In a country like the US or the UK, there is a lively `marketplace of ideas' in public policy, where alternative visions about the State are debated. On 30 August 2006, Guy de Jonquières wrote a piece in FT titled Asia needs a more active market in ideas where he says:
One of the most surprising discoveries on moving to Asia is how little intellectual curiosity there is in the region about the dynamics of its dizzying rise and where it is leading. In spite of Asia’s growing global weight, much of the most illuminating research into its affairs, whether economics, business, social policy or international relations, still originates elsewhere, mainly in the west.
Asia has no shortage of brainpower, or of self-styled think-tanks. But most produce pedestrian work that often fails to grapple with – still less answer – the hard questions. Many simply churn out official propaganda, and few look far beyond their own backyard. In the words of Jean-Pierre Lehmann, a Swiss business school professor who knows Asia well, there is a lot of tank, but not much think.
Many western think-tanks, of course, are also little more than mouthpieces for their financial backers. But the best ones dig for facts, sift them rigorously, question established policies and seek to chart new directions. Occasionally, like those that shaped the thinking of Britain’s Baroness Thatcher, they can seed a revolution.
Asia has no such marketplace for ideas. Stunning though China’s growth is, it is impressive as a daring feat of execution, not because it is based on startlingly original development thinking. When “Asian values” were hawked around the region a decade or so ago as some kind of distinctive philosophy, they turned out to be just a self-serving attempt to justify autocracies.Novel ideas, by contrast, are stimulated by intellectual contention and reasoned dissent. It is no accident that they tend to flow freely in countries such as the US and Britain that not only tolerate but encourage those activities as socially beneficial. In Asia, only India, home to some notably independent-minded research institutes, has a comparable tradition.
In continuation of this discussion, Suman Bery has a column in Business Standard today about policy research in India.
In my experience, once we get to a narrow and specialised subject, there are very few experts in the country. This hurts because there is reduced discussion and competition. The flow of good quality papers is very thin, and there are very few good conferences. As any journal editor and any conference organiser knows, it is hard to find interesting papers, and once you have them, it's hard to find good discussants or referees.
A few people in Western universities are writing empirical papers with Indian data which are appearing in Western journals, but there are two recurring problems: I have often seen a lack of common sense on data, and the choice of questions and research strategy is driven by the needs of publication rather than a sense of the important questions and issues in India.
I find it remarkable that the Indian State expends thousands of crore on research into fields like nuclear energy, where the payoff for India has been remarkably slim, while not putting resources behind public policy research on the main tasks of the State - issues such as judiciary, law & order, international relations, defence, elections, and economic policy. On one hand, this has improved independence and criticism of entrenced policies and powerful government agencies. On the other hand, there is a secular lack of resources which is generating an inadequate number of manyears of time on the questions of the age.
If "government" and "think tank / university" are two pieces in the map of ideas, a key institution which India has been utilising is "the expert committee". A. K. Bhattacharya has an article on this institution in today's BS. There are some intruiging differences between India and other countries in the "committee" institution. As an example, today in the New York Times, there is news about a committee which seems to have been setup, suo moto, by a bunch of people and not appointed by the government. Friends who live outside the country have suggested such things to me in the past - that on a certain problem, a top quality bunch of 5 people can set themselves up to write a report and they do get accepted in the policy making mechanisms of the US or UK, despite no role of the government in appointing the committee.Update (2006-12-19): Ajay Shukla has an excellent article on the weaknesses of think tanks, in Business Standard.