Reflection on ‘research’ and ‘ideas’

Intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of life or of his art
If its the later then he must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
— Andre Beteille
Most ‘reasonable’ Indian with a French name 
Learning as a shoreless sea; the learner’s days are few;
Prolonged study is beset with a thousand ills;
With clear discrimination learn what’s meet f o r you
Lake swan that leaves the water, drinks the milk.

circa 800 AD
Quoted in “Submodular Functions and Electrical Networks”
Few will disagree that ‘ideas’ play a crucial part in any sort of ‘research’. Here I do not want to define ‘research’ and ‘ideas’. Their most popular definitions will be enough to serve our purpose.

There are many more people who ‘consumes’ ‘ideas’ than those who produces them. This must not be taken in disapproving terms. Its always better to know pre-established ideas, it helps building new ideas in better ways. There will be less chances of an idea to be redundant or insignificant. It is to say that the best way to transcend any idea is to travel through it and not by jumping over it.

Though we have argued that knowing old ideas is important, but only knowing them will not serve anybody purpose. We need to have our own ideas also. Not only to produce multiplicities of views but also and more importantly to convince ourselves of our worth and intelligence.  One may romanticize great thinkers and scholars, but at the end of day, one has to find solace in his own work – no matter of whatever quality. It is recommended for an individual, and important for an society, that every one must have few original ideas. For those who wish to make a mark in academic, its rather much more important. Any self-proclaimed scholar without original ideas is like a comedian who is not ‘funny’, that is, he can not come up with his own jokes but rather steals or repack other’s and tell them in his style. But one must bear in mind that most of the ‘creative scholars’ are of the views and one must not be very obsessed with the ‘search of novelty’. Those who are only in search of novelty do not contribute much to his field.

Once a very prominent sociologist, Max Weber wrote that, ‘ideas come to us when they please and not when it pleases us!’ also they come to us ‘when we don’t expect them and not when we are brooding and searching for them.’  I agree with Max Weber, but I would surely want to make a more generalized remark about them. Ideas come to us when we are alone, in our own company. Ideas surely will not come to those who are 24×7 in the company of others, physically or mentally. It is not a hard conclusion to make since most of prominent thinkers of our time, loved to spend time with themselves. Like Estha in ‘The God of Small Things’,  they were ‘polite’ yet they did not have (many) friends. A society which puts a premium on privacy, must be the one who produces thinkers in large numbers.  In India, at least in my village, privacy is often seen in negative light. No wonders villages are ‘den of ignorance’.

If ideas do not come to us when it pleases us then surely one has to be ready for them. Here institutes must play a active part, to keep ‘an individual in readiness should  a new idea choose to come his way’ [Beteille, 2002].

I’d like to make a distinction between ideas and common sense, contrary to the common sense, that they are different – at least most of the time. Unlike ideas, ‘common sense does not question its own origin and presuppositions – at least deliberately and methodologically’. Also it is localized. It is bounded ‘by time, place, class, community and gender’ [Beteille 1996]. Fortunately, the effects of common sense while studying natural sciences are not as severe as they could be in the case of social sciences. Natural sciences protect themselves from individual’s common sense and eccentricity by using the language of mathematics.For example, the ‘whether a electron is wave of particle’ is a valid question as far as common sense is concerned. But when a single mathematical equation can describe electron behavior, this question become absurd. An electron is what its equation implies. Distinguishing between ‘wave’ and ‘particle’ is due to our common sense which has evolved our evolution in a world where ‘wave’ and ‘particles’ are considered different. Common sense make us incapable of digesting the unintuitive ideas. On the other hand, mathematics does not really care about intuitions though a great deal of math is done by intuitions.

Another worthy occupation in research is to criticize the idea. Even though most of the people do it after taking sides, still its worth it. If one loves an idea, one generally tends to support it by either suppressing its weakness or by high-lightening its strength and if one does not appreciate an idea very much, one tends to do opposite. In these kind of situations, its becomes rather imperative to rely on ‘theory’ and ‘tools’ than on ‘intuitions’. Any idea, if fails to translate itself into en equation, is not going to last very long. And also, of an idea can not stand criticism, its not worth defending it.

Another criticism ‘researchers’ generally face is whether the research they are doing have any social return. Are they doing socially relevant research? By socially relevant research they generally means ‘short term return’. In fact, this obsession with short term research has taken a form of epidemic. With rising clouts of industries over academia, situation has only worsen. It has troubled me by noticing that how comfortably directors of our research institutes glamorizes ‘socially relevant research’. Its not a job of researcher to provide solutions or give prescription for social problem. At best, she can do it to help people understand their problem better. Solutions of a particular problem generally creates 10 new problems. A problem can never be done with. At best one can contribute to the understanding of the subject by removing few hurdles in understanding. And no, I don’t think ‘development’ work done in industries are research. Nonetheless I do not deny their significance. But this ‘development’ has no business belittling the ‘research’ which our anccesstors were obsessed with.

Few have remarked that nothing very new of fundamental importance is coming out in the area of scholarships. Well, it depends how you look at it. In early 19’th century, few things were known for sure. Whatever someone did was ‘new’ and ‘fundamental’. Now it is almost impossible for anyone to dump everything whatever has been done and search for ‘novelty’. If there is chances of finding novelty, it can only be attained by going through a particular fields and not by jumping over it. Universities need to maintain a safe distance from industries if they dream to produce Raman and Bose.

Not every institute is well versed in every subject. Any Institutes can only afford to have a narrow bandwidth of research; nonetheless in teaching they can be quite generic. People are the most important resources in building up tradition of research in any institute. In India, although most of our scholars love to take advantage of the works done by best of the scholars outside India, have shown tremendous coldness towards work done by our own institutes. If they come back to India, they simply behave like that they are the first generation of researchers. In fact, foreigners are more open to cite Indian research than their NRI counterpart. No nation can flourish unless its habitant show a interest in building up a tradition of research using their own native resources.



Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

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