Tuesday, 4 December 2012

The role of Research Assistants in Research and Development Activities

Following a recent discussion among university academics one person emitted the view that academics should do the research themselves and should refrain from hiring research assistants. Research assistants are believed to eat up to 80% of the costs for research projects and instead the view that was emitted was to rather use funds earmarked for research to purchase equipment and to revamp the university labs.

Let us now open the debate and the discussion around the key questions here:
  • Should academics refrain from taking research assistants and instead should do the ''research'' themselves
  • Do academics have a well-balanced workload model that allow them enough them to plunge themselves in real research and development activities?
  • Is the mass purchase of equipment a more productive and efficient approach than a good supervision and guidance of a research assistant towards the pursuit of new knowledge?
  • Are research assistants only suitable to be hired to do surveys and data collection activities only?
  • How will a small country like Mauritius build capacity if we get rid of research assistants taking into account that most post-secondary institutions in Mauritius are teaching-intensive institutions?

We keep talking of the human capital and its importance for the progress of the country. Is it not a paradox if we stop having recourse to research assistants on research and development projects?

Some facts from personal experience:
  1. I, myself joined the University as a research assistant in 2001 at the VCILT. Ten years later I am a senior lecturer in education technology and heading the unit since 2009. A few strategic achievements include the center being a finalist in the WISE 2009 awards, the recipient of the COL award of Excellence in 2010. We have actively published in peer-reviewed journals, presented in conferences and invited as guest speakers on a few occasions.
  2. 2009-2011 we were working on a EU-ACP funded project SIDECAP and we recruited a part-time research assistant on the project. The outcomes: a YouTube Channel disseminating video lectures on a number of educational topics, repurposing of open-educational resources that are used in our online diploma and BSc programmes, conduct of capacity-building workshops with educators on the innovative use of ICT in education.
  3. In 2009-2010 a research assistant worked on the research project on the integration of text-to-speech systems in the development of self-learning video lectures. A small project where the funding 2000 USD out of the 2500USD earmarked for the project was used to pay a research assistant led to the formalisation of a rapid e-learning development methodology that brought us so far about 40000USD worth of consultancy projects.
From my own experience, the only lesson I can retain here is that although we need the right tools to do the work, the best investment you can make is in the human capital. The equipment have a very short lifespan and get obsolete in no time, while the human capital and knowledge generated remain for a much longer time. Not investing in human resources and only investing in technology and equipment is a wrong approach and recruiting people without giving them the appropriate tools is also not a wise idea. This brings us back to the old golden rule of thumb: Keep a balance of both.