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The importance of 'research on research'

The inexorable advance of the Knowledge Society and Knowledge Economy - both fuelled by higher education, research and innovation (HERI) systems that have undergone profound changes in the past decade - have made 'research on research' increasingly important to all countries, whatever their level of development. A new meta-dynamic that has emerged has been the observation and study of 'knowledge systems' in which higher education, research and innovation activities have converged and become strategically interlinked.

It is now widely held that meta-analysis of crucial knowledge systems is key to understanding the Knowledge Society, writes Mary-Louise Kearney, Director of the UNESCO Forum on Higher Education, Research and Knowledge, in its just-published Research Report. "This involves analysis of the current methodologies used to assess these systems, and the eventual design of alternatives better suited to different social contexts."

All countries have had to review and reorganise their capacities to access and benefit from the high-level knowledge that today shapes social change.

"For those with weak or non-existent capacity in this area, the risk of marginalisation has accelerated sharply. Since 2007, the current global economic and financial crisis has wreaked havoc on many well-established institutions, thus altering the landscape of wealth and stability within a very short time-span," Kearney argues.

"Yet despite this harsh reality, the global and irrevocably interconnected nature of society in the 21st Century remains fundamentally unchanged. Protectionism may well re-emerge, but technology has rendered our interdependence irreversible. As a result, the search for more effective local, national and regional solutions must operate in tandem with ongoing global transformations, including those with unknown and possibly negative outcomes."

New dynamics

New dynamics that have emerged in higher education in the past decade include increasing demand, diversification of provision, changing lifelong learning needs, and growing use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) as well as enhanced networking and social engagement - with the economic sector and with the larger community.

In scientific research the core issue is the tension between basic and applied research, which links to the 'think global, act local' challenge. "This necessitates more flexibly organised research systems, and pragmatic approaches which promote 'Big Science' while also nurturing science which serves society in the widest sense," Kearney writes.

In innovation, the dynamic comprises 'research for innovation' and 'research on innovation'. Exponential growth in partnerships between governments, the economic sector and higher education have linked new knowledge to development goals, and much innovation is also occurring outside academia. "Research system experts must understand the critical factors involved in order to advance this process."

Importance of knowledge

Knowledge production systems today involve a vast range of entities including universities, public laboratories, research centres, think-tanks, the private sector and the military complex. The Research Report shows that in the past decade these systems have transformed to emerge as the main motors of development, in a process that has also changed the landscape of higher education - especially the university sector.

Countries worldwide face growing demands to strengthen their capacities for research and knowledge production, despite vastly different political, socio-economic and cultural contexts and varying capacities to respond. This has often necessitated urgent efforts to renew higher education, and has made national knowledge-oriented institutions more important.

"Reinforcing research and higher education multiplies pressures on the funding, content and structures of knowledge systems," Kearney writes. "These challenges have become particularly overwhelming for middle- and low-income countries, thus increasing the risk of their further marginalisation."

There exists no single answer as to what constitute the most appropriate systems, structures or policies for higher education, research and innovation, Kearney adds. Conceivably, they could be structured in more effective ways, so experimentation should be encouraged and its findings widely debated and shared:

"The Knowledge Society varies widely in form and modus operandi, and this cultural diversity must be celebrated as an indicator of dynamism. For this reason, understanding local and indigenous knowledge through research is of the greatest importance."

Knowledge generated by research is the basis of sustainable development, which requires that knowledge be placed at the service of development, be converted into applications, and be shared to ensure widespread benefits.

But from a social development perspective, serious inequalities between knowledge systems remain and the 'knowledge divide' and 'research gap' problems must be urgently remedied. Discovering and accessing new frontiers of knowledge should be possible for all countries, but often requires highly-educated and skilled human capital and large-scale investment.

Poverty remains a reality in many nations - and even exists inside high-income countries - and sustained growth and productivity are proving elusive. "Until this battle is won, progress will remain the privilege of a minority; and winning will largely depend on equitable and affordable access to, and use of, relevant knowledge," Kearney writes.

Research by universities remains a prime source of knowledge and innovation. But in the past decade most industrialised states have faced the dual challenge of opening access to post-secondary education while ensuring adequate investment in high-level research and pursuing reforms to build world-class higher education systems with quality teaching and research.

Today, some 22 of the world's elite 25 research universities are in the US. American higher education deserves full credit, writes Kearney, but this monopoly cannot meet global research needs. For this reason, support for research universities has become a priority in OECD member countries.

A growing number of middle- and low-income countries now face similar dilemmas in their policy-making procedures. "Social justice would require that middle- and low-income countries not be allowed to fall behind in the knowledge stakes," Kearney argues.

