The Centre’s move to cancel a call for proposals under the Department of Science and Technology (DST)’s SATHI programme has sparked fears among higher education institutions of shrinking funding sources to procure sophisticated, high-end equipment that are vital for research and development.
A section of the academic community suspect the move to be a precursor to the introduction of the National Research Foundation (NRF), which will rely heavily on the private sector for investments to fund research.
SATHI (acronym for Sophisticated Analytical and Technical Help Institutes) scheme was launched in 2020 with the prime goal of establishing centres to house major analytical instruments that can be shared among institutions, while “reaching out to less endowed organisations”. DST mooted a consortium mode of approach involving clusters of a lead organisation hosting all equipment and at least four partner organisations.
The programme was seen as a golden opportunity for State-run colleges and other institutes that seldom enjoy access to such schemes that fund costly research tools and instruments.
SATHI has generated considerable interest among higher education institutions in Kerala with several ones forming consortiums to pitch project proposals.
Leading a consortium, University of Kerala (KU) partnered with APJ Abdul Kalam Technological University, Digital University Kerala, Regional Cancer Centre, Kerala Startup Mission, Institute of Advanced Virology, Kerala Medical Technology Consortium, and the Kerala Development and Innovation Strategic Council (K-DISC), to submit a project proposal for ₹87.03 crore under SATHI scheme last year.
Having advanced through a four-stage screening process including a final presentation held this month in Noida, the consortium expected an order sanctioning the project soon, G.M. Nair, director of KU’s Central Laboratory for Instrumentation and Facilitation (CLIF) that is proposed to house the SATHI centre, said.
This year, more consortiums including those led by Mahatma Gandhi University and Government College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram, responded to a DST advertisement that called for proposals in August.
To their shock, some institutions have received formal communication from DST informing them that the advertisement has been “cancelled”, while “heralding a promising new direction and initiatives ahead”. It also stated that the SATHI programme is “dynamically evolving to closely align with national priorities”.
While there is uncertainty on the DST’s future course of action, many academics believe the decision could be influenced by the passage of the Anusandhan NRF Bill, 2023, in Parliament recently. The foundation has been envisaged as a centralised body to fund research. While it anticipated an allocation of ₹50,000 crore over the next five years, the Centre hopes to draw nearly ₹36,000 from the private sector.
Such an arrangement, researchers fear, could pave the way for market forces to dictate research priorities, curtailing the autonomy of educational institutions in the process.