India plans to set up a national agency to increase research in the country’s thousands of universities, colleges, institutes and laboratories. Legislation to establish the fund is expected to be submitted to the Indian Parliament in the next three weeks.
The National Research Foundation (NRF) will have a budget of approximately US$6 billion over five years. It is intended that 70% of these funds will come from private sector investors and the remaining portion will be covered by the government.
The objective of the NRF is to “seed, grow and promote” research in all institutions in the country by strengthening ties between academia, industry and government, according to a statement from the Ministry of Science and Technology. “It’s a big move,” says Namita Roy Choudhury, a chemical engineer at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, who is collaborating with researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur.
On June 28, a bill to establish the NRF received the go-ahead from India’s top decision-making body, the Union Cabinet, which is led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
If the NRF is approved by parliament, Modi will act as its president and the science and education ministers will be its vice-presidents. The organization will also include a board of directors of scientists from various disciplines and an executive council headed by the government’s chief science adviser.
Partha Majumder, a geneticist and founder of the National Institute for Biomedical Genomics in Kalyani, India, says she is optimistic about the NRF’s prospects, but that its success will depend on how it is governed in practice. She adds that, as of yet, no publicly available document comprehensively describes how the NRF will operate and achieve its goals.
India’s economy is among the top ten in the world by gross domestic product (GDP). However, the nation’s spending on research and development is low compared to other countries with large economies, accounting for less than 0.7% of GDP in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available. For comparison, in the same year, China’s research spending accounted for more than 2% of its GDP, and this figure was even higher in the United States (3%). Several countries with economies smaller than India, such as Brazil and Malaysia, spend proportionally more on research and development.
Most of India’s approximately 40,000 higher education institutions are run by the states, and more than 95% of higher education students attend state-funded universities and colleges. But these establishments have limited capacity for research, says policy expert Shailja Vaidya Gupta, a former senior adviser at the Government of India’s Office of the Chief Scientific Adviser. Less than 1% of all higher education institutions in India conduct research, and state universities receive only 11% of the funding provided by the Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB) of the Department of Science and Technology, a of India’s leading research funding agencies. About 65% of SERB funding goes to the Indian Institutes of Technology, which are owned by the federal government.
The NRF was proposed in the 2020 National Education Policy as a way to build research capacity in India’s academic centers, rather than supporting the few that are already doing research. The NRF is configured to include the SERB.
“I think it would be very good to level the playing field,” says Sunil Mukhi, a theoretical physicist at the Indian Institute of Scientific Education and Research in Pune. “I hope the NRF can do that.”
However, some researchers doubt that the proposed funding body can attract enough investment from the private sector to reach the USD 6 billion target. Currently, only 36.8% of India’s investment in research and development comes from industry. By contrast, corporations account for about 80% to 90% of investment in this area in countries with high-tech economies, including Israel, South Korea, and Japan. The relatively small industry contribution to India’s research suggests that attracting corporate investors could be a challenge for the NRF, Mukhi says. “We are expecting [the proportion] miraculously double, but there is no clarity on how this will happen,” he says.
The Minister of Science and Technology did not respond to Naturerequest for comments.
Still, the funding will be a substantial increase from current levels if the NRF succeeds in meeting its goal of raising more than $4 billion from the industry, Majumder says. “It will be a quantum leap.”
According to a 2019 report from the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council on Science, Technology and Innovation, the NRF will be modeled after the US National Science Foundation, which accounts for about a quarter of federal funding for basic research. in the country’s universities and colleges. Although it is not yet clear how much the NRF will spend on basic research, Soumitro Banerjee, a physical scientist at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Kolkata, and secretary general of the Breakthrough Science Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the ideas: concerns that industry investors will gravitate towards projects that have commercial potential rather than those that are driven by curiosity.
A statement issued on July 3 by the Breakthrough Science Society said funneling grant applications through a centralized funding body, rather than passing them on to several smaller agencies that focus on specific areas, would reduce the options available to researchers. , particularly those looking to submit proposals. that they do not have “short-term industrial spin-offs”.
But Choudhury says increased investment in the industry could create entrepreneurial opportunities for researchers in the early stages of their careers, which could help India retain its scientific talent. It could also help the country turn more of its research into real-world results, he adds. “Social impact occurs when your research is translated across industry,” says Choudhury.