Time to put S&T policies back on track : The Tribune India

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Time to put S&T policies back on track

Need to create a conducive environment for pvt investments and meaningful industry-academia tie-ups

Time to put S&T policies back on track

REALITY: Simply blaming the private sector for not investing in R&D is not going to change the dismal picture. ISTOCK



Dinesh C. Sharma

Science Commentator

IN the past 10 years, innovation was perhaps the most quoted buzzword in speeches of the Prime Minister, Cabinet ministers and science bureaucrats in India. Several awards, missions and schemes were announced to promote science-based innovation in different sectors. It is, however, surprising that all this was happening without a proper enabling environment. The grand intentions of the Modi 2.0 government to boost scientific research remained a ‘work in progress’ at a time when the global research landscape is fast changing with the emergence of deep tech. Little progress was made on three critical counts — science and technology (S&T) policies, funding mechanisms and research priorities — and the new government’s agenda should be to prioritise them.

The NRF has been promised an outlay of Rs 10,000 crore a year, which is a minuscule part of the Centre’s present spending on R&D.

An exercise to develop a new National Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) policy was initiated during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Several drafts were prepared, but the policy remains on paper and is yet to be finalised. The policy was to replace the one released in 2013 by the UPA government. The first task of the new government on the science and technology front, therefore, should be to finalise the STI Policy and start its implementation in earnest. If the new dispensation finds that the draft is not good enough, it should junk it and continue with the 2013 STI policy framework. The policy goals enunciated in 2013 remain unfulfilled even after a decade.

Among the key objectives of the 2013 policy was to ‘position India among the top five global scientific powers by 2020’ and to increase the gross expenditure on R&D (GERD) to 2 per cent of the GDP. We have seen little progress on the expenditure front. India has slipped on this parameter. The GERD in 2013 was 1 per cent of the GDP. It came down to 0.66 per cent and 0.64 per cent during 2019–20 and 2020–21, respectively, according to the latest available data from the Department of Science and Technology. The 2013 policy was unequivocal about the need to increase GERD and enhance public investment in scientific research, but the 2020 STI draft is vague on this count. It talks of developing a ‘financial landscape of the STI ecosystem’ in which departments and ministries of the central, state, and local governments as well as government and private companies will set up an STI unit with ‘a minimum earmarked budget to pursue STI activities.’ On the face of it, it is an outdated idea. It was first proposed in the 1980s.

The technology development roadmap suggested in the draft is equally adrift. The policy draft seeks to promote technology self-reliance and indigenisation to achieve the larger goal of Atmanirbhar Bharat. For this, a two-way approach has been prescribed — indigenous development of technology as well as technology indigenisation. At the same time, it says, “international engagements will be facilitated to gain essential know-how towards creation and development of indigenous technologies.”

Another grand idea of the Modi government was the National Research Foundation (NRF) as a supra-research funding agency. It was first announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in her Budget speech in 2019. The NRF is still to see the light of day even after Parliament passed a Bill for its formation in 2023. The idea of a funding agency along the lines of America’s National Science Foundation was first proposed by the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Prime Minister, headed by Prof CNR Rao, in 2005. As a result, the Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB) was established in 2008 to streamline funding for scientific research. The NRF Act of 2023 repealed the SERB Act of 2008 and dissolved SERB.

There has been no credible justification from the government for replacing SERB with a new body. The only intention seems to be to create a centralised body to fund and also regulate research. NRF’s Governing Board will be presided over by the Prime Minister and two ministers (Science and technology and education) will be the Vice-Presidents. Even with SERB, researchers complained of bureaucratic delays, one can imagine the fate of such a heavily political governing structure for the NRF. In a large and diverse country like India, do we need a centralised funding mechanism based in New Delhi or multiple channels of funding in different sectors?

While GERD as a percentage of the GDP has remained static or dropped in some years, the kitty available for research in absolute numbers has gone up with rising GDP. The figure for 2020-21 was

Rs 127,380 crore. It is mainly driven by the government sector — the Central Government contributing 43.7 per cent, state governments (6.7 per cent), higher education institutions (8.8 per cent) and the public sector (4.4 per cent). The contribution of the private sector stands at 36.4 per cent. A bulk of the central government’s R&D expenditure is going for defence research (30.7 per cent), followed by space (18.4 per cent), agriculture (12.4 per cent), atomic energy (11.4 per cent), Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (8.2 per cent), Department of Science and Technology (6.8 per cent), Department of Biotechnology (4.4 per cent) and medical research (3.1 per cent), information technology (2.2 per cent), earth sciences (1.5 per cent), environment and climate change (0.8 per cent) and renewable energy (0.1 per cent). Going by this data, it appears agriculture, medical research, climate change, weather forecasting and renewable energy are not the research priorities of the government. Can we afford to neglect these key areas?

Simply blaming the private sector for not investing in R&D or hoping that the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds could be used to boost scientific research is not going to change the dismal picture. The NRF has been promised an outlay of Rs 10,000 crore a year (including private funding), which is a minuscule part of the Central Government’s present spending on R&D. We need a fundamental policy shift and a clear vision to enhance public investment in research. Whatever India has achieved in science since 1947 is a result of an unqualified thrust on public spending. At the same time, policies must create a conducive environment for private investments and meaningful industry-academia partnerships. We need a clear agenda for scientific research. 

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