As the adage goes, an expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less, until everything is known about nothing at all. Indeed, many of the major breakthroughs of the past decades have come as a result of deep research specialization in specific disciplines. However, this approach has led to isolated research, where even within the same university, the work of one researcher or one department often remains disconnected from the work of other researchers and departments. We have created and continue to create new knowledge in narrow slivers within disciplinary boundaries.

The research imperative of the 21st century is more holistic. It is now well-recognized that we need to develop a broader but rigorously researched understanding of the rapidly changing world of the future. We are also wiser today of the unintended consequences of human progress in the past century. We can ill-afford to repeat these mistakes as we shape our future.

For example, the first plastics were introduced in the early part of the 20th century, and found widespread use in subsequent decades. Today, we are battling to curb the environmental and human impact of plastic use. On a similar note today, must we not today understand how the continued growth of Artificial Intelligence (AI) could potentially change perceptions of what it means to be human? This study needs to draw upon technology, social theory and psychology, combined with carefully constructed trials and data analysis, which eventually feed into policy-making at multiple levels in society.

Therefore, in order to frame the contours of Research 4.0, we must ask ourselves one dominant question—what are the most important issues that the world needs to understand and address in the 21st century? The intent is to identify broad, long-term themes, rather than specific time-bound issues.

As a first example, we might consider the issue of sustainable human-machine relationships in a world of AI and robotics. Second, there is the looming millennial question of human purpose and ethics—what role humans would play in a machine-dominated world. Third, there is the matter of a sustainable human-environment relationship, which covers topics such as climate change, pollution, sanitation and water availability. Fourth, a sustainable and inclusive model of capitalism. Fifth, with substantial predicted increases in lifespan, how will demographics and societal structures evolve sustainably?

Research 4.0 needs to be structured along such themes. Staying with the above examples, one might consider a human-machine lab, a human-environment lab, a human purpose lab, a poverty alleviation lab and a demographics and society lab. Research at a university would then be directed largely through these labs.

Each of these labs or themes would be divided into sub-themes, over and over, until one arrives at the level of detail where a specific question can be taken up by a faculty member for research. As an example, consider the theme of human-machine relationships. This could encompass the following four sub-themes—human-centered AI, ubiquitous robotics, virtual and augmented reality and digital humanities. Each one of these sub-themes could be further broken down into greater levels of detail. Human-centred AI, for example, could be divided into three —human-society impact, augmenting human capabilities and human-inspired AI. Within the realm of human-society impact, one might question the impact of ethics and gender or racial biases in AI algorithms.

In this manner, one could cascade down from the big question of human-machine relationships to a specific researchable question. Conversely, this is the structure with which we could consolidate narrow slivers of new knowledge into a holistic and meaningful view of the future. This is Research 4.0.

The challenge of bringing Research 4.0 to life begins with finding the right faculty. Ideally, a faculty candidate’s research trajectory would fit into the university’s research vision and one of its labs. Candidates must not only have the scholarly rigour to dig deep into their slivers of knowledge, but also have the overall perspective and curiosity to understand and study how their research ties in with research at other parts of the university in order to address the world’s most important challenges. Further, since research and learning form a continuous feedback loop, candidates must also have the bent of mind to incorporate their research into curriculum.

An inevitable challenge is that of funding. Universities with large endowments must spend generously and wisely on research. In India, research is largely funded by the government. There is very little private funding in research. As a country, we invest less than 1% of our gross domestic product in research, while China, for example, invests more than 2%. This must soon change. Substantial tax incentives for companies would create an added incentive to look past quarterly pressures and invest in long-term research projects.

Society today is at an inflection point in many ways, as we journey into an unpredictable future. Modern universities have a major role to play at this juncture, to help society holistically understand and prepare for the future. Research 4.0 is here and now.