Delivering on a promise made four years ago, the government on Wednesday approved a proposal to set up a National Research Foundation (NRF) as an apex body to promote, fund and mentor scientific research in higher education institutions across the country, with the focus on cultivating the culture of research in universities and colleges.
The Union Cabinet cleared the introduction of a Bill in Parliament to enable the setting-up of the NRF, which is modelled on the lines of the hugely successful National Science Foundation of the United States. The NRF is estimated to have an initial budget of Rs 50,000 crore over a five-year period between 2023 and 2028.
India barely spends 0.7 per cent of its GDP on research and development, which is extremely low compared to many other countries. In fact, the gross expenditure on R&D declined from 0.84 per cent in 2008 to about 0.69 per cent in 2018, the last year for which confirmed figures are available. In comparison, the US spent 2.83 per cent, China spent 2.14 per cent, and Israel spent 4.9 per cent. Even Brazil, Malaysia and Egypt spend more of their GDP on research.
The proposal for an NRF was first floated in the public domain by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on January 3, 2019 during his address to the Indian Science Congress. The NRF found a second mention on January 20 that year during a joint session of Parliament, and then later in the Finance Minister’s speech during the Budget Session in July 2019. The creation of NRF was also one of the key recommendations of the National Education Policy 2020.
Science and Technology Minister Dr Jitendra Singh said the NRF would have come into existence earlier, but was delayed by the disruption caused by the Covid pandemic.
“The NRF Bill has now been formulated after having studied all the best models in the world, but it has been designed to suit Indian conditions. We have found that so far scientific research has been conducted in silos – in government departments and laboratories, central and state universities — with no uniformity in infrastructure, such as the kind that IITs in the country have. There has also been a lack of uniformity in the funding of scientific research. These issues have been addressed in the Bill,” he said.
The minister said the NRF would result in “democratisation” of science funding. “We are emphasising the funding of projects in peripheral, rural and semi-urban areas, which are neglected and never receive funding for science projects. It is a democratisation of funding of science,” Singh said.
The Department of Science and Technology’s main funding body – the Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB) – which was set up in 2008 and is responsible for funding science and technology start-ups, setting up incubators and funding science-related projects in central and state universities, will be absorbed in the NRF. According to DST officials, about 65 per cent of funds from SERB had been cornered by the IITs, and only 11 per cent flowed to projects in state universities.
Facilitating research in universities is expected to be one of the key focus areas for NRF.
“For some reason, there has been an artificial separation between research and higher education in the country. There are research institutions, and there are colleges and universities where very little research is carried out. One of the objectives of the NRF would be to build research capacities in our universities. The union of education and research must be restored,” said Spenta Wadia, founding director of Bengaluru-based International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, a centre of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.
The NRF would promote research not just in the natural sciences and engineering, but also in social sciences, arts and humanities, with one of the primary aims being finding solutions to the big problems facing Indian society.
Former Principal Scientific Advisor K VijayRaghvan said the NRF would turn out to be a major landmark for science in India.
“India has, in the past few years, announced several major new missions in fundamental and translational research like the supercomputer mission or the quantum mission. These need an efficient and integrated management system for implementation that moves the fulcrum of research into university system. We have also opened dozens of new universities – IITs, IISERs, AIIMSs, state universities, private universities and colleges. These, and our older university system, need injection of research funding and capabilities. Our research everywhere needs to be internationally competitive and linked to society and industry. The NRF aims to do all of this, and more,” VijayRaghavan said.
The NRF would be administratively housed in the DST and would have a 16-member governing board with two members from DST, five from industry, one from humanities and six experts who would be selected depending on the nature of the project being evaluated. Officials said the NRF would also provide fellowships for post-doctoral research, the funding for which is not available right now.
“Since the scope of the NRF is wide-ranging, impacting all ministries, the Prime Minister will be the ex-officio president of the board and the Minister of Science and Technology and the Minister of Education will be the ex-officio vice presidents. The NRF’s functioning will be governed by an executive council chaired by the Principal Scientific Advisor to the government of India,” the DST said in a statement.
Officials said of the Rs 50,000 crore estimated funding over the next five years, Rs 36,000 crore would come from the industry. Scientific research projects under the NRF would be funded by the DST and industry on a 50:50 basis.
“If the idea for a project is good, then the industry has no qualms in supporting it and funding it,” a senior DST official said. He said the DST will also consider including a Corporate Social Responsibility component in the Bill.