The two primary historic reasons for establishing institutions of higher education worldwide have been both a place of learning as well as a centre for generating new knowledge. This has been the case globally, and has its roots in a wide variety of philosophical traditions, from Buddhism to Aristotle.1 Generating research within higher education is also one of the most important engagements for institutions to promote social change amongst practitioners and policymakers. Historically, many societies have placed a lot of emphasis on developing and nourishing a research culture to promote evidence-based practices and policies.2
Recently the Royal University of Bhutan has actively promoted research amongst its faculty but there have been many challenges.3 This article aims to present the importance of research within institutions of higher education, look at the current state of the research culture in Bhutan, explore the opportunities and challenges, and suggest a way forward for relevant stakeholders to develop and nourish a robust research culture.
Importance of Research
Research supports the development of enquiring minds and inspires innovation, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving. In many countries, the development of policies and practices is largely backed by R&D,4 instead of being based on ideology. Existing literature also indicates that there is a strong, positive relationship between research and practice.5 Likewise, there is a strong and positive relationship between higher education research and national economic growth.6 As we argue below, the absence of a rigorous research culture in the Bhutanese context has, historically, meant that most policies and practices are ideology-based and policymakers and academics have not been able to take advantage of research when designing policies.
Background and Challenges in Bhutan
When referring to “research culture” in Bhutan we acknowledge that research does occur outside of the higher education sector – in the work of government agencies, civil service organisations, private businesses and consultancies, monastic institutions, and Royal Government-backed research entities such as the Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH Research. However, we believe that the contribution from a robust higher education sector is absolutely crucial to a healthy research culture writ large in that they “provide a key link between the nation’s scientific and knowledge system to global science and scholarship … but also contributing, just as significantly, to better understand the human condition through the social sciences and humanities.”7 Therefore, the focus of this article will be on the higher education sector and research culture in general.
The Royal University of Bhutan (RUB) was established in 2003 with an original devolved organisational structure of 10 colleges. As of 2019, there are nine colleges, two constituent private colleges, and a second university focused exclusively on the medical and health professions. Prior to 2003, each college was affiliated to a specific government ministry and its role was to produce the workforce required for that ministry.8 Research and publication was almost non-existent, except for those conducted by a few faculty members who had pursued their higher studies abroad.
However, with the launch of RUB as an autonomous entity in 2003, research became a core part of the Royal Charter and was mandated for all faculty members.9 Thus, following the practice of universities worldwide, RUB embraced both teaching and research roles.10 Since 2003, the institution has been promoting research not only amongst the member colleges, but also at the national level. RUB has also developed and promulgated policies to foster research culture and increase productivity. It established a Research and Innovation Committee within the Academic Board structure under “The Wheel of Academic Law.”11 RUB’s research policies are set out in the ‘Zhib Tshol.’12 In brief, this document outlines the framework for the administration of research, roles and responsibilities; planning, approval, and monitoring; research codes of conduct, and many other areas of research.
Recent research has shown that RUB faces many challenges in its effort to foster a nationwide research culture.13 The literature states that these challenges include: college leadership that does not incentivise or support its faculty to conduct research nor create a culture of research autonomy for its academic faculty; a significant lack of time set aside in the academic work-load allocation for research activities; lack of understanding and administrative support for research, particularly in the logistical, financial, and legal capacities; a shortage of libraries, labs, and other infrastructure and research-material resources; a lack of research training and advanced degrees; and a lack of research funds. Below, we will address each of these challenges through the practices recommended by Hanover Research (2014).
Attributes of a Positive Research Culture
Given the already-identified challenges listed above, we will now define what we believe to be the attributes of a positive research culture that Bhutan should strive towards. We will focus on what the literature (Hanover Research, 2014) identifies as areas of importance to promote a positive research culture effective leadership, productive institutional characteristics, training and support, research recognition (internal and external), research centres and programmes of research, and networks and collaboration.
Leadership plays a crucial role in promoting research culture. According to Pratt, Margaritis, and Coy (1999), leadership refers to both research skills and management practice. While there has generally been some improvement in Bhutan in terms of research skills, with the increase in the number of PhD graduates, leadership commitment to research has not been as robust as it should be, according to the ‘Zhib Tshol (RUB, 2014)’.
In our experience of research practice in Bhutan(anecdotal), the greatest barrier to research is the lack of support from the top levels of college leadership. There is a dichotomy or lack of synergy in many colleges between the College Academic Committee, led by the President of the College and the College Research Committee, led by the Dean of Research and Industrial Linkages at the College. According to policy, the College Research Committee and the Dean of Research are independently empowered (RUB, 2014, §18.104.22.168).
