Why undergraduate research is crucial: best practices from South Korea

Written by: Adiba Tahsin

Research is an invaluable tool when it comes to innovation. Without it, there wouldn’t be any genetic technology, vaccination or X-ray, for example. In business sectors,  companies undertake research to develop better products and services to stay competitive in markets; it is the essential initial steps  to  invent and refine  a product. The world would never be the same without it. Apart from the textbook reasons that research expands the existing body of information and leads to innovation, let’s try to look at it on a very personal level. 

Person X is passionate about chemistry, and aims to earn a PhD in it from abroad. He has a CGPA of 3.6. He graduates and starts to skim through a list of universities and scholarships. After two hours of research, he feels devastated. All of the  top universities like MIT, Harvard, Georgia Tech expect at least some sort of research involvement  and publications to be considered as a relatively strong applicant. The Master’s programs also expect a great CV with experiences and distinctions of internships and competitions . Person X doubts his own accomplishments and eligibility. His heart plummets and he has nearly given up on his dream to study in the best institutions in his field. There might not be any “Top 100 ” universities for him and there is a risk of not getting a proper scholarship.  This is the common scenario in most of the developing countries that invest very little in research and development. 

What is going wrong with research in Bangladesh: 

The basic funding needed to do research in universities is scant: be it private or public. Students do not have enough equipment, machineries, resources or even proper access to laboratories in the first place. The several obstacles during research hinders long term research or continuity. Some students cannot even access  the labs whereas, for instance, in research based institutions in countries like the USA students have easier access to labs. Due to this, research work is really limited and when there is no research, there cannot be any innovations or publications. 

Students from Bangladesh lack adequate skills and in- depth knowledge of their particular subject compared to the students abroad who are more exposed to research work. It can be seen that top universities abroad usually highlight research as their most distinguished and competitive strength. Why is that?  The importance of research is not limited to impressive degree certificates but also instills critical thinking expertise. As a result, overall quality of education in Bangladesh is not upto the mark. One of the most deplorable things is that science background students also choose to study Bachelor’s of Business Administration not because of any passion for commerce, but solely because there are not affluent jobs in the STEM sector. The QS world rankings need at least 300 publications to be even considered for ranking. So if there is no research, there will not be any publications. Among the Bangladesh universities, BRAC University is at the peak of investment in research, spending 37.9  crore taka while Dhaka University spent only 5.2 crore taka. UGC approved a budget of Tk 8,088.49 crore for the public universities in 2019. However, the public universities spent only 1% of their funding on research. In the same year, the total operational expenditure of the public universities including staff salaries was Tk4,643 crore and of the private universities it was Tk3,631 crore.

Even though public universities are ahead of private universities in terms of average investment in research, the scenario is different if the ratio of spending on research against the total operational expenditures is taken into consideration . North South University tops the list of publications made. and only the amount of research done by the universities is not adequate to bring about any noticeable change to the overall research output or to drive any sort of innovation. 

Even though public universities have more overall funding, they are unenthusiastic to invest more on research activities due to the lack of research incentives by teachers and students. On the other hand, it could be argued that developing countries lack research and development because they have many other aspects and priorities like food, shelter, or healthcare. For example, the COVID vaccination program or polio vaccination can have a greater impact on people and save them from potential danger. The developing countries usually like to focus more on the factors of development that bring immediate and visible changes. Thus, investing in research is way below the priority list. 

Ironically, this research and development can fuel innovations that could take such countries a very long way. Investment in specific research can be the key to solving many problems. Research allows academics and students to develop new insights and implement them in real life and make innovations (through which many foreigh investors can be attracted) increasing productivity and eventually growing the economy.

South Korea : an example to follow

South Korea has more than 10 step skincare routines, world famous bands like BTS or intriguing Korean Drama. Here’s to a side of Korea that could be a great example for countries like Bangladesh to follow in research and development. Korea gained independence even after India. It was a war struck country but today, it has made its place in the top 10 countries in terms of high quality research output. It has really limited natural resources. 

However, it focused more on industrialisation and innovation. South Korea notched top scores worldwide for manufacturing, as well as for tertiary efficiency – a measure that includes enrollment in higher education and the concentration of science and engineering graduates. It was ranked second for R&D intensity, high-tech density and patent activity, and ranked sixth for researcher concentration. South Korea has devoted extra attention to technology development and innovation to promote growth. Innovation and technology are the key factors that have ensured South Korean export competitiveness and accelerated the country’s remarkable  rise over the past decades. This demonstrates how a concerted government push to make South Korea an innovation leader, backed by strong investment and systemic reform, has brought rapid and long-lasting results. 

This innovation was possible only because of  Korea’s investment in research. The South Korean government’s systematic approach of switching from primary economic sector to secondary and tertiary has been the crucial factor in creating an innovative economy that turns ideas from laboratories into products and industries. South Korea’s planning forged the strong ties between government, academia and industry that helped it become a global leader in information and communication technologies and in innovation generally. 

The top-down approach played a key role for example in the nation’s ability to quickly develop and produce diagnostic kits for COVID-19. In a similar way, developing countries like Bangladesh can also follow the footsteps of Korea’s economic drive of switching to R&D. Although the policies and reforms of a country must be unique to it, Bangladesh can also follow a similar pathway. We have to instill the idea in students and faculties that how research is important. Secondly, Bangladesh needs to increase its funding in research significantly so that at least the students who are interested in research should be able to do that.

The creativity and determination demonstrated by Korea’s post-war economic and scientific transformation point to further success ahead. It is encouraging to see governmental initiatives to promote basic as well as applied research aimed at transitioning South Korea from a ‘fast follower’ to a ‘first mover’.

Research, first of all, brings development which is the utmost important. It also brings about world recognition and it can be very helpful to a developing country if it wants to bag foreign investments. We might never know the potential or merit a country’s people have if we do not give them the opportunity to utilize them in a proper manner. Research can open many doors for Bangladesh. A budget for research needs to be allocated and policy is needed to be designed based on relevant data specific to Bangladesh. What does a Bangladesh with good research opportunities look like? Good research opportunities would mean that people will now no longer shift abroad for higher studies. At the same time, people who have already gone abroad to pursue higher studies would have an option to come back as there would be more scope for work. Person X, on the other hand, can now go to his/ her dream university with a good, fleshed out research paper. On a broader spectrum, innovations encourage financial investment thus, boosting the economy.

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