who has been recently inducted into the Indian R&D ecosystem.

These people are writing their first grants and dealing with the funding agencies for the first time. They are also learning to manage research grants, while dealing with the administrative overheads for various funding agencies. Since they are new to the system, this is the group of people who would have the most relevant feedback. PIs who have been a part of the system for a while might not feel the pain points as acutely as early-career researchers, since they might have figured out their own ways of navigating the system.

It is important that the cohort of researchers to seek feedback from should also include PIs from state and private universities, and should not be confined to PIs from CFTIs[footnote]Centrally Funded Technical Institutes [/footnote] and other such institutions. The set of problems faced by each group of researchers is different, and it is important that the feedback of a diverse a set of PIs is sought.

7. Take feedback regarding programme managers’ performance

As a part of incorporating feedback from early-career researchers, it is important that their feedback be sought about their experience with their respective programme managers. This is similar to teaching evaluations that faculty members in colleges and universities receive from their students.

Many companies carry out a 360-degree survey of their employees, where a few co-workers of the employee being evaluated are sent an anonymous feedback form requesting feedback on the performance of the employee along certain axes. For example, the co-workers might not be able to comment on the technical aptitude of an employee, but might be able to provide feedback regarding said employee’s ability to work in a team.

A similar feedback regarding the performance of the programme manager should be sent to a small subset of the PIs that are being handled by the person. This feedback can potentially be incorporated in the annual review of the programme manager’s performance appraisal, if there is one.

Provide the officials from the agencies with all the support that they need to do the job well, including more support staff and specialised training. Research management is a specialisation in itself, and should be treated as such. Hiring someone with no experience in managing research projects (and, frankly, academics) for such a job without providing them with specialised training is setting them up for failure.

8. Separate research- and paperwork-related responsibilities

As it stands today, PIs are responsible for executing the research component of the project, and are the single point of contact for submitting myriad forms of administrative paperwork that each funding agency requires. This is counterproductive and leads to significant amounts of time being wasted carrying out administrative requirements, rather than being involved in the scientific process.

The fix is relatively simple. In addition to the the PI/co-PIs, the funding agency should also ask for a single point of contact from the institution for every grant. This person, who would be part of the institutional administration, would be responsible for creating, submitting or uploading the required paperwork on time. Rather than directing all the paperwork requests towards the PI, this institutional official would be responsible for submitting the paperwork. The online processes can also be changed accordingly.

9. Hire the right person for the job, train them well

Administrative officials at both institutions and funding agencies are hired for a particular position, but are typically not provided with the requisite training to be able to do their job well. For example, if an institution hires a person to manage all its research projects, but is not able to provide this individual with the project management training, or various processes of managing a particular type of research grant, the institution is setting them up for failure. Similarly, hiring a single person for a role that will typically require the effort and expertise of two or three different types of people would also be ill-advised.

Finally, it would be best to hire people with the right set of skills for a particular role. For example, it might not make a sense to hire a person with a PhD and no administrative and managerial experience to be a programme manager at a funding agency. It would be folly to assume that good scientists or researchers would make for good scientific administrators.

Also read: Is There an Indian Way of Doing Science?

Final note

I am in no way arguing for reduced accountability from researchers and PIs. The researchers need to be held accountable for the task that they had taken up. However, allowing researchers to focus their time on tasks directly related to research will not only help produce better research but will also help develop the overall R&D ecosystem in India.

Just in case the wall of text is too much to read, the infographic below summarises the entire post:

Image: Manu Awasthi. Click here to enlarge.

Manu Awasthi is an associate professor of computer science, Ashoka University, Sonepat. Read the original article here. The views expressed here are the author’s own.

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