The pandemic has demonstrated the critical role long-term investments in research and development (R&D) play in meeting new challenges. Public research and academic institutions under different scientific departments and research councils worked in tandem to quickly develop and deliver tools and products needed for pandemic management. For Covid-19 vaccine development and clinical trials, public institutions provided the necessary research inputs and funding to vaccine manufacturers. Given all this, one would have expected R&D in key areas to get a boost. Instead, we are seeing a fragmented approach to research funding and hearing discordant voices from different quarters.
Unlike most developing countries and some developed ones, India has an elaborate scientific establishment consisting of over a dozen scientific ministries, departments, research councils, boards, commissions and advisory bodies at the Central level. Secretary-level scientist-technocrats and IAS officers head these organisations. The idea behind creating a distinct set of scientific departments for space, atomic energy, industrial research and so on was to insulate scientific research from the bureaucratic functioning of the government. This approach helped in laying a solid foundation in strategic areas and expanding the network of national laboratories. Over the years, the number of scientific departments has ballooned and they have got subsumed in the dominant bureaucratic culture. These departments have become highly centralised, resulting in delays in the release of research funds, grants, fellowships etc.
A major criticism the scientific establishment faced is that it promoted research in government labs at the cost of universities which were leading centres of research and knowledge creation before 1947. In later decades, efforts were made to correct this anomaly to some extent. In last year’s budget, the government announced its intention to establish a National Research Foundation (NRF) to ‘fund, coordinate and promote research’. The objective of this new body is to boost the research eco-system in identified thrust areas ‘without duplication of effort and expenditure’. The idea was included in the New Education Policy-2020 which said NRF will provide a ‘reliable base of merit-based but equitable peer-reviewed research funding’ to state universities and other public institutions whose research capability was limited. As a follow-up, the 2021-22 budget proposed an outlay of Rs 50,000 crore over five years, for NRF.
The announcement was welcomed since such a national funding agency for scientific research was much needed. The research community presumed that Rs 10,000 crore every year over the next five years would bring additional funds for research. Comparisons were made with America’s National Science Foundation (NSF) which serves as the gold standard for research funding. The euphoria, however, proved to be short-lived. It has now emerged from the proceedings of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology that NRF will be funded from the budgets of existing funding bodies like the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the Department of Biotechnology (DBT). Moreover, NRF will be managed by the Ministry of Education and will cover social science research as well. The promised Rs 50,000 crore thus is neither additional nor meant solely for scientific research.
If this is so, NRF will serve little purpose other than creating a parallel structure for research funding under a ministry whose core mandate is not scientific research. In 2008, the Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB) was established with similar objectives. The idea at that time too was to develop an NSF-like organisation, but DST did not want to loosen its position and control as a premier funding agency. The bargain ended up with SERB functioning under the DST with its secretary heading the Board’s governing body. The Board is a statutory body created through an Act of Parliament, but in effect, it has been reduced to the status of the subordinate office of DST. The overall funding kitty did not expand substantially. The same story is all set to replay with NRF, which will have the Education Ministry as the controlling body. DST and DBT have voiced their concern and want the government to keep NRF out of the areas of research they control currently.
If the promotion of research in universities is the objective, it could be achieved through existing funding mechanisms and schemes. For instance, SERB, which already supports projects in academic institutions, could be given additional funds to create an exclusive new vertical for supporting research in universities. DST operates a scheme called Promotion of University Research and Scientific Excellence (PURSE), which too could be strengthened further. For social science research, mechanisms like the Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR) could be renewed and adequately funded to support research in social science instead of handing this task over to NRF.
There is certainly a need for an overarching Central research funding agency that subsumes SERB and other funding mechanisms, but it should be an autonomous entity and not attached to any administrative ministry. This is necessary to keep research free from both bureaucratic interference and political influence. With NRF, the government is only seeking to redistribute the available R&D kitty and not expand it substantially. This is worrisome at a time when gross R&D expenditure as a percentage of GDP has been stagnating at less than one per cent though the absolute figure has gone up.
The government has been undermining the independent functioning of scientific departments, by nurturing another mechanism called the office of the Principal Scientific Advisor (PSA). This body is supposed to be an advisory one, but the lines between advice and implementation are often getting blurred. During the pandemic, the PSA was allocated Rs 100 crore for vaccine development from PM-CARES Fund (which is a private entity), while vaccine development is under the purview of DBT.
The now withdrawn circular about seeking the government’s permission for scientific webinars having foreign participants smacked of stifling academic freedom. A major policy initiative like the NRF was announced while the DST was busy developing a new Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) policy. The policy draft invokes great principles of a decentralised, evidence-informed, bottom-up, experts-driven, and inclusive approach to STI. The government actions in STI appear to undermine these very principles.
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