The scientific community in India is abuzz with curiosity and excitement after the Union Cabinet’s approval of the National Research Foundation (NRF) Bill 2023 in June this year to “strengthen the research eco-system in the country”.
The Bill is to be introduced in Parliament. Once passed, it is to establish an apex body to spearhead research and development, foster a culture of innovation, and nurture a research ecosystem across all universities and colleges in the country.
Simultaneously, the Bill seeks to repeal the Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB) Act 2008, under which the SERB was established as a statutory body of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) to carry out almost the same or similar functions which the NRF proposes to do.
The finer points
The idea of establishing the NRF as an independent foundation to promote and fund research was mooted by the Kasturirangan Committee in 2019 and adopted in the National Education Policy (NEP 2020). Importantly, both documents mentioned, in no uncertain terms, that the institutions currently funding research, such as the DST, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), and the University Grants Commission (UGC), as well as various other private and philanthropic organisations, would continue to fund research according to their priorities and needs independently.
The list of existing institutions funding research did not separately mention the SERB but there was no indication in the policy document that it would be abolished or subsumed into the NRF. Therefore, the scientific community had assumed that it shall, as a statutory body of the DST, continue to support and fund research as before.
To lend credence to the idea, it highlighted the point that leading research-producing nations had multiple public and private funding agencies; further, there was no reason that India could not stand to benefit from the practice.
The idea of having multiple research funding agencies gets further reinforced by the statement that the NRF would coordinate with other funding agencies and work with science, engineering, and other academies to ensure synergy of purpose and avoid duplication of efforts.
The financial outlay
Highlighting the lack of a conducive research ecosystem and underinvestment in research, the Kasturirangan Committee had said that the NRF would get an ‘annual grant of Rs. 20,000 Crores (Rs 2 Kharab or 0.1% of GDP)’.
It did not say how long this grant would continue, but it did note that research spending in the country was a meagre 0.65% of GDP compared to 2.8% in the United States, 2.1% in China, 4.3% in Israel and 4.2% in South Korea. It expressed concern that research and innovation spending in the country had declined from 0.84% of GDP in 2008 to 0.69% in 2014.
Against this backdrop, even those who were pessimistic had felt that the proposed annual grant would continue until the research spending in the country reached the level it had been in 2008. The optimists in the community had hoped that it might continue until it reached the level of research spending in the U.S.
The NEP 2020 adopted the idea, but without any specific financial commitment. In the meantime, public and private expenditure on research and development taken together kept sliding to touch 0.64% of GDP in 2020-21 compared to 0.76% in 2011-12.
A Press Information Bureau release suggests that the NRF will have ₹10,000 crore for five years and thus get a total of ₹50,000 crore. Despite the scant details available in the public domain, it shows that the government grant or budgetary support would be at the most ₹14,000 crore while the remainder (₹36,000 crore) is to be mobilised through industry and other private philanthropic sources. This would effectively mean that the NRF would get a maximum annual grant of ₹2,800 crore over the next five years, a mere 14% of what the Kasturirangan Committee had recommended.
Following the repeal of its Act, the SERB will be subsumed into the NRF. The SERB was established as a statutory body of the DST to plan, promote and fund internationally competitive research in emerging areas of science and engineering. The SERB has been instrumental in building a sustainable research ecosystem ‘through a diverse programme portfolio that includes grant funding, fostering young researchers, recognising and rewarding research excellence, promoting scientific networks and partnerships, and enhanced gender and social inclusiveness’.
Budgetary allocation for the SERB had steadily increased from ₹200 crore in 2011-12 to ₹1,000 crore in 2018-19. Since then, allocation declined to ₹742 crore in 2020-21, but again rose to ₹911.46 crore in 2021-22. SERB programmes, schemes and activities have been important in financing basic research in science and engineering, and most of them will continue under the NRF with some tweaking and tinkering.
It is hoped that the budgetary allocation for the NRF will not be reduced by the amount allocated for the SERB. Experience shows that when schemes are merged or subsumed into a new scheme, the allocation for the new scheme is generally lower than the total for the discontinued schemes.
Greater relevance now
The criticality of research and knowledge creation and the importance of enhancing funding for research has been amply highlighted by the New Education Policy. It insists that the economic prosperity of many developed countries, now and in the ancient past, can be attributed to their intellectual capital and to their fundamental contributions to new knowledge in science, arts and culture. It cites India, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece as examples.
The NEP argues that a robust research ecosystem acquires greater importance now due to growing challenges in the world and opportunities due to technological advancements.
The policy asserts that India has had a long tradition of research and knowledge creation in science, mathematics, art, literature, phonetics, language, medicine and agriculture, which needs to be strengthened to make India a leader. These are laudable ideas and intentions, but need to be backed by ample financial support, at least to the extent the Kasturirangan Committee had insisted upon.
Furqan Qamar is former Adviser for Education in the Planning Commission and a Professor of Management at the Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He was also Secretary General of the Association of Indian Universities and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Rajasthan and the Central University of Himachal Pradesh. The views expressed are personal