A 'vision' statement must set some lofty goal and a reasonable timeframe to achieve it. Another important thing is commitment, which includes deployment of proper talent and monetary resources. If either of these is lacking, the goal or dream may not be achieved.
A 'vision' document is not an instrument for bragging about past achievements. It is about setting strategic vision and goals for the future. In the recently-formulated 'Vision 2040' document of Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana, in its golden jubilee year, about 20 pages are devoted only to past achievements. One starts to wonder whether one would ever see any specific strategic visionary goals.
Research can fit into three categories: (1) Transformational (new discovery); (2) Innovative (incremental enhancements); (3) Minor alterations in ongoing methodologies. 'Vision 2040' document lacks emphasis on the first category; some of the strategies fall in the second category; others in the third one.
I was surprised not to see any mention of the Rs 34-crore mega project on the sequencing of the wheat genome that was funded in December 2010 by the department of biotechnology, government of India. PAU is the leader of this project. Gurdev S Khush, a World Food Laureate, was present at the PAU press conference regarding the announcement of this award. I paraphrase his remarks: "The output from the project would benefit the Indian wheat programme to a great extent. The School of Agricultural Biotechnology at PAU has come of age within the past three years and has developed state-of-the-art-facilities in crop biotechnology and molecular biology."
Khush was proud of this major grant for three reasons: (1) The project had been sanctioned to his alma mater; (2) It would be operated by his own students; and (3) The project was sanctioned on account of the great vision and efforts of his US friends (for example, Bikram S Gill).
Khush had also remarked that the output of this project with relevance to enhancing wheat production and the food security would put PAU on the world map.
Sequencing of one of the 21 chromosomes of wheat by PAU would come close to being "transformational research". What is PAU going to do once it sequences the wheat chromosome assigned to it? This should be a strategic goal.
Another example of transformational research is from Purdue University (US), where a PAU alumnus is studying termite gut as a "bioreactor" model for biofuel purposes. While waste material from forestry (for example, sawdust, pellets) or from agriculture (maize stover, soybean residue) can be used to release sugars that can be fermented into ethanol, recalcitrance of lignins in wood is a major hurdle in the conversion technology. Termites can digest wood; they are highly efficient in getting sugars out of wood. So, understanding what cocktail of digestive enzymes termites use to extract sugars out of wood could be a novel way of generating energy from waste material.
After setting strategic goals, there must be some specific metrics for measuring success and recognising accomplishments. Progress must be monitored annually. Research plans should be reviewed each year to consider unanticipated challenges or unexpected opportunities that might have arisen, and adjust accordingly.
The 'Vision 2040' document may be modified to reflect strategic plans for the next 10 to 15 years instead of 27 years. It is difficult to foresee too far into the future. Past accomplishments of PAU should be covered in a separate document. A 'Visioning Committee' comprising scientists from PAU, other state agricultural universities (SAUs), and more importantly PAU alumni serving in prestigious positions and conducting cutting-edge research in advanced countries may be appointed. Hopefully, PAU will be able to modify the current document and develop an ambitious framework for action for the coming decade or so.
The writer, a former vice-chancellor of PAU (Ludhiana), is adjunct professor at Kansas State University (US). Views expressed are personal.