By Dr Tariq Rahman

THE HIGHER Education Commission (HEC) already has Offices of Research, Innovation and Commercialisation in 12 universities. And if they are increased, I would only welcome such a development. However, when a recent document, released on the subject in February, calls commercialisation “Knowledge Exchange” (KE) one regrets at the euphemistic phrase tending to hide the fact that we are still talking about making money with the knowledge we produce. Let us call a spade a spade and not use terms like exchange for business. There is nothing wrong with the central concept of this paper that universities can play [a role] in stimulating and contributing to innovation and social and economic growth. Indeed, the great research universities of the world – the Ivy League universities of America, Oxbridge, Russell League universities of Britain, the Sorbonne and the great European universities – do not depend on students fees nor on state funding. They get projects from the military, the corporate sector, NGOs, think tanks and governments to carry on consultancy work and contract research. Some academics have also refused to cooperate with the military or the corporate sector because their research products would create more efficient ways of killing people or making rich people richer. But most do become consultants and the universities get the much-needed money that creates good laboratories and libraries and also makes for merrier academic dinners. Some of this research helps create new drugs, medical equipment, new means of communication, and safer ways of travelling etc. In short, some utilitarian or applied research can be, and has been, useful for humanity though more of it has merely helped the militaries. In short, I am not against the idea of facilitating the commercialisation of research or of applied, utilitarian research.
So if KE (using HECs euphemism) offices are set up in all universities, its professionals are appointed and KE-friendly policies are followed without prejudice to the primacy of pure, basic research, I am all for it. Indeed, I would ask such offices to look into the possibility of creating services for dyslexia and other linguistic disorders by encouraging research in neuro- and psycholinguistics. I would also ask them to arrange for a proper linguistic survey of Pakistan on the lines of the great survey by George Grierson, almost a century back. Such a survey does have practical uses and it is being conducted in India. In this country, too, the Summer Institute of Linguistics did carry out a similar survey of the Northern Areas and Chitral and – though less thoroughly – of the Punjab too. But a proper survey is still awaited. First, the HEC talks of recruiting and promoting people who practice KE (help in commercialising knowledge) by putting them in a new kind of tenure track system in which their activities will be treated equivalent to papers produced or teaching load. This is shocking! How can any activity be the equivalent of pure academic work.
Secondly, the paper suggests that by July 2014, “all research and development grants” will be indexed to its impact on the “economy and society”. That bit about society may give some loophole to put in some social science research after sexy packaging in the fashionable jargon of development, but the economy side shows the bias against non-utilitarian research. Personally, when I think of undertaking a research activity, the last thing I have in mind is whether it would have an effect on society or economy.
Indeed, the whole idea seems to be to further sideline genuine scholars and produce businessmen in our universities. And, of course, the language is that of command. Universities are assumed not to be autonomous and HEC is assumed to be the central controlling authority for all universities. When did universities lose their autonomy? Am I – who has always supported some of the changes of the HEC since 2002 – responsible for creating a central authority which I never knew I was doing? I do not know. But I reject the methods proposed for the commercialisation of knowledge, though I accept the idea that we should sell whatever knowledge we can sell while retaining our primary right to do any kind of research without any botheration, whether somebody finds it useful or not.
Courtesy The Express Tribune

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