Funding of Research: A Political Economy Perspective

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In this issue of Samyukta, we discuss an issue of contemporary relevance.


The present age is characterized by the existence of career researchers and specialized research institutes/centres and a bourgeoning market for research. Given the fund-strapped, minimalist state, their survival crucially hinges on the funds forthcoming from private, non-governmental sources, which are legion. And, such funds are available only for studies and projects supportive of private sector and market forces; others steering clear of the capitalist ideology, are passe. Even the allocation of available state funds, these days, is not based on ideologically neutral or value-free consideration. The access to research funds is determined by the ‘ability’ of the researchers/research institute to be beholden to the perceived or declared proclivities and predilections of funding agencies. The existence of apocryphal career researchers who know which side their bread is buttered and specialized research centres which have their work cut out, and the availability of cornucopia of earmarked funds at the disposal of non-governmental agencies have far-reaching implications for the growth, structure and distribution of knowledge. The present paper purports to look at some of these implications, though in a kaleidoscopic fashion, and state the need for applying correctives so that the manifest distortions may be corrected.

Growth of Knowledge

The centrality of knowledge in the ‘new’ knowledge economy notwithstanding, the causal relations between knowledge and economic growth are by no means a recent discovery. The Industrial Revolution, IR, the first episode in globalization which marked a quantum jump not only on the growth front but also revolutionizing human existence was perhaps, the first systematic attempt at applying knowledge in production.

The IR meant the application of the stock of knowledge existing till then. Now, globalization is complete, in the sense that market-thinking, i.e., the desire for immediate, maximum return has gone deeper into every mind. Today, knowledge production itself is a systematically organized, highly profitable economic activity involving a long chain of institutions and specialists. The net result is a virtual knowledge explosion at mind-boggling speed.

Structure of Knowledge

Every episode in human progress had its defining technology. in the beginning of the twentieth century it was the automobile, towards the close of that century, it was the microchip. The information technology that rules the roost today is but transient rather than a lasting phenomenon. Technological determinism means denying the agency-role of the human being.

In an age of rapid knowledge production, ‘flexible specialization’ and the geographically dispersed international division of labour, knowledge is tentative. Today, market demand rather than social use determines the structure of knowledge. Market demand is conditioned by the super consumptionist propensities, of the affluent, which condition and propel the production machinery. Ergo, we have the purchasing-power-driven tectonic shifts in knowledge.

Market privileges skill over knowledge and since all types of knowledge are not skill forming, certain types are privileged over other. Market-led globalisation has entailed shift from knowledge to skill, from the lasting to the immediate, from the abstract to the concrete, from the teacher to the instructor, and from social sciences, humanities and basic sciences to professional and technical education. The software of the industry is placed above the thoughtware of the university.

Market-centredness of knowledge structure is upheld in the name of relevance, forgetting that it is those with purchasing power-the well-off- that determine the structure of the market. As market excludes the poor, market-determined knowledge also excludes them. Market-propelled research is inherently anti-poor.

Distribution of Knowledge

Market system results in increasing in equality in the distribution of income, wealth and economic power. Once emerged, market becomes oligopolistic and monopolistic, accentuating rather than attenuating inequalities.

The structural feature of a capitalist market economy is concentration and centralization of capital. This is also true of today’s knowledge capitalism. The distribution of knowledge is highly skewed between and within countries. At the global level, there is a high concentration and centralization of knowledge. This is only to be expected. Knowledge production entailing libraries, laboratories, computer networking and, above all, highly paid scientists and researchers is too costly for even the governments of developing countries. In such a situation, every invention is patented. Intellectual property right, IPR, is the most zealously guarded right today. IPR is monopoly right. Under the WTO regime, the patent-holder has monopoly right over the invention patented and enjoys exclusive marketing rights. It is an irony that in the knowledge economy, knowledge is socially produced but privately appropriated for making and maximizing profit. It is, again, an irony that in the globalised knowledge-driven world, knowledge does not flow freely; what flows through the information super-highway is mere information required by global finance capital, and not knowledge .

Wealth, knowledge and power cluster. Certain social groups like the dalits and adivasis in India and the Amerindians in the US have been perpetually alienated from these three key areas.

Implications for Education

The above processes governing the production, transmission and utilization of knowledge have implications for education, particularly higher education-the arena of generation, collation with value-addition and transmission of knowledge. Even before trade in services was legitimized under the WTO, education, especially quality education was never equitably distributed across and inside countries. Quality education has always been the privilege of the ruling class. With the ascendancy of the neoliberal philosophy and the competitive economy, higher education has become a non-merit, private good, limiting it to those who can afford to pay. The poor and the marginalized get ‘rationally’ excluded from the field of higher education. In the place of the old caste-ethnicity, gender-oriented social exclusion, there is today, market-led, secular exclusion.

Realism replacing idealism is harmful for intellectual pursuit. Research must be futuristic in orientation, ethically informed and normatively conditioned.

If intellectual history of the nineteenth century was marked by professionalisation of knowledge, the present phase of apocalyptic globalization is characterized by commodification of knowledge for private accumulation. Research is considered as a route to richdom rather than wisdom; its tendency is to ratchet down anything eternal and negate axiology. Privately funded research leads to pre-occupation with crass empiricism and archetypal methodologies devoid of anything intellectually/spiritually elevating and seldom foregrounded in epistemological expansion going beyond the finite terrestrial space.

The problem is not just inadequate funding; it also pertains to the source of funding and the order of priorities set for research. We are of the following views:

1. Academic research should get prominence over sponsored research.

2. The research agenda must be set by the researcher rather than by the funding agency.

3. Priorities must be serially determined rather than dictated by considerations of profit.

4. At the policy level, balance should be struck between basic research and empirical research.

We must not let market orthodoxy dictate the ontology, methodology and epistemology. Harping on immediate relevance, i.e., market relevance, discounts visionary pursuits and crystal gazing.

While promoting transnational circulation of ideas and thoughts, no punches should be pulled in stymieing the agenda of the free booter transactional capitalist qua the fund-provider aimed at unilaterally setting the warp and weft of the research paradigm. The motivational goal of research should transcend the confines of greed and sentient existence. Research must be self-directed and self-actualizing rather than being extrinsically controlled.

Is Professor of Economics at the University of Kerala. Is a well known economist and has a number of published works to his credit.

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Is Professor of Economics at the University of Kerala. Is a well known economist and has a number of published works to his credit.

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