In Search of Wisdom: The Utility of Research

Published in: INSN.org | NepalNews.com | NepaliPost.com | Nepalipress.com

It was 1979 when I left my home in search of formal education beyond what was available in my village. After passing through many winding roads of life for a decade, I ended up in Canada for higher studies, making my living in doing research. An already convinced admirer of science and technology, I started viewing well-known researchers with high regards – into the league of the enlightened. I was also passionate about research and dreamt of becoming a highly acclaimed researcher one day. When two of my inventions were sent for patenting in 2000, I was proud. I recalled, from my Grade 5 Mahendra Mala, the sketch of Marie Curie reaching a shelf as a young and inquisitive girl. The picture had inspired a dream in me of becoming a great scientist one day and having my life storey written like hers in books. The patent applications made me momentarily feel as if I was on my way to “dream come true”. However, within short span of time, there was a high-tech fiasco. Stocks started to tumble and high-tech companies began to disappear one after another. We switched our gear from “close to fundamental” research to “marginal” type research on products that were already in the market. No more patents came out from my latter works. Nevertheless, I was just as proud in hearing that the US patent office had approved those applications.

Being a socially active and outgoing person, I was different than a typical scientist. To pick up a leftover item to complete this story, I want to take you back to 1990s when World Wide Web was invented and Internet was becoming popular means for connecting with friends. Spamming had not been invented yet or was happening at such a low dose that we did not consider it a spam. We advertised our email addresses in the web to catch up some lost friends. One fine day in 1996 or 1997, my advertised address happened to be caught by Donna Lea, a Grade 3 teacher from Illinois, USA. She sent an email seeking advice on how to connect her students with Nepalese students of equivalent level. I replied with some gist of my experiences in my email, which happened to be one among hundreds that she had received from other Nepalese. She wrote saying that my words were the most genuine of all and proposed that she would like to collaborate with me to advance a Sister School project. We developed ideas together and ran this project with a great intensity. As fortune occasionally takes us to, we were able to bring some inspiration to the school in both ends of the link. But Donna got retired in 1999 while war escalated further in Nepal, affecting Baglung District – our workplace. As it became increasingly difficult to communicate, I said to Donna, “Let us not spread our seeds over a raging fire. Once the fire subsides and rain falls, we will take our seeds and grow the forest once more.” She agreed.

Again leapfrogging back to my research story, my new phase of life was about marginal improvement of machines. Yet, I was happy because it was associated with a dream. A dream of becoming a billionaire quickly, retiring early, and enjoying life roaming around the world doing philanthropic work with the excess money! But have you seen many super rich scientists? Likely not! It took me some time to learn that I had to know how to secure and multiply the money I acquire. I had to learn that there are bigger forces beyond me and the role of chance or luck is also huge in life. And spending 16 hours a day in a lab would not quite do it. Strangely, the luck often follows those who are more willing to take risks, some say calculated risk. For myself, I was gradually becoming a “play safe” kind of guy – a managed scientist than an inventor, investor, or introspector. Even when I was a manager by profession, I was managing for my manager than discovering new avenues. I was not the kind I wanted to be when I was in Grade 5!

Then in 2005, something unexpected happened. King Gyanendra seized absolute control of state and sought to establish a military regime in Nepal. Already annoyed by the four years of continuous emergency rule of “democrats” intended to militarily crush a home grown rebellion against feudal oppression, this was the last knock required to wake me up from a coma of indifference. This led to political discussions with other intellectual friends, many of whom were proven researchers with PhDs. Using our general appearance of being right kind of thinkers, we quickly galvanized support from Nepalese community in Canada and began our work of persuading Canadian politicians, government, and the UN to check the military ambitions of Gyanendra. Our work culminated into the formation of Canada Forum for Nepal (CFFN). However, a historic popular uprising of April 2006 brought positive changes in Nepal. The mission of CFFN was nearing its end and we had no work than basking on the glow of changes in Nepal. Being thinking kind of folks, something had to be thought!

We said that let us transform CFFN into an organization of thoughts and social work both meant to add a brick on the positive transformation of Nepal. The consequence is that I started pondering thoughts in writing, as I am doing right now in typing these words. Occasionally, I also ponder on scientific inventions like I used to a decade ago. All endeavors intended for Nepal but I don’t know if it has made any difference. We started a number of little endeavors that give researchers the opportunity to converge and strut their stuff. We also decided to enter into the area of rural education as our worthy social endeavor.