Productive Institutional Characteristics
In an often-cited study in organisational analysis the following institutional characteristics were identified as being important to facilitate research productivity (see Figure 1):
|Recruitment and Selection||Great effort is expended to recruit and hire who have the training goals, commitment, and socialisation that match the institution|
|Clear Coordination Goals||Visible shared goals coordinate members’ work|
|Research Emphasis||Research has greater or equal priority than other goals|
|Culture||Members are bonded by shared research related values and practices, have a safe home for testing new ideas|
Positive Group Climate
|The climate is characterised by high morale, a spirit of innovation, dedication to work, receptivity to new ideas, frequent interaction, a high degree of cooperation, low member turnover, good leader/member relationships, and open discussion of disagreements|
|Mentoring||Beginning and mid-level members are assisted by and collaborate with established scholars|
|Communication With Professional Network||Members have a vibrant network of colleagues with whom they have frequent and substantive (not merely social) research communication both impromptu and forma, in and outside of the institution|
|Members have access to sufficient resources such as funding, facilities and especially humans (example, local peers for support, research assistants, and technical consultants)|
|Sufficient Work Time||Members have significant periods of uninterrupted time to devote to scholarly activities|
|Size/Experience/Expertise||Members offer different perspectives by virtue of differences in their degree levels, approaches to problems and varying discipline backgrounds, the group is stable and its size is at or above a “critical mass”|
|Communication||Clear and multiple forms of communication such as that all members feel informed|
|Research is rewarded equitably and in accordance with defined benchmarks of achievement; potential rewards include money, promotion, recognition, and new responsibilities|
|Brokered Opportunities||Professional development opportunities are routinely and pro-actively offered to members to assure their continued growth and vitality|
|Decentralised Organisation||Governance structures are flat and decentralised where participation of member is expected|
|Assertive Participative Governance||A clear and common goal, assertive and participative leadership where active participation of members is expected, effective feedback system is utilised.|
Figure 1. Institutional characteristics that facilitated research productivity (Bland, et al. 2005, p. 228).
Many of the characteristics in the table above are interlinked to other areas within this discussion. These characteristics also feature throughout RUB’s policies (RUB, 2014), but we do not believe that there is enough of a follow-through and an effective oversight for these policies to be effectively carried out.
Training and Support
Long-term investment in research capacity is an important aspect of building a robust research culture (Hanover Research, 2014; Pratt, Margaritis, & Coy, 1999). Without significant investment in building research capacity, not much research is likely to take place. There has to be a clear policy that will guide research activities, training, and support. This includes the presence of mentoring programmes, continuing education courses, grant-writing support, research funding, and support for PhD attainment (Hanover Research, 2014, p. 12). The Tertiary Education Policy of Bhutan (2010) has clearly identified this. Such policies are a good start but, then again, whether it has been translated into reality is another matter.
Another issue is that of research autonomy. The structures of RUB are very hierarchical and certainly not “flat” as suggested by Figure 1. Most, if not all, colleges require their researchers to gain approval from the College Research Committee or even the President him/herself in order to carry out a research project. The literature, and ourselves included, find this structure to be extremely problematic and is a significant detriment to the autonomy and integrity of the research process.
Research Recognition: Internal and External
Policy makers and leaders need to understand the potential role of research in bringing about sustainability in policies and programmes that are initiated and implemented. While there has been some public awareness created, there is still a lot Bhutan needs to do in terms of understanding the real meaning of the term “research” and how it generates knowledge and addresses social issues. Of late, the term “research” has been widely used in Bhutan in everyday speech across all sections of society. Although this is an indication of the acceptance of the usefulness of research, this also indicates that the term has been grossly misused. To many, research simply means finding out a piece of information. However, research is a much more systematic and rigorous academic activity that employs appropriate methodology to generate new knowledge and solve the problems that human beings face (Leedy, Newby & Ertmer, 2012).
Internally, higher education institutions need to use research as an integral part of their academic progress and recognition procedures. At the policy level, this is made clear by RUB (see RUB HRRR, 2017 & RUB ‘Zhib Tshol’, 2014) but when it comes to implementation at the ground level, there are difficulties which need to be addressed (see the section on “Way forward for Bhutan)”. In brief, the elements that enable research capacity building, robust institutional support, availability of grants, availability of higher degree research courses, and research culture itself needs to be supported.
Research Centres and Research Programmes
Literature suggests that creating research centres and research programmes strengthens the overall research culture of the institution and can better attract more competent researchers. Outside the university system, the Centre for Bhutan and GNH studies is viewed, both nationally and internationally, as the generator of knowledge on Bhutanese society. The ‘Zhib Tshol (RUB, 2014)’ clearly indicates the importance of research centres. However, the ‘Zhib Tshol’ also makes it clear that research centres are not autonomous and must seek approval from college management and the College Research Committee. Again, we view this arrangement as problematic. Clearly, there is a need for financial oversight and quality assurance procedures but not to the extent of allowing college management to dictate research activities and areas of focus.
