National Research Foundation’s chance to bridge India’s science-society gap

What kind of research should the NRF fund so that the outcomes are innovative solutions to practical challenges?

Updated - September 26, 2023 02:34 pm IST

Published - September 24, 2023 10:30 am IST

Representative photo.

Representative photo. | Photo Credit: RF._.Studio/Pexels

The National Research Foundation (NRF) is a new research funding agency that the Union Cabinet recently approved. It has a budget of Rs 50,000 crore over five years and was set up to help boost research and innovation in India by providing more funding, streamlining the research funding process, and strengthening linkages between academia, industry, society, and government.

Following the announcement, there has been discussion among scientists around the kind of research that the NRF should fund such that the outcomes are innovative solutions to practical challenges. This is a difficult task due to an academic culture that is mainly directed by internal academic priorities and incentives, but not generally related to social problems and challenges.

Vannevar Bush’s argument

One prominent narrative on funding rationales is that the ‘relevance’ and/or the ‘utility’ of research work should not matter. This has been echoed in the NRF debate, with some commentators arguing that, since scientific advancements often arise unexpectedly, research shouldn’t be prescriptive or directed. Other experts have highlighted the importance of forging ties between academic scholars and other key players within the science, technology, and innovation (STI) system. This includes liaison with line ministries and the relevant industrial sectors right from the inception of the problem statement. Finally, a few experts have emphasised the importance of including societal stakeholders in thinking about both the issues and research pathways that STI should address.

The first argument rests on the unpredictable and accidental nature of many discoveries and contends that – in the words of Vannevar Bush’s 1945 advocacy paper ‘Science: The Endless Frontier’ – we ought to let “the free play of free intellects … dictated by their curiosity” drive innovation.

This linear, or pipeline, model assumes that new knowledge will automatically lead to new technology and innovation, fueling economic growth and addressing market gaps in knowledge creation. So the government should invest in scientific research because scientific breakthroughs will ‘naturally’ find their way into practical applications, via private sector innovation.

Many important technologies have benefited from discoveries driven by curiosity, including genome-sequencing, medical diagnostics, and several materials used in construction and various goods.

Daniel Sarewitz’s counterargument

But this argument has long been challenged. In his 2016 essay ‘Saving Science’, Arizona State University professor of science and society Daniel Sarewitz wrote that many key inventions in postwar U.S. were the product less of curiosity and more of the technological demands of the Department of Defense (DOD). Sarewitz contended that the DOD’s engagements with science illustrated that the “free play of free intellects” was not the main path followed in most instances of innovation.

The DOD provided critical investment and direction for fundamental research in diverse fields, from physics to molecular biology. Its investments influenced the rapid development of computers in the 1950s, and nurtured the growth of computer science as an academic discipline by funding research in institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University.

This acceleration in turn paved the way for the World Wide Web, which later led – after similar guidance and material support from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) – to companies like Google.

Revisiting the penicillin story

Even the narrative of the discovery of penicillin is less serendipitous than it is often depicted to be. In 1928, Alexander Fleming, a bacteriologist at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, unexpectedly observed that a mould, later identified as Penicillium notatum, had inhibited the growth of Staphylococcus, a bacterial genus responsible for ailments such as sore throat.

Fleming’s subsequent publication in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology in June 1929 only hinted at the potential therapeutic benefits of penicillin. Yet the actual substance was isolated by a team at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at the University of Oxford. Their target-driven endeavour from 1939, a decade after Fleming’s note, and subsequent industrial involvement in its production is what transformed penicillin into the life-saving drug it is today. Similarly, military foresight pushed for the first jet engines, which went on to transform civil and commercial aviation.

Many pieces of modern technology owe their existence to government-led innovations, as the economist Mariana Mazzucato has argued in her book The Entrepreneurial State (2011). This is to say that the ‘free play of intellects’ is a romantic notion that is not borne out in a closer reading of the history of science.

More realistic models of innovation

A new innovation model emerged in the 1980s called the ‘national innovation system’. This model is based on the idea that innovation to flourish a country needs fostering connections, promoting learning within systems, and empowering entrepreneurship. Countries like Japan and South Korea owe their innovation-led economic growth to the successful implementation of an interconnected innovation system, e.g. between automobiles companies and part suppliers, even though their basic science was not particularly strong in the 1970s-80s.

In the STI domain, these two frameworks to support science have historically governed the policy discourses of funding agencies worldwide: the pipeline model rooted in the post-war era, emphasising the role of basic research and assuming automatic translation to innovation and economic growth, and the techno-nationalist system from the 1980s, focused on building interconnectedness among universities, research institutes, companies and governments.

Now, a third innovation model, focusing on transformative change towards sustainability is emerging: there is consensus across countries spanning various levels of economic development that STI shouldn’t only foster growth, but that it also needs to transform society to make it environmentally and socially sustainable. To achieve this, citizen science and stakeholders participation help in informing science regarding the types of knowledge that can transform society towards sustainability.

Wind power in Denmark offers an example of the third model. In the face of the energy crises of the 1970s, Denmark’s grassroots environmental movement created local cooperatives and small firms that experimented with wind turbines, with support from national technological institutes and policies (feed-in tariffs). This coalition eventually led Denmark to become one of the leading exporters of wind-turbines, contributing to its transition to green energy. 

Historically, research funding by Indian agencies has preferred the pipeline model, allowing ‘free intellects’ to guide national progress in STI. The formation of the NRF now gives the country the opportunity to revisit its STI policies. While support to basic research is always an important part of the science policy-mix, there is now the opportunity to revisit our affiliation with the pipeline model and chart the way towards the newer models of innovation. These emphasise the importance of creativity led by social challenges and stakeholder participation  to achieve transformative innovation towards a more just and sustainable future.

Moumita Koley is an STI Policy Researcher, DST-CPR, IISc, and Consultant, International Science Council. Ismael Rafols is a senior researcher at CWTS University Leiden and UNESCO Chair on Diversity and Inclusion in Global Science.

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