Investment in research is increasing in emerging economies, such as Brazil, China, Singapore and South Africa, and many more nations are prioritising and committing more resources to higher education, research and innovation. There are success stories in all regions, and they are characterised by innovative policies, a will to improve, efforts to train and retain highly-skilled human capital, and increased investment. For instance, the number of research scientists and engineers in Singapore rose from 4,329 in 1990 to 11,596 in 2004.

But overall the situation of research universities in low-income countries is bleak, Kearney writes, and they are in need of rapid, effective solutions. "Even the poorest nations require research capacity, or access to research findings, to progress." She argues that support for the principle of a research university in these contexts is urgent, requires national commitment and must remain a major objective for international cooperation in the years ahead.

Access to knowledge is another domain where serious discrepancies persist, with damaging consequences for production and dissemination. Two areas affected are research productivity and ICT access: for instance, 5.9% of web hosting is done in developing countries that have 80.4% of the world population.

Indicators for research productivity (patents, scientific papers, numbers of active scientists etc) are also notoriously weak in middle- and low-income countries. "Until this situation improves, access to knowledge will remain inequitable and sustainable development a distant goal," Kearney writes.

Reaffirming the right to research

Progressive nations achieve and sustain levels of development through benefits that accrue from investment in knowledge. Is this sort of investment justified in middle- and low-income countries, whose knowledge systems are often extremely weak, given often overwhelming development problems? Kearney asks.

Several factors help to explain the reluctance of low-income countries to support research, such as: other areas require urgent attention; stress on basic education and health care; poor understanding of the results and long-term impact of research; and the 'catch-up' or 'leap-frog' strategy of adapting knowledge produced elsewhere.

But such approaches do not tackle underlying issues such as the desirability of every nation to build a solid research community, Kearney writes, or enable countries to reap important benefits such as:

* Contacts with international research.
* Provision of local analysis and advice.
* Identification of relevant research agendas.
* Critical thinking in higher education.
* Evidence-based criticism and debate for policy-making.
* Capacity to train future generations of researchers.
* Stimulation of national innovation systems.

Industrialised countries have 'systemic strength', with knowledge generated and disseminated from a solid, productive hub with diverse components. In developing countries knowledge-generation is often located in one or a few institutions that must take on all responsibilities.

Also, in middle- and low-income countries, opportunities to build a strong research base are often weakened by the dilution and redirection of potential research funding, rapid expansion of higher education to meet growing demand, and the fragmentation of research activities.

"This has various manifestations, including privileging the seemingly immediate returns on investment; a focus on application-driven project funding or on problem-oriented research cooperation to the exclusion of basic 'blue sky' research; and support for vertical programmes, thereby ignoring the integrally linked nature of the overall sustainable development process, whatever the social context in which it takes place," writes Kearney.

"The familiar catch words of relevance and utility need to be treated with caution." While 'relevance' is vital, useful knowledge is discovered in various ways, and is often the outcome of long-term and apparently esoteric research - the Internet is a good example. Also, Kearney argues, research has "an intrinsic monitoring and regulatory function" that can help anticipate catastrophic situations, such as research on climate change helping to build an early warning system in the Pacific.

Kearney stresses the many benefits of research cooperation, which "should be given priority attention at all levels". Global cooperation facilitates interaction and sharing of benefits, and enables varied analysis and conclusions supported by a broad base of evidence.

But participation requires solid research foundations, which cannot be substituted for research support for isolated or vertical programmes which cannot be resolved without a much wider repository of knowledge.

"Regional, national and local research strategies can guide the organisation of research and available resources, and assure interface with external research partners - including the donor community." The benefits include a clearly-defined research base, a logical choice of projects, coherent reporting and gradual building of a solid research foundation with an institutional base and credibility for international partners.

"Given these trends, the plight of the poorest countries becomes even more critical as they risk losing all connection to the research process around them," writes Kearney. "These states must plan for, and receive support for, at least one research-based university which has the capacity for research training; other institutions of higher learning may deal with the needs for professional training. Guinea Bissau, Haiti and Madagascar are three countries currently in dialogue with UNESCO for this purpose."


The first decade of the 21st Century is drawing to a close in the midst of a major social and economic crisis which should not be underestimated, Kearney concludes. "This state of affairs creates the latest dynamic for higher education, research and innovation systems: will gains in this area be further consolidated, or will the crisis cause a certain stagnation, or even regression, regarding progress achieved to date?

An excellent article and absolutely correct but, like many, ignores the fact that research is done by people - individual people. Much more time and energy must be put into discovering how to attract people into research and to provide them with optimum conditions for reasearch.

The present inexorable growth of bureaucratic control, interference, time wasting and 'picking winners' is killing research. Research is best enhanced by providing freedom to think. Resources now wasted on bureaucrats must be diverted back into research positions - a 'win win' change in direction - more research, less interference.

Adrian Gibbs
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