In a survey conducted by Stanford University in the United States of America, Dr AA Mamun, professor of physics at Jahangirnagar University, was ranked among 2 percent of the best scientists in the world in 2020.
Later, it was learnt that the list included a total of 26 scientists from different institutions of Bangladesh, among whom Professor Mamun was at the top, judged by rank.
This recognition just added a new feather to Professor Mamun's list of achievements. The internationally acclaimed scientist did his PhD in plasma physics at the University of St Andrews in England with a Commonwealth Scholarship. He later had the opportunity to conduct advanced research in complex/dusty physics in Germany and the United Kingdom under several highly prestigious post-doctoral fellowships.
He is the co-author of the book "Introduction to Dusty Physics," which is the first book written in this area and has been listed as a textbook in many universities around the world.
So far, he had 417 articles published in reputed journals at home and abroad and as the first scientist working in Bangladesh, he has achieved the rare feat of crossing the milestone of 12,000 Google Scholar citations.
The countries of the world that have reached the pinnacle of knowledge, glory and advancement in science and technology are mainly due to education, training and research activities conducted at the university level. You can divide the overall activities of a university into two parts – production and reproduction of knowledge.
On one hand, teachers in universities create skilled manpower to serve the country and society in the relevant field by imparting lessons to students in the light of knowledge already acquired through research in various fields. On the other hand, they identify unresolved issues in their fields of study and conduct research to resolve them. The creation of new knowledge through research is considered the main task of a university.
The question now is whether this enviable achievement of fellows like Professor Mamun reflects the overall position of our universities in the field of scientific research.
I believe many people here will instantly say "no". You can easily get a rough picture from the rankings of universities around the world published every year in the media.
Only two universities in Bangladesh – the University of Dhaka and Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology – were included in the list of the world's top 1,000 universities in the QS World University Rankings published in June this year and those, too, were at the bottom end between 801 and 1000.
So, what is the reason for this low position of our universities in the field of research?
Does it mean that we have a scarcity of talented and diligent researchers like Professor Mamun? Is it because we lack the necessary financial support and infrastructural facilities for our research?
Or, are there some weaknesses in the overall structure of our higher education, because of which research is not getting proper momentum?
Let us take a closer look.
First of all, let us talk about skilled manpower. Undoubtedly, people like Professor Mamun are shining examples in the world of research in this country. However, if you search, you will find that in universities here in Bangladesh, we have a very good number of qualified and skilled researchers who had the experience of working in the world's leading universities and laboratories.
The problem lies elsewhere. You will see that most people are talking about inadequate funding and laboratory/library facilities. Undoubtedly, these are among the most essential requirements.
More importantly, I think what our policymakers need to pay a little more attention to is the fact that the overall activities of our universities are not primarily research-oriented.
It is mainly dedicated to the purpose of imparting knowledge. It does not mean that research is not being carried out here, but that it has some lacking in the kind of structure and attention it needs.
How favourable is the overall structure of our university curriculum for students who will do research and teachers who will supervise them? Research at the university level in this country is basically done at three levels: master's, MPhil and PhD.
Now, an important question is whether a master's student in our country gets enough time to work on his thesis. If you put a coursework load of 400-500 marks and a thesis of 200 marks in the master's syllabus and ask students to complete it within a year, it is easy to guess the standard of research that could be performed here.
In many universities in the developed world, the master's by research programme has no coursework at all or even if it has, that is nominal. Even spending a whole year on research alone does not prove enough for many students. So, it is evident that the time is a big issue here.
Now let us have a look at the situation of teachers who are in charge of supervising research. In this country, university teachers have to spend a lot of their time in teaching and in some cases, they rather have to spend most of their time there. There are 50-100 students in a class.
As a result, a teacher has to stay busy with the teaching and examination of scripts throughout the year. Where is the time to pay attention to research here? So, what is the solution, then? Is it possible to double/triple the number of teachers?
As far as the availability of budget is concerned here, it is an impossible situation. There is a provision to appoint teaching assistants from among master's/MPhil/PhD students to assist teachers in the universities of the developed world. Can we think of that as an alternative here, too?
I have focused specifically on master's level research because the research that is done in our universities is basically at this stage. However, if you look at the universities in the developed world, you will see that in-depth research in a university is actually carried out at the PhD level.
These universities have lab/office space for PhD researchers to work full-time. Generally, the official tenure of a PhD programme is three to four years. Here, a researcher has to spend a lot more time to complete PhD than he does in a master's programme. Even after working day and night, researchers often cannot finish their work in three to four years and have to apply for an extension of duration.
Many students in our country are enrolled in MPhil/PhD programmes and some of them also get degrees. But have we been able to create an environment like the one I have portrayed above? If you want high-quality research on a large scale at the university level, you need to focus on how to make this area more organised.
Due to a lack of proper emphasis on research at MPhil/PhD level and a lack of proper infrastructure, most of our boys and girls who are interested in higher studies migrate abroad. I do not see anything wrong with that. But if we could build an organised structure for this level of research in our universities, many students would get engaged here rather than waiting to go abroad; they would not suffer from any inferiority complex.
Unfortunately, we have not been able to create that kind of environment. As a result, our job turned out mainly to be supplying raw materials for working in the laboratories of reputed universities in the developed world, though we have a good number of abled researchers here to guide these boys and girls in the same quality of work.
Finally, let us take a look at the issue of the talented youths going abroad for higher education and not coming back home. Is it just selfishness? A lack of patriotism? Fascination for the dazzling life of developed countries? Maybe or maybe not.
Like Professor Mamun, you will find many more guys who actually feel the pull towards the country, want to return and devote themselves to the service of the nation.
However, they are confused about how much opportunity they will get here to use their talents and qualifications to serve the country and whether or not their expectation will turn into despair.
Whatever the reason is, the net result is that the talents and labour of people -who this country brought up on its lap and shoulder - are being used to enhance the beauty of other countries. This situation needs to change. Is there anything we can do to encourage them to return?
Dr Mohammad Didare Alam is a professor of pharmacy at Jahangirnagar University.