Researchers with conviction and courage can make a difference

The young chimp that learns to use a blade of grass to effectively ‘fish’ for termites is learning through 'research’! 

We as fellow primates have come a long way from ‘blading’ for termites, but we easily misuse and abuse the powerful tool of research we have co-created. 

We can take empty pride in using research to stock pile weapons of mass destruction and celebrate guns and their inventors (aka AK 47s). 
 
Inventions that breed violence and can literally wipe us out and our primate cousins! 

We are also actively deploying our own ‘blades of grass’ to decimate our habitat. 
 
On the contrary, research has helped us prolong our lives and improve its quality. 

It has helped bridge vast distances and cultures, connect with fellow creatures of the planet using exciting discoveries in science and technology. 
 
Research has helped us rightly question and think through our regressive values and norms. 
 
But so much of research done today seems a waste of precious effort and public money, not just for it shoddiness, but more for its irrelevance to and inequity it breeds in society.
 
Professor Vasant Natarajan from the India Institute of Sciences, Bangalore admits that most researchers conduct research that has very little relevance locally, but then excuses the researcher by holding the system that rewards irrelevant research responsible. 
 
The system definitely needs to be changed, but researchers with conviction and courage can make a difference. 
 
We need a serious rethink to rebuild justice and relevance into our research systems and endeavours.
 
As researchers, are we willing to first ask who benefits and for what before we start our research? 
 
As researchers, we are often driven by a kind of peer-pressure to conform. Pleasing and meeting the expectation of our peers becomes a dominating motivation for research.
 
Therefore the questions we ask tends to remain in the realm of theory alone, with very little relevance or salience to society. 
 
We ask questions that test one theory versus another, but we are not able to really engage with either the implications or applications of research to current needs or future risks. 
 
Perhaps, it is not intellectually exciting enough, among other things. 

Second, we are often seduced by what can be commercialised, what is flashy and avant garde. 

These generally tend to be antithetical to research that moves us towards an equitable and just society, although they are not always mutually exclusive. 

Of course, the mundane motivations of the availability of funds also influence the kind of questions we ask. 
 
It takes unusual courage and commitment to stand against the larger political economy of fund flows for research. 
 
There are happily exceptions to all these, and hope these exceptions become the new norm - relevance for whom and at what cost? 
 
Are we willing to look for relevance in what we do by starting from the real problems on the ground that advance the common good?
 
New paradigm
 
Being relevant needs new ways to collaborate and break down the conventional academic ways of pursuing independent, highly individualistic research. 
 
The new paradigm of research calls for a new kind of collaboration not just between disciplines but also between other actors in society – the users of research. 
 
Researcher need to be willing to listen to peers from other disciplines, domains and other actors. 

Are we willing to listen to the traditional knowledge keepers and researchers? Are we willing to explore and restructure conventional frames to absorb other epistemological constructs of reality? 

Are we willing to rethink ‘relevance’? 
 
How does one ensure and measure rigour? Rigour is necessary, but one glove does not fit all. Rigour in such relevant research cannot be measured merely by either the relative number of obtuse words or the complexity of the equations used. 

Can our peers provide rigorous feedback to sustain quality and invoke new insights where research is relevant to society? 
 
We have to develop new context-specific ways of measuring rigour. 
 
In such relevant research that bridges the problem on the ground with new ways of analysis and diagnosis, rigour will probably take on new forms. 
 
Measuring impact of research over space and time is another pesky problem. Of course, publishing papers alone is hardly a measure of our impact. 

Impact, the research community puts a lot of stock in the ‘Impact factor’ of journal. 

The impact factor primarily quantifies the number of times a particular paper has been cited by others, and it does not differentiate who the other is. 

Perhaps journal editors need to come up with a measure of relevance to a diverse group of users rather than just research peers, which is what the impact factor generally measures. 
 
In conclusion, in the pursuit of relevant research as a public good, there is no substitute for tapping into the creative potential in humans. 

Our innate curiosity and the thirst for learning are innate drivers for good research.

Couple that with a good dose of imagination, and useful innovations will result in research. 
 
Of course practicing that rare human virtue that we call ‘humility’, seeing ourselves as those who have received what we know from those who have gone before corrects a divisive self-promoting arrogance as researchers. 
 
As researchers committed to the public good we will advance a humane and just society.

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