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Centres of excellence must build on strong research communities

Many countries are pursuing a policy of setting up centres of research excellence within universities, as inter-university centres or stand-alone institutes, often as part of a strategy to improve not just research but also teaching and innovation. But centres of excellence may not always be a panacea for upgrading science, research and teaching in developing countries, the OECD experts meeting in Marseille heard.

A country must have “a strong science system and education system”, as well as excellent universities and research. “Without that, trying to impose centres of excellence as a policy measure might backfire,” said Venni V Krishna, professor of science policy in the school of social sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Krishna’s study on India’s experience of centres of excellence was presented at the meeting organised by the OECD’s programme on Innovation, Higher Education and Research for Development – IHERD – held in Marseille from 1-2 July.

“A country needs to develop a scientific research climate and research innovation ecosystem for a certain period of time, then try to build excellence. Only then will it be able to reap the benefits,” Krishna said.

African countries, for example, will first need a few good universities with good laboratories and to develop a local scientific community in two to three areas of research, before setting up a centre of excellence.

“If the country doesn’t have a worthwhile scientific community, if it is not publishing science, if it is not publishing research, what is the use of having centres of excellence? It will remain a kind of oasis,” Krishna told University World News.

India’s experience

India has successfully set up a number of centres of excellence.

Some are based at universities geared towards professionalising and advancing research and training in specific areas of science, technology and social science. Others are centres within government science-oriented agencies, geared towards research, innovation and specialised services in new technologies.

While sponsored by the science-oriented ministries, most of the centres of excellence are based at specialised academic research institutes such as the Indian institutes of technology and the Indian Institute for Science in Bangalore.

While India does not spend as much on R&D as many industrially advanced countries, the money it has provided has been as long-term financial support for the centres, which is important for continuity.

Despite a push by the government to develop research at the university level – in part due to pressure from international university rankings, in which India performs relatively poorly – Krishna said there was no evidence to show that one system is better than the other.

“We don’t see any kind of difference between the academic output located within universities or outside them in terms of the quality of the research and the knowledge,” he said.

Because international rankings include a number of indicators, including internationalisation – on which India does not score well – Krishna believes rankings do not reflect research quality alone.

But modern science is very capital intensive. “Even if you get to the professional level, you need to constantly pump in money.” With half of India’s science budget being spent on atomic energy and space research, these areas of research are world class, he pointed out.

Despite a lack of infrastructure compared to European public universities, some Indian centres of excellence, Krishna believes, are on a par with top universities like Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics in the intellectual quality of social science research.

Professionalising research

But some centres of excellence have fizzled out in India – notably mathematics research at Banaras Hindu University – and a few are a pale shadow of their former selves because they relied heavily on strong individual intellectual leadership.

Professionalising and institutionalising research is important to building a research community. “The intellectual culture and professional culture which was centred on the research leader was not able to become institutionalised over a period of time. So when they [the leaders] left, those excellence centres started crumbling,” Krishna said.

“But if you look at Cambridge and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, individual elite scientists become unimportant and the system is very important. No matter what happens, the system continues to maintain that excellence.”

Centres of excellence can be based around fundamental science or more applied sciences and innovation, but the goals must be clear.

The university-based centres are not specifically directed to promote technological innovation, university-industry relations or transfer of knowledge to create new firms, according to Krishna’s paper, but to strengthen research quality in particular spheres.

These goals can be long-term, mainly fundamental research such as India’s space programme, or medium-term or shorter-term research designed to solve particular problems.

“In biotechnology, India has been building postgraduate research centres, teaching and research centres in 35 universities and the government of India’s Department of Biotechnology funded them for 30 to 40 years and did not ask questions of what is coming out of it.

“After 30 years we realised we had an excellent biotechnological base in agriculture, health and pharmaceuticals, because the money had gone into it.”

Goal-oriented research

The second type of research in centres of excellence is strategic, such as research into nuclear or atomic energy, aimed at developing areas with economic returns in the medium or long term.

But there is also research that needs to show results in the short term, such as in urban development, transport and telecommunications, where solutions need to be found swiftly.

“There are more than 960 million mobile phones in use in India for 1.2 billion people. But from mobiles you will have to go into higher grade and integrate and increase the internet intensity within these mobiles and create information technology for development – health, nutrition and so on,” Krishna argued.

“But even in the short-term you need excellence because without excellent systems you won’t manage 950 million mobiles. It’s a gigantic network.”

Krishna warned that for top research “there can’t be a universal policy tool to develop centres of excellence. Every country has its own national socio-cultural context within which centres of excellence would come up.”

Countries like Britain and Germany are engaged in global ‘frontier’ research while African countries would be looking at local and national frontiers. These would nonetheless be centres of excellence.

In Africa a policy of creating centres of excellence would mean institutionalisation and professionalisation of science, developing links between universities and reaching certain standards and quality.
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