Photo by Runze Shi on Unsplash

Data and knowledge generation for SDGs

A blog by Rinan Shah, PhD Candidate, ATREE

The Agenda 2030 announced the sustainable development goals (SDGs) which have since been taken up by governmental and non-governmental organisations globally to design their projects. In a similar vein, to accommodate SDGs in education and research, the Knowledge2Action (K2A) South Asia Cluster of Cooperation (CLOC) hosted a dialogue workshop with educators, researchers and practitioners from across South Asia in the January of 2020. I was one of the younger members who got a chance to be a part of this dialogue.

One of the recurring discussions was around “What qualifies as data?” I, myself, having moved from an engineering background to an interdisciplinary researcher had difficulties in understanding and conceptualizing research when I began in 2013. An engineering graduate is usually focused on inputs and outputs with little attention to the complexities in the black box of processes. The nature of data that I have begun to work with since 2013 has been a mix of quantitative and qualitative. When I have presented my qualitative or interdisciplinary work in some spaces, it has been shrugged off as lacking in ‘data’. Luckily, there have also been audiences which have understood the depth of my work from a short presentation and enquired and
encouraged me.

Such an understanding of what qualifies as data reflects in the value of the types of knowledge as well as the lack of funding for work which looks towards building up knowledge systems. There is a glaring gap in research funding between the engineering and natural sciences on the one hand and the social sciences on the other; interdisciplinary science sits somewhere in between but has its struggles. Ethnography, local histories, oral histories, traditional knowledge are yet to find takers in terms of funding and acceptance as valuable data. Methods such as storytelling, visual ethnography, science communication and theatre need to be encouraged. This was highlighted by many workshop attendees from their studies of natural disasters, forests rights and education. Most universities in India still follow traditional education systems, lowering the odds of ones with an interdisciplinary background from being a part of them. The dialogues towards newer forms of knowledge have been taking place and it was a pleasant experience for me to see the works of some of the attendees in the workshop. This platform enabled the exchange of knowledge and newer perspectives on stereotypes which makes initiatives such as K2A necessary.

Data and knowledge generation need to gain an understanding and pay attention to the local context, especially by researchers who come from outside the region. There have been instances of ‘helicopter researchers’ whose perspectives skew the data generated. The a lack of contextual understanding of local systems of knowledge and practices gets lost in research pre-determined only by western standards of knowledge.

During the workshop, we also discussed the issue of private investment in education. Although I might not be the right person to comment much on this issue, I shall present some of my observations. I have come to understand that even if everything described gets better and there is a harmonious world of research and funding, who would the funding be directed to? In many cases, it is the top tier universities where the funding flows to. How would one then create a space for the smaller universities and colleges? This should be taken into consideration when we talk about knowledge to action. The western-funded helicopter research phenomenon will then be replicated within a nation.

I come from a small town-village in a Himalayan valley. Only when I moved out of my home into the big cities of the Indian mainland, did I understand the remoteness of my place, its marginality and the many opportunities I lost. Despite the long journey, I feel that the further we reach out from the metropolis centres with such initiatives, the higher the likelihood of bringing awareness to young children about sustainability and the environment they live in. This dialogue workshop gave me a
little more faith in the steps we are taking in that direction.