AT THE reception of Stephen Hawkings book A brief history of time, one of the reviews in Sunday Times opined that, This book marries childs wonder to a genius intellect. This can be attributed as the simplest and most basic definition of science, a journey that starts with a childs wonder and ends at the intellect of a genius.
What started off as a scholarly pursuit has now become the cradle of progress for all the elitist nations of the world, and the only potential redeemer of the developing nations; but science is an expensive luxury which the modest nations such as ours cant afford, or at least thats what the communal belief is. This is the very reason our science labs are mostly deserted and the culture of science, largely absent. The paucity of science-based activities can inevitably be attributed to the factors such as scarce funding resources, inadequately furnished labs and lack of expertise. However, besides all these factors, an overriding cause of the crippled state of research in our country is our attitude that has put research on the backseat. Although, pragmatically, a scientist is supposed to be an innovative and venturesome individual who plays around with novel ideas, yet our culture has stereotyped him as a withdrawn and comatose entity, who camps all-day-long in labs and mass-produces publications in his leisure time. Not an exciting image at all.
Bearing in mind that science is an ever-evolving craft, where old theories are frequently debunked and substituted by the new, more authentic ones; the scientists are required to be more creative, more imaginative and more clued up than ever, to join dots and to elucidate connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena. This, certainly, isnt a dull affair provided you are doing it the scientist way.
Its not only the scientific gear that makes a scientist, scientist, but a thinking, questioning and curious mind that lays down the groundwork of a scientific life. It was his inquisitive mind that transformed little Al Edison into the world-famous Thomas Edison of later years, even without a formal degree in science. But having an inquisitive mind is hardly considered an eligibility criterion for any of the disciplines in our universities. Our existing university culture entails long-drawn-out commentaries on established theories, fenced perceptions and a spate of assignments that are turned in only on the day before submission of final results. The students keep juggling with assignments, quizzes, presentations and projects all through the semesters and ta da, one day, they are in their graduation garbs, thinking of switching their fields and wondering whats next. Nobody thinks, nobody asks and hence, there are no answers.
The psychology of students expressing reluctance in putting forth their questions has been well-established; they hesitate for the fear of embarrassing themselves in front of their peers and competitors. But one more thing missing in the equation of active learning is the quotient of teachers. Students aside, even our teachers flinch when it comes to raising questions; they sidestep from questioning themselves, their students or even the decades-long research studies. This is partly owing to their chockfull teaching schedules where they dont get time to put their minds to some constructive thinking and partly because they are not accustomed to this way of teaching. This boils down to the core argument of this article, our general lack of aptitude for research. One doesnt simply become a scientist by earning a doctorate in a science field; it all starts with your curiosity from the childhood. We grow up with several knots in our minds, but unlike the common lot, the curious ones hold onto them and struggle to figure out answers in their own capacity. This is precisely what steers one towards an advanced culture of research; a nagging, persistent and inescapable curiosity.
This kind of approach can be instilled by teachers, through simple exercises, during early years of education. The students must be encouraged to look around in their surroundings and ask a simple question regarding the origin or working of a phenomenon they are most fascinated with, and then the teachers must urge them to pursue an answer to their questions. For this, they might have to consult a few books, internet and may even have to carry out a simple experiment. This will give them the de rigueur direction and a sense of purpose. A rudimentary exercise such as this will be incredibly effective in honing the instinctive curiosity of children, dusting off thick layers of obliviousness that enshrouds juveniles over time and in warming them up to the idea of research, right at the beginning of their academic lives. Once introduced to the concept of reasoning, it wouldnt be too long when the students would take up inductive and deductive reasoning in the course of their routine lives, posing a tough competition to the fictional physics genius Sheldon Cooper.
Every year, nationwide universities produce oodles of dissertations. Regrettably, only a few of those measure up to the benchmark of first-rate, authentic research studies while the remaining bulk communicates a sense of burden with which the dissertations were over and done with, rather hastily, just to obtain a degree. Ideally, the PhD faculty members must first frame hypotheses concerning critical national and international issues and then form research groups, inviting students who may be interested in working in their area of expertise, to work on conceivable solutions. For instance, having research groups working on affordable and sustainable energy solutions, in the milieu of Pakistans catastrophic energy crisis, will not only get many minds simultaneously thinking about the potential solution, but would also open doors to many possibilities.
With a solid groundwork laid down, funds can be roped in from HEC or other research-funding organisations. In a similar vein, the capable minds of the country can put their assets of analytical thinking into developing cost-effective measuring equipments, which are currently highly exorbitant in the market. There are a variety of people in Pakistan who, despite having never been to a school or university, are pretty well-versed with basic scientific laws. These are the ones who personify examples of curiosity-driven individuals.
With the aim of encouraging research in the country, HEC introduced tenure track system, according to which the appointed faculty members are required to produce a substantial amount of quality published papers in order to achieve promotion and increments. This, in principle, is a very effective tool to warrant perpetual, quality research endeavours throughout the country. However, as with most of the matters in the country, this principle lacks effective implementation. Teachers continue churning out the same kind of work, year after year; by supervising research students and innovative research takes a backseat.
Currently, the undergraduate and MS/MPhil level research studies are designed keeping in perspective the facilities available within the departmental laboratories which are mostly delimiting. Many students have to bear additional charges of their research as well as the transport fare within the city for the acquisition of data and surveys by themselves. For efficient utilisation of resources, universities must establish strong, active networks of association to facilitate researchers to make most of the equipments, literature and expertise that is not available to them in their own institutions. Research study of any scale involves considerable amount of time, energy and financial resources of the researcher, the dissertations of students should be tailored to produce valuable contributions to the research world.
The way forward is not a linear journey. The government bodies, universities, teachers and students all will have to work, side by side, in unison, to bring about the much needed research revolution. It is also necessary to keep the charm of the science, the adventure of treading the path of unknown and the thrill of arriving at plausible theories, intact. Teachers will have to be trained for new and innovative training methods and additional funds, amassed. As for the students; think, ask and pursue, who knows you might be the next Isaac Newton in line.
The writer is an environmental researcher.
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