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Democracy in our research organizations

L S Shashidhara

In the past two weeks, much of Indian media and intelligentsia is occupied in discussing the nature of democracy and the necessity, and at the same time difficulty, to adhere to democratic principles. I thought — why not discuss democracy in Indian research organizations? Particularly, the importance of involving junior faculty in all decision taking processes. I know I am treading dangerous path. Not because, I may annoy some people, but, I would be called hypocrite. Nevertheless…

Before I proceed further, a necessary clarification. I am not writing about power that corrupts. I am talking about good people in good institutes at all levels of the hierarchy. As Satyajit (the one in Delhi) once said in his own characteristic style — by definition, true scientists are honest because they first propose a hypothesis and then work very hard to prove that it is false. So when I group senior and senior-most faculty against relatively young faculty in a research organization, it is more like two teams battling by argument to decide whether P53 is an oncogenic protein or a tumour suppressor protein. Nothing personal in such arguments. Only philosophical differences in opinion. So if anyone bothers to reply to this blog, please address the topic to this effect. 

At the time of recruitment in all good research organizations, we assess young faculty for their critical thinking, their short‑, medium- and long-term research plans, and (the one most relevant to this discussion) their ability to independently establish and run their research teams, and a few other qualities. But, if you ask a young PI or faculty in this country, they say nothing is transparent; they don’t have any say in anything related to the matters that concern the institute (for example, faculty selection — be it junior level or senior level, what new facilities need to be established) and even issues related to their own lab (for example, selection of PhD students). The list is endless. 

The often heard justification for this system include,

(i) senior faculty are more experienced, have necessary vision and foresight to take policy decisions. They, being academic, by default are good people and always take decisions that are universally good – be at the level of the entire institute or at the level of an individual of the institute. They are like the Philosopher King in Plato’s Utopia. 

(ii) any democratic process is a slow process. It is not suitable when timely decisions are more important. The slow pace of decision taking process in a democratic place is due to endless arguments we get into while discussing an issue, however minor or major it is. By nature, we are all argumentative. In addition, our profession expects us to be very” argumentative (so that we falsify a hypothesis, which in turn would push the science to frontiers).

There may be some merit in the above argument, but such a top-heavy system would not be sustainable. Unless additional energy is infused, entropy would dominate over the information. Required additional energy comes from the enthusiasm of young faculty. If faculty are recruited based on their ability to run, independently, a large research program for the next 30 years or so, why can’t we trust them while taking decisions? Gone are the days when we say wisdom and age are directly correlated. Until couple of decades ago, only older people had the opportunity to travel and hence would have seen more of the world and would have talked and interacted with large number of people in the profession. This helped to assess their own opinions and understanding against the rest and come with a decision suitable for their own organization. Current lot of young faculty are equally, and often more, aware of the happenings in the external world because of Internet and they too travel as much as their seniors.

The very purpose of science is to seek knowledge as a collective endeavour. No one wants to reinvent the wheel. That is why we search PubMed, Google Scholar, Scopus for knowledge communicated by others. We attend conferences to share experiences. Why can’t we do the same in running an organization? Transfer of knowledge through articles and sermons by retired scientists has its own limitations. If young faculty are not mentored and groomed in a democratic ambience that practices collective decision-taking processes, how will senior and senior-most faculty pass on their experience and their knowledge on science administration? 

When the decision is based on consultative discussion, it helps in many ways. 

(i) young faculty would be exposed to the decision taking process, right from early days of their career. With more and more opportunities to think and express their opinion, some of them may become better leaders of science in future. If their opinion has no place in decision-taking process, they will not bother even to think what is good for the institute. Their worries would always be limited to their personal career. While this itself is not so much of a problem, the most worrisome is when young faculty have to spend more time to get things done in short-term, without time, energy, imagination and ideas to work on a long-term plan. 

(ii) if faculty are involved in all decision-making process, they proudly own all decisions and work for the implementation of the same. Let us, for example, take faculty selection. They welcome new faculty with enthusiasm and try to ensure that the new person admitted to their academic family” is settled down comfortably in the shortest time possible. 

We also hear that democracy has no meaning in places where resources are scarce, because, there is nothing much to discuss in such places. In my opinion these places need to be more democratic than richer places. Just imagine, what would have happened if India did not embrace democracy soon after independence just because it was one of the poorest countries in the world. A strong democracy is what we are proud of, which is supplying necessary oxygen to keep our nation alive. In contrast, there are many very rich countries, which are doing relatively well without universal franchise – not that I support such a system. Poorer research organizations need to be more sensitive to the opinion of individual faculty to maximize the utility of whatever resources they have. This is the only way to come out of the vicious cycle of scare resources leading to poor performance making them less eligible for larger grants and thereby pushing the availability of resources to further lower levels. 

Unless senior and senior-most members of the institute do not mentor young faculty by giving them full freedom, involving them in all institutional affairs, providing necessary advice and help as and when required, they can not expect full support from them in taking the institute to greater heights. This is not due to any vengeance (please remember again, we are only talking about good people here). This is not because young faculty wouldn’t want to contribute to the growth of the institute. In the absence of sufficient knowledge on why a decision is taken, their involvement in its implementation would only be marginal and their full potential would be not be exploited for the good of the institute. 

Finally, if only few select” faculty are involved in all affairs of the institute, then as a result most faculty are aloof to the issues concerning their own institute. They would neither take responsibility for failures not would own the successes with pride. Then, wouldn’t it be too much to expect them to notice and bring to light if someone in their organization practises a kind of unnatural nature” of research. Oops, I am going away from my decision to talk about only good people. Let me stop here.