Networks and Collaborations
Research culture should be supported by institutions which should sponsor participation in conferences for faculty, hosting its own conferences and public forums, and collaborating with other universities, associations, and government organisations (Hanover Research, 2014). This is also emphasised in the ‘Zhib Tshol (RUB, 2014)’ but in reality, there are issues that need to be addressed.
Way Forward for Bhutan
Based on some of the discussions presented above, the following recommendations are proposed to further enhance research activities in Bhutan. These include the establishment of a Bhutan Research and Innovation Council, a Research Endowment Fund, Leadership and Institutional Support, Higher Degree Research Programmes, Publication and Dissemination, and a robust focus on R&D. Some of these appear to be similar in nature and may be complementary, but we propose that they be separate, as we highlight below.
Bhutan Research and Innovation Council
One of the plausible reasons for the lack of a robust research culture in Bhutan is the absence of a national-level organisation that would oversee all research and development activities, including research ethics oversight and approval. Currently, different agencies appear to have their own agency-specific policies and acts such as the Tertiary Education Policy of the Kingdom of Bhutan (2010), Renewable Natural Resources Research Policies of Bhutan (2011), University of Medical Sciences Act of Bhutan (2012), and Royal University of Bhutan Research Policies (2014). We propose that it is crucial that a national level organisation such as a Bhutan Research and Innovation Council (BRIC) or National Research Council (NRC) be established to oversee and steer research activities at the national level.
Research Endowment Fund
Research and innovation is only possible with appropriate funding support. University academics are mandated to carry out research and generate income for the university through research grants but there are minimal funds available. The only option is to apply for international research grants which are highly competitive. Currently, there is no funding support for research and innovation activities at the national level. Given the potential of research in national development, it is crucial that the government allocate a portion of its budget for a research endowment fund (REF).
Leadership and Institutional Support
While leaders need to understand that research is key to a nation’s progress and development, they should also foster a climate of academic freedom and autonomy. In Bhutan, there are few safeguards to academic freedom such as a tenure-system or an academic employment “bill of rights”. A robust and positive research culture begins with leadership which recognises that research benefits the community and society, not just the college itself. Institutional support should take the form of a research support office that assists academics to compete for international research grants – often an arduous and time-consuming process that may have little chance of success. In particular, a college research support office could assist in preparing financial costings and procuring the necessary approvals and arranging the logistics, before the research proposal is submitted instead of after the research grant has been awarded.
Higher Degree Research Programmes
In other countries, higher degree research (HDR) programmes are considered to be a form of research capacity building. We believe that Bhutan must give high priority to HDR programmes both through increasing scholarships and through the development of its own domestic programmes. The literature is clear that graduate students generate a significant and positive research culture (Hanover Research, 2014), a culture that is severely lacking in the universities in Bhutan.
Publication and Dissemination
Currently, individual institutions have been making some effort to create public awareness in terms of the potential of research. For instance, RUB has initiated a television talk series to educate the general public on the importance of research and what research can do. We believe these kinds of efforts can be scaled up. We would also suggest that more can be done to prepare the average Bhutanese citizen to be a good “research consumer” – that is, Basic Education should be fine-tuned to teach Bhutanese children the basics of research, what it means to do systematic inquiry, and how to critically understand research findings and statistics. These kinds of skills are also vitally important to produce an informed democratic citizenry.
Publication and dissemination are crucial aspects of a more robust research culture. Bhutan needs to adopt an active approach to publishing and disseminating research outputs. This includes consistency in research journal production, as well as the creation of a centralised University Press. Dissemination of all research activities also needs a high-quality web-based platform that is globally accessible and easy to navigate. It is often the case that research and institutional websites in Bhutan are not maintained and are often down. We suggest that more resources be allocated to both, online and print dissemination, which should include a permanent team of administrators dedicated to the task.
Many successful nations and organisations in the world make a huge investment in R&D. Existing literature suggests that there is a positive correlation between investment in R&D and economic growth (Example, Martin & Tang, 2007). Likewise, Bhutan needs to focus on a more aggressive policy to establish both government and privately-funded think-tanks to research on policy and other social issues. Investment in developing research institutions and facilities beyond the university system would pay an attractive dividend in the long-run. For instance, the Centre for Bhutan and GNH Studies Research could widen its scope to function as a Government think-tank instead of engaging in their own GNH specific research activities.
In conclusion, we believe that there are a great number of challenges for Bhutan to overcome to develop a research culture. That being said, we do acknowledge that universities in Bhutan are actually quite young compared with most other national university systems and has a lot of growing to do. However, we do worry that the research culture in Bhutan is in a precarious position at the moment and is in danger of regressing if innovation, academic freedom, decentralisation, and investment in institutional and individual capacities are not supported. We believe that Bhutan has so much to offer the rest of the world but only if the research culture is vibrant and sustaining.
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