Meanwhile, Donna and her husband Tom took the opportunity presented by the arrival of peace in Nepal and visited the old sister school. They were given hero’s welcome by the local people. That was like drinking a potion of inspiration for them, who came back wanting to do more. We had natural convergence like before, and hoped that CFFN had some solid partners to work with. Some months later a young and articulate writer from a distant community in Nepal became ready to go to the school in Baglung and work amongst Dalit communities. Then Tom and Donna came to Canada and gave a rousing presentation on their past efforts and gist of future zeal in 2007 at a cultural event organized to raise fund for the project. We ended up adding a thousand dollars savings in the account. But the most excited member to do something in collaboration with Tom and Donna, who was our Executive Secretary Alys Muckart, succumbed to brain tumor and passed away in December 2007, leaving a huge void.

Subsequent meetings of CFFN revealed that there was opposition to the project from some executives. The reason happened to be that I, the principal driver of the organization, was born and brought up in Baglung – the target workplace. It did not matter that I have not lived in that place for the last 29 years and all well-to-do have moved to the plains leaving only the downtrodden in the village. My friends said that before embarking the project, we must do research to identify the poorest district in Nepal, and a poorest Dalit community within it; we could then take the project there. I agreed and, for the research, we set three months – an eternity for a restless person like me. However, 9 months have passed since then but the research results have not arrived. Being an engineer, I neither have access to required raw data nor the aptitude of scientific research on economic and social arena. My brute force technique was to contact some persons I knew in Nepal but I had no satisfactory breakthrough. The qualified friends are still waiting for the right kind of base-data to work on. Meanwhile, the thousand dollars we raised has been waiting in the account for one year to being spent. The hope of sending the young writer to village never, therefore, materialized. [Note: Some things have just moved positively as I write.]

Today, I question: “What is the utility of research?” Is it about identification of who is the poorest, who is the richest, who is the most deserving, and so on to execute a project? Is project a means or an end? To me a project is just a means to understand what is out there in the society. It should be a small piece of a larger puzzle. A project should shed sufficient light on specific social dynamics, issues, problems, values, strengths, and indicators so that it could provide valuable information for developing broader programs and building great institutions of the future. To me, the vision of all great minds must be set on building programs and institutions, not just projects. And I wonder, what makes our great research minds to view a tiny project as if it is the end? They are worried about the ethicality of a place, the quantity of honor the project can bring to the organization, and what the “Lok” (people) might say about the choice of place and project.

The problem in this research mindset is even deeper. Let us say our research data and methodology successfully identified the poorest and the neediest place in the whole of Nepal. Does that mean that what we do about it becomes naturally right? Would a few thousand dollar education project make the most impact if the place was the poorest as opposed to being 10th poorest? Do the successes and efficacies of social programs depend purely on geography and economy, or there are many other human elements involved into them? Would we the researchers hoping to export benevolence from our comfortable homes in North America be guaranteed a red carpet welcome and cooperation by the people of a community based on the state of economy of that place? Don’t we have to think of our ability to mobilize the people on the ground? If the state of Nepalese researchers born and grown up in Nepal can be so far off the mark, imagine how far foreign nationals not familiar of our language and culture and who depend on the interpretation of the society presented to them by third person would be? No wonder most projects in Nepal end up in failures.

As I was seeking some advice on what is the right place to do social endeavor, one of my friend asked me one question. “Are you repeating a proven experience or doing anew?” I said that we are doing anew. He then said, “You better practice cooking in your own kitchen before becoming a chef in someone else’s kitchen. You will not be forgiven for your mistakes made in someone else’s kitchen. Hone your skills where you will be tolerated.” His idea was that we start from our own villages and towns where people know us and they would not question our motives when things do not work as envisioned. I believe that there is some grain of truth to it. But of course this is a quote from an average person who has no PhD or research credentials from top notch North American research institutions.

This makes me wonder, how much research might have been carried around the world simply because we could do it and not because it helps us solve the bigger problems of our society? And how many endeavors must have been embarked and ended, going from project to project and without thinking about them in a bigger context? There must be awful lot of such research and “projects” going around. As a strong defender of science, technology, research, and innovation, I am in pain today to fully justify the policy on science and research adopted in the world today. May be it is time to think anew to develop new approaches and outlook on science and research so we could use them to help change the world rather than merely interpreting it!

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