On 9 August 2023, the Parliament of India passed the Anusandhan National Research Foundation (NRF) Bill 2023. The foundation, first proposed in the National Education Policy 2020, was envisioned as an autonomous body coordinating research funding in the country, especially for the research funding-starved universities and colleges. The foundation is built along the lines of the United States’ National Science Foundation and borrows from other national science councils.
The vision and the proposal
As articulated in the bill, the foundation purports to provide “high level strategic direction for research, innovation, and entrepreneurship” in the sciences, engineering and technology, health and agriculture, and the interface of technology with social sciences.
The foundation primarily aims to seed, grow, and facilitate research in Indian universities and colleges with low research capacity by providing research grants and infrastructure. It plans to provide a conducive research environment through different programmes, including fellowships and academic chairs. In essence, it seeks to bridge the gap between teaching and research in Indian universities and colleges.
Subhash C Lakhotia, Distinguished Professor and Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB) Distinguished Fellow, Department of Zoology, Banaras Hindu University (BHU), described this goal as “an essential requirement.”
NRF also seeks to prepare a roadmap for research in the country, enhance international collaborations, support the translation of research to technologies, document research expenditure and output, and encourage the private sector to invest in research.
The proposed budget for NRF is INR 50,000 crores for a period of five years, with ~28% of it (INR 14,000 crore) coming from the government and the remaining ~72% (INR 36000 crore) being the private sector’s share.
Shailja Vaidya Gupta, Chief Project Director, India-Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Ind-CEPI), described the “overall idea as it was conceived” as a “ground-breaking” one. She said,
NRF will definitely help the research and development ecosystem because there is additional money available, and its basic aim of bridging the gap between research and education is another very positive thing.
A not-so-independent body with the same financial administration struggles?
Although scientists and policy analysts laud the idea of having an autonomous body to guide research, the caveats are critical. With the finer details of NRF still being unavailable, there have been important questions about the autonomy, finance, and governance of the foundation in the minds of the stakeholders.
While both Lakhotia and Gupta agree that it is a terrific idea to have an autonomous body to govern research in the country, they soon point out that it would not be possible for NRF to be an independent body given the composition of its constituent members.
Lakhotia explained that it is unlikely that the NRF would achieve the stated autonomy because of the constitution of its regulatory board with the Prime Minister and two ministers at the helm and several government secretaries as members.
“The present organisational structure is very different from SERB, which was established in 2008 as an autonomous regulatory body, and which largely remained so,” Lakhotia said. He illustrated the point by citing the example of the zero-balance system of funding the research projects under the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the Department of Science and Technology (DST), which according to him, has crippled disbursement and utilisation of the limited research funds. “Fortunately, as an autonomous body, SERB did not have to follow this practice,” he said. He added that the autonomy of NRF in developing and supporting diverse research programs remains uncertain with the ‘top-heavy’ structure.
Gupta also concurs that the organisational structure makes it challenging for the body to be autonomous. Furthermore, she explains that the NRF is no longer independent as the body is now under DST. In fact, this year’s INR 2000 crore allocation that the union government made in its budget for NRF was not as a separate organisation but as part of the DST.
Gupta also explained that this lack of autonomy makes it difficult to solve the biggest challenge that Indian research ecosystem faces today: the problems of financial administration of research funds. “If NRF could structure its own governance and financial rules, it would have been the biggest initiative of the government,” she said.
The “how” questions
Apart from concerns about the autonomy of the foundation, there is also the concern about how the proposed objectives would be fulfilled and the money for the same would be raised. Although the bill addresses the “what” and the “who” questions, it does not answer many of the “how” questions.
“The modus operandi for supporting research in colleges and universities is unclear,” Lakhotia said, expressing concern that spreading limited resources thin would actually have a negative impact. “Private institutions may succeed in ‘cornering’ a greater proportion of the grant because of their better ‘face’,” he added.
Binay R. Panda, Professor, School of Biotechnology, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, raised some of these “how” questions with a roadmap to some possible answers in his article for The Hindu. He mainly addressed two broad areas at the heart of the bill: (i) How can NRF enhance the ease of doing science? (ii) How will the government raise the proposed amount from the industry?
Lakhotia also expressed similar concerns, particularly in terms of fund generation. “With the government’s commitment for the NRF budget being much smaller, we are not sure if the private sector will really contribute as much as proposed in the bill,” he said. If unsuccessful, it may in fact reduce the funds available for research in the coming years, he added.
In my perception, the government must support research and development (R&D) activities to a much higher level than at present, which already is a tiny fraction of gross domestic product (GDP).
NRF should have moved towards a significantly higher layout for R&D activities through public money rather than envisaging the present proposed level and that too relying on private funding.
In hopeful anticipation
At this point, the vision of NRF for what it was initially conceived to be in NEP 2020 seems to be highly appreciated, and deviations from this original idea seem concerning. Several questions arise around the execution of the plans proposed in the bill, the answers to which hold the key to its success.