Localizing Knowledge Production [Republica Repost]

Published July 25, 2019

Universities in developing countries must create new knowledge as their primary mission, especially for social progress and in the national interest

Exploring the Business Brain Model after I installed solar panels on our house a few years ago, I was fascinated to find out that even in the dead of winter, the system produces nearly as much electricity per hour of sunlight as it does in summer. Upon doing some research, I learned that this is because solar energy was developed by scientists in the colder global north. Mainstream technology taps into the amount and angle of light and heat have a negative role. Its focus has been on harnessing light energy, and while new methods are emerging to exploit heat as well, the market is yet to create similar demands for heat-based or heat-included solar panels.

Such cases illustrate that while scientific knowledge may be universal, its development (and not just application) is driven by socioeconomic forces and often cultural contexts. Not only do scientists’ social backgrounds and value systems influence what research they are likely to pursue (such as in the case of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Polish Physicist Joseph Rotblat, who resigned from the Manhattan Project when it sought to develop atomic weapons). Local conditions also influence, often beyond conscious choice, what scientists do.

The above reality is even more pronounced in social sciences, law, medicine, and engineering than it is in basic research or even applied research in natural sciences.

Producing knowledge

In the last essay, I wrote about why university scholars in developing countries must advance knowledge production through research and publication, rather than just teach current knowledge. In this one, I reflect on an argument made by another TU scholar, that scientific research is always, or at least usually, universal, implying that scientists in developing countries don’t have to be driven by local social conditions.

I argue here that many more of our scientists and other scholars must strive to produce new knowledge, advancing both basic and applied research that is more responsive to social demands and national interest. Research that is not driven by social demands tends to become too abstract or esoteric, ignored by the public, and also un-motivating to the researchers themselves in any country. We can understand this dynamic if we look at how wars and economic crises (though sadly) and major socio-cultural changes in now-developed countries prompted public support and growing interest among researchers for new kinds of sciences and new research avenues within them.

Unfortunately, when scholars in developing countries raise doubts about research, they are repeating a pervasive misunderstanding about who should produce new knowledge and why. A debate on this issue became heated among US-based scholars of higher education quite recently. Let me begin with a summary of that dialog, highlighting why we must take this mythology about research seriously.

Specialization vs diversification

Phillip Altbach and Hans De Wit, two prominent scholars of international education, have argued that because too much is being published, new knowledge production must be limited to specialized research universities. They want the number of books and journals to be drastically cut. They find it sufficient for most academics to be up-to-date on research in their disciplines, focusing instead on applying knowledge through teaching and on service. All of that, they contend, will help control quality and also counter, among other problems, increasing exploitation of scholars around the world by predatory journals.

Jenny Lee and Alma Maldonado-Maldonado have taken issue with Altbach and De Wit’s arguments, in favor of diversifying knowledge and making its production more equitable around the world. They too see problems of quality, plagiarism, and exploitation of scholars. But they argue that reserving the research function and quality control to top tier universities, which are concentrated in certain countries, will further concentrate knowledge production, exacerbating unequal access, resources, mobility, and privilege among peoples and nations.

Lee and Maldonado-Maldonado show in financial terms how unequal knowledge production is reflected in trade balances: Whereas the US had a balance of 79 billion dollars under the intellectual property column in 2017, Brazil had a loss of 4.5 billion, Argentina 2.1 billion (loss), and Chile 1.4 billion (loss). The separation of research from teaching will worsen the vertical differentiation by further concentrating research where money and power are already concentrated.

Indeed, the idea of specialized research universities artificially separates knowledge production as “pure” research from that in applied research. It also further separates the two from teaching. This is where the question of how universities in developing countries must approach research is thrown into sharp relief.

Making research socially responsive

The argument that superior and specialized research institutions should do all the production of new knowledge for the rest of a nation and for the world assumes that knowledge can be one global pool from which everyone will benefit. It ignores that knowledge production and circulation are themselves shaped by unequal power and unfair politics, different interests and unique needs, biases and prejudice, and forces of demand and supply. In the name of pragmatism, it ironically disregards the pragmatic need for social demands to shape knowledge making.

