In that tiny little community of economic and social science researchers, there is a growing critique over academic silos. From what it appears, these silos are one of the many pieces of heavy baggage that are preventing the economy from taking off. One reason that creates this silo is a flawed understanding of what research is.
A significant number of Pakistani academics believe that if there is no Granger causation, multi-variate regressions or other things such, their work would not be classified as research. Others are obsessed with models, in the sense that ‘if there is no model, how could they write a paper’ – as if all economic papers in the world are based on model. What’s more important instead is an idea, which is mostly lacking in domestic publications.
Local academic journals are filled with box-standard papers on ‘finding the determinants’ of run the of mill items such as FDI, inflation, savings, etc. The academia doesn’t seem to realise, as Haroon Shariff former Board of Investment head, told a packed audience at PIDE this Tuesday, that research all over the world is becoming more transactional, and less academic.
This leads to the second reason why these silos seem to exist. Among the leading economists, a majority work or interact mainly with donors and governments, somewhat in that order. That’s where the money is; the donor doles out the money, and the government buys that research. But as a consequence, that research is (a) tilted towards what the donor wants, and (b) is mostly shelved in government offices and hardly makes to the public discourse.
One recalls Shabbar Zaidi, the current head of FBR, lamenting a few years ago at a conference in Karachi that central bank economists have not even bothered to cross the road and understand how Bolton Market works, which is arguably the biggest hub of wholesale trading activity of the city. Nor have members of Karachi’s academia worked on these markets, sans one-off papers which don’t really count given the scheme of things.
The businesses too are shy of interacting with researchers, which has led to the problem of weak industry-academia linkage. In their 2016 paper titled ‘Innovation and Firm Performance in Developing Countries: A case of Pakistani Textiles Manufacturers’, Waqar Wadho and Azam Chaudhry of Lahore School of Economics (LSE) pointed out that only five percent of firms they surveyed considered universities and public research institutes as important source of information and cooperation. Instead, firms considered market sources as the most important source of information and cooperation for innovation.
But the issue of weak industry-academia linkage also coils back the discussion to what Mohammad Sabir of SPDC once said: public finance is the mother of all evils in Pakistan. Which in this context could mean that when businessman can substantially evade taxes and enjoy great return on investment (ROI) then why bother with market research or innovation to increase their ROIs. Or perhaps they are just lazy or otherwise lack sense of organisation.
Come to think of it, why does it take World Bank funding to conduct an enterprise survey of demand and supply side factors of SME finance. Why can’t banks who have deep pockets join hands and at least get a survey done of their own liability-side SME clients whose number run in millions.
Common to all this is a communication problem. Universities and policy research institutes believe that once they have published their work, their job is done. In today’s world of growing attention deficit, that is just poor strategy.
Not only do these universities need to publicise their work via host of modern communication techniques and tools, they also need to ensure that their researchers’ coordinates are available to the public to facilitate their interaction with members of civil society and private businesses who may want to discuss their previous work or engage in new work with them. It’s unbelievable that in this day and age, many Pakistan universities including some leading ones don’t even have the publication details of their academic staff.
The universities and think tanks need to have a communication game plan, but more importantly, as Haroon argued for reform or policy-oriented research, “technical research ought to be tactically communicated.” Communication is no more a preferred transferable skill; in today’s world: communicate or perish!