Wednesday, 10 June 2015

On basic research

Most people will agree that fundamental research is very important. Engineers studying fluid flow wouldn't be able to do much without the theorems that talk about solutions of Navier-Stokes PDEs; Micro and Nano-scale computer chips cannot be made without basic research in Material Science; Structural and Mechanical engineers use many concepts from Continuum Mechanics which in turn is largely dependent on Differential Geometry and PDEs. The list is long and probably endless.

I'm an engineer by training, but my research area is quite far away from immediate applications. I focus on a rather theoretical topic and for this reason I have spent significant portion of my career in the Mathematics department of a university. I enjoy my work and normally receive a good feedback when I present in conferences or submit articles to journals.

The problem, however, comes when one is a jobseeker. Apparently there are not many people in India who work close to the theoretical topics that I do. I have given presentations in the engineering departments of many IITs and invariably I've got similar responses.
I usually present the nice/beautiful/interesting mathematical part along with a set of possible applications in engineering for my research. Based on their questions, the audience always seems interested in the applications and how can this be implemented in their labs. In fact, most of the HODs have asked me about whether I would like to set up my own lab and start doing experiments. When I responded in negative, one of them actually even coerced me that I should say 'yes' if this question is asked during the selection committee meeting later.

I think I need to do a better job of explaining why the basic research in itself is interesting. Or perhaps, there is some bias in engineering departments towards things that move and sell?
Here's a video from Numberphile that articulates the arguments in favour of basic research in a much nicer way.