Luckily, scholars around the world have also advanced powerful ideas about socially-driven knowledge production. In 1997, addressing the American Association of the Advancement of Science, its President Jane Lubchenco argued that “there is increased realization of the intimate connections between [ecological] systems and human health, the economy, social justice, and national security.” In her address subtitled “A New Social Contract for Science,” Lubchenco urged scientists to work toward a “sustainable biosphere—one which is ecologically sound, economically feasible, and socially just.” Her call for “new fundamental research, faster and more effective transmission of new and existing knowledge to policy-and decision-makers, and better communication of this knowledge to the public” is far more relevant today, especially for developing countries and for scholars in and beyond the sciences.

Also fortunately, scientific research and academic scholarship around the world are becoming increasingly responsive to social and global change. For instance, in a 2015 survey, the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that 43 percent of 3,748 scientists surveyed believe that “it is important for scientists to get coverage for their work in the news media.” Fifty one percent of scientists talked with reporters about research findings, 47 percent used social media to talk about science, and 24 percent wrote blogs. Other countries report similar trends.

To make research responsive to social demands and change, as well as to rectify global inequities in knowledge production, academics in developing countries must broaden and redefine “quality” by going against the grain of established structures, conventions, and measurements dominated by a few global centers. They should not adopt simplistic and counterproductive solutions, such as how governments and universities in the global south are increasingly requiring doctoral degrees and regular research and publication by all university instructors. Without localizing research, without rewarding scholars for socially meaningful publications, and without matching demands with support, such top-down mandates will increase problematic publishing—rather than improving quality. Pressure valves give up where demands are unrealistic, support is missing, and research is not yet localized or localization is not yet respected.

Maximizing social value and impact  

How can universities in developing countries both advance knowledge and maximize its application? A common response has been to simply demand more budget for research, or for university education as a whole. But, like the idea of demanding “international publication” from underprepared majority of scholars, throwing money at this challenge won’t tackle it. Instead, we need a range of initiatives for systematically increasing the number of professors who do much more and better publications—from just a few, if any, professors per department who now publish regularly.

First, to improve knowledge production and also make it more impactful, our universities must counter political interference and require scholars to focus on and compete professionally. Universities must counter political opportunism and protection in order to enhance professional integrity and research productivity and quality.

Second, as I will unpack in the next essay, new discourse and faculty support must counter assumptions about the relationship of research and publication with teaching, as well as limited understanding of research. Universities must support faculty with new skills for research, writing, and publication by establishing writing, research, and communication centers and/or faculty development centers that integrate research and publication support.

Third, our universities should infuse a lot more research in education through curriculum, pedagogy, workplace skills for students, professional growth and incentive for faculty members, and financial investment and internationalization initiatives alike. The investment in quality must take the form of academic and mentoring support for faculty, as well as additional resources and time to do and disseminate research.

Fourth, universities must create policies and programs to produce experts who can lead and contribute to social progress. We need professors whose research drives business and entrepreneurship, creates opportunities, and engages and inspires the broader public. Socially driven scholarship can also help the government, media, and other institutions to find scholars with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to guide them, instead of turning to the same few men for decades.

Beyond blurred global vision

Colonialism and global neoliberal capitalist policies are often seen as the greatest barriers against equity in knowledge production, and they are indeed serious issues. As new developments in higher education keep showing, global power dynamics have staying power. One good example of this was the discourse around massively open online courses (MOOCS) a few years ago, which exposed surprisingly colonial mindset among “star” professors in the West, many of whom argued that all but a few “top universities” in the world would soon be extinct.

However, the answer to the above challenge is not some intellectual anti-colonial resistance. It is for scholars everywhere to advance more research that is in the interest of their own societies and nations. What is worse than neocolonial forces acting upon a country is when scientists and scholars in it ignore social demands when setting their research agenda, or set none.

The idea that the same knowledge can be produced by anyone anywhere (so why bother) leads to lack of inner motivation for younger scholars in particular, to plagiarism and falling victim to publishing scams, to citations that just try to please journal reviewers and editors at a few global centers, and to insignificant and unproductive research done only to fulfill demands of recruitment and promotion.

Especially in developing countries, university scholars are uniquely responsible to look beyond the global store of knowledge, to cultivate a dual vision, including one for the local society and economy that is waiting for our intellectual input.

It is not enough for us to use knowledge that was created in a different time or place and very likely with a different exigency. We must create new knowledge, for our own communities and societies, as a primary mission of our universities.


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