For better research in Humanities and Social Sciences

By Kaushalya Perera

State universities in general, and the Humanities and Social Sciences in particular, are often charged with not doing research. Such allegations and complaints have been in circulation for many years. How much research do these faculties produce? What is the quality of this research? Is it objective? Why can’t they match up to the Sciences? Why don’t these academics publish much? These are all good questions that need to be answered.

What state universities have done to develop research

Setting aside money for research entails two things: the university has to have money and it has to prioritise some of that money for research. Major research universities in the world regularly set aside at least a billion dollars, annually, for research. You might say that such universities are also rich enough to do that and that would be true. They are also research universities, whereas Sri Lanka has teaching universities. Research universities do, however, also prioritise research by creating time, space and money for research, which comes in the form of equipment, graduate assistant salaries, travel funds, research grants, etc. They also have less burdensome administrative conditions, less governmental oversight and more time assigned for research.

Sri Lankan state universities are poor. They receive money from the state through Treasury funds, which are then distributed to each Faculty/Institute. This year, we heard that my Faculty—housing approximately 3000 students in 11 departments and four units—received less than one million rupees for the year. This does not include salaries for permanent staff, but are for other necessary expenditures in the Faculty. So, if universities want money for research, they must earn it. Treasury funds will not pay for conferences, research grants, travel grants for research purposes and all the other resources we need for our research.

Herein lies one reason for the many income-generating efforts of state universities, e.g., fee-levying courses, large numbers in postgraduate programmes, external degrees, etc. Yet these too must rely on existing human resources: the academics who at the same time must teach in undergraduate programmes, which are the Sri Lankan university’s actual work. If a factory hires one third of the people necessary for the work, there is only so much work that can be done well or done at all. The same applies to state universities and their research output.

Due to these reasons, the money a Sri Lankan university spends on research depends on the university’s income generating power and therefore varies from university to university. Additionally, other state bodies, like the National Science Foundation and the National Centre for Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences (the only institute working solely in the field of arts) also fund researchers. A third source of research funding has been the loans provided by the World Bank which are problematic for other reasons, such as the questionable conditions they impose and the emphasis they place on specific areas for research which might not necessarily fit in with the goals of the institution or the researcher.

Why research doesn’t happen even when the money appears

The NSF’s grant giving scheme this year excluded the humanities and social sciences from its priority areas—a telling illustration of how the Social Sciences and Humanities are viewed by one of the foremost research institutes in the country. This brings us to some other issues that have affected research in our fields for the last few decades.

State universities’ research is required to be ‘relevant to national development’. This mandate is often interpreted narrowly and short-sightedly. The general impression is that research related to science, medicine or technology is more relevant than research in the fields of humanities and social sciences. Yet the idea of relevance is itself a subjective one. For example, how are studies of a historical event, a minority language or a community’s understanding of illness ‘less’ relevant to a country’s development? To be relevant, does one have to key one’s research to government interests or towards the development of society in general?

Another nagging problem is the archaic nature of bureaucratic administrative procedures. Formal approvals for any university procedure, related to travel or financing, take more than two months. Even before the pandemic, no academic in a state university could have accepted an invitation to give a keynote speech in a foreign university or participated in a training workshop in another country at short notice. University and state financial procedures are so burdensome that researchers are reluctant to apply for research grants from their university. A good example of a government regulation that acts as a barrier to research is the current government’s regulation that all Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) that state universities enter into with foreign institutions must be subject to Cabinet approval. The resultant delays to proposed research projects—usually more than a year—have led to state universities losing valuable partnerships with foreign research institutions.

Research-related measures create other problems. Institutional requirements that research should be published in peer-reviewed, internationally recognised journals could help Sri Lankan researchers reach for a higher standard. The national promotional marking schemes designed for a lecturer also offer points for research, which means that the more articles one publishes, the sooner one gains a promotion. The h-index is another international measure that became important to Sri Lankan universities recently: it measures how many times a researcher has been cited by others.

These moves towards a quantitative measurement of the significance and value of research is problematic since they are biased towards researchers from fields that produce shorter articles or have faster publishing processes (e.g. medicine, science). For the humanities and social sciences, publishing is a lengthy process. Articles run to about 8000-10000 words and are usually written by a single person. The publication process usually takes over a year. A social scientist publishing three substantial articles per year in internationally recognised journals would be considered prolific. Yet, given the nature of measurements such as the h-index or academic promotional schemes, even the most productive social scientist would still score lower than his or her peers working in some other disciplines.

Besides these issues is the difficulty in establishing a uniform idea of what research means across academia. For example, does the research output of a psychologist, a botanist, an epidemiologist and a composer of music take the same form? Can the same criteria be used to measure the value of a play by a critically acclaimed director, the discovery of a new species of lizard and the analysis of a historical artefact that might change how we perceive our history? Can these be evaluated by the same people? These are necessarily subjective matters and may need us to use different, discipline specific measures rather than uniform measures across disciplines.

Changing the environment of research in the social sciences and the humanities

The real issue is of course, that these perceptions and measures of relevance and significance have consequences. Because the social sciences and humanities are considered to be of less value, they are assigned less funding. This results not only in fewer resources, but also in less rigorous training, a lack of opportunities for postgraduate exposure to universities of standing in the world, a lack of access to international academic databases, and so on. The poverty of thought and creativity that we see around us now in the humanities and social sciences is the result of the long-term paucity of funds and visionary thinking in the universities.

If the country wants rigorous, creative, socially relevant research from the Social Sciences and Humanities, we have to take steps now. The archaic administrative and financial procedures that stifle research in universities must be revised. State universities must be accountable, but the road to accountability need not be so lengthy. If state universities are to become knowledge hubs and internationalized spaces, they should have agency over their own MOUs, for example.

The most crucial factor though, is one of ideology. In research, as in other arenas, we must counter the dominant nationalist and neoliberal ideologies growing around us. The nationalist ideologies prevalent today have stifled research that is critical of such ideas, instead encouraging racist or inane studies linked to nationalist agendas (e.g., researching Ravana’s aviation routes). Neoliberal ideologies of research tie into the production of more research rather than better, rigorous research—thus perpetuating the heirarcharies and discriminatory practices that exist in our institutions. If we hope to see better research in the humanities and

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