Cabinet agrees draft bill to transform research landscape


An overarching national research agency in India to assess, fund and coordinate research in all types of institutions, facilitate research collaborations between universities and with industry, and promote community-based research in smaller universities has moved a step closer after India’s cabinet, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, this week approved a draft bill to set up the new National Research Foundation (NRF).

The much-anticipated bill to establish the NRF as the apex research body will be tabled in parliament in the upcoming parliamentary session due to start in the third week of July. It is expected to pass into law by the end of the year.

The proposed National Research Foundation is being seen as the most significant restructuring of India’s research sector for decades, and one that goes far beyond amalgamating existing sectoral research funding bodies such as the Science and Engineering Research Board, which it will replace.

It is also seen as instilling a research and innovation culture in Indian universities which has not existed in the past beyond a small number of institutions, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), experts said. Currently less than 1% of India’s 40,000 higher education institutions are involved in research, according to the government’s own estimate.

Once approved, the “bill will pave the way to establish NRF that will seed, grow and promote Research and Development (R&D) and foster a culture of research and innovation throughout India’s universities, colleges, research institutions, and R&D laboratories”, a government statement said on 28 June.

“NRF will forge collaborations among the industry, academia, and government departments and research institutions, and create an interface mechanism for participation and contribution of industries and state governments in addition to the scientific and line ministries. It will focus on creating a policy framework and putting in place regulatory processes that can encourage collaboration and increased spending by the industry on R&D,” the statement said.

Part of National Education Policy

The NRF was first proposed as part of the National Education Policy (NEP) released in 2019. Members of the NEP committee had studied other national research funding bodies such as those in Brazil, Mexico and particularly the US National Science Foundation, before making their proposals, sources said.

Notably, Prime Minister Modi visited the US National Science Foundation headquarters during his 21-24 June state visit to the US, an important indication that research was high on his agenda.

The government had already earmarked INR500 trillion (US$6.10 billion) for research over the next five years (until 2027-2028), of this, INR140 trillion (US$1.5 billion) of public money from the national budget is expected to be channelled through the NRF once it is set up, with the rest of the NRF’s funds coming from public sector enterprises, industry, foundations and international research agencies, according to the government.

Chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC), Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar welcomed the cabinet decision, saying “The efforts made by higher education institutions to enhance the research ecosystem on their campuses will get an impetus.”

He added: “NRF will provide an excellent opportunity for academic, industry and research institutions to work together on the most pressing challenges of our country to make India the front-runner in research and innovation.”

Dr Vidya Yeravdekar, pro chancellor of Symbiosis University, Pune, and chairperson of the higher education committee of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) said: “This NRF bill has certainly created a watershed moment.”

She added that the bill “will not only address the research funding disparity but will also fundamentally redefine the research and innovation landscape of the country”.

The Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Science and Technology Jitendra Singh told media on Wednesday that, among other things, the NRF was meant to ensure scientific research was conducted and funded equitably with more participation from the private sector.

“Right now, we have eminent institutions like the IITs and IISC Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru) that get the bulk of (public) research funding, but state universities get very little … about 10% of the research funds. The NRF will correct this,” Singh said.

“The IITs do not need to depend on NRF because they have the infrastructure and the resources. But an innovative person, in a village, who wants to establish a start-up needs the money,” he said.

Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan said the proposed NRF will focus on “need-based” research, adding that interdisciplinary research will be promoted.

Modi at the helm

The proposed NRF will be governed by a board consisting of eminent researchers and professionals across disciplines, with the Department of Science and Technology as its administrative arm. Research funds currently administered within different ministries will be integrated into the NRF, which will be supplemented with additional funds, according to the government.

Eye-catchingly, the prime minister will chair the NRF board with the ministers of science, technology and education as ex-officio vice presidents. This has been criticised in the past, when it was first proposed, as a politicisation of the new science funding agency. Academics stressed that the NRF’s decisions needed to be autonomous and based on the best science.

However, government officials noted that because of the NRF’s wide ranging scope, involving a number of ministries, it was right that it should be coordinated by the prime minister’s office. The NRF’s functioning will be governed by an executive council chaired by the principal scientific adviser to the government, they said.

Chetan Singai, academic lead, Chanakya Fellowship Programme in Social Sciences at Chanakya University, Bengaluru (Bangalore) and a former full-time member of the NEP drafting committee, told University World News that at least three ministries and several, sub-ministries that focus on niche areas such as agriculture and environment research were involved.

“The research aspect of the NRF is a multi-ministry, multi-department activity. So, if you made a minister, (such as the) education minister the chairperson, you will not be able to have inter-ministerial coordination,” he explained. “With research as a cross cutting experience, it would be useful to have this (prime minister at the helm), because the relationship between the centre and the states is also very critical.”

However, he noted that the NRF will also benefit many smaller institutions. While IITs dominate mega projects, a lot of research is going on in smaller universities “where they are doing research on the local context – this is happening in most universities”.

Singai added: “Many public state universities or teaching intensive universities, are unable to focus much on (research) grant seeking because as teaching-intensive universities they are busy teaching. So, essentially, this will mean the government can ‘hand hold’ a few” under the new structure.

“In this NRF, there is not just seed money which will grow, but also collaboration across institutions within the local context, plus mentorship by some of the good institutions of national importance, guiding them on various aspects of research.

“This will build capacity for quality research across the country in all disciplines, not merely science technology so that (in the past) social science and many other disciplines were suffering,” Singai said.

Concern about the social sciences

However, Eldho Mathews, deputy advisor, Unit for International Cooperation at the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi, speaking in his personal capacity, told University World News that there was still some concern about the inclusion of social sciences research.

“The latest discussions are mainly centred around the role of the Department of Science and Technology in the proposed new body. That means the new research foundation will be dominated by its objectives related to scientific research. Of course, social science and humanities may be part of that, but it is not clear how the social science and humanities will be covered,” Mathews said.

He pointed out that while the current Science and Engineering Research Board will be integrated into the NRF under the draft bill, there is nothing mentioned about the Indian Council for Social Science, the major funding body for social science research which has almost two dozen different funding instruments and also funds individual research.

Mathews hoped the bill, which has not yet been made public, will make it clearer in addition to how state funds will be rolled into the NRF.

State governments are responsible for a large number of universities – up to 400 of them, many of them research universities, he said, adding that ”state governments also have a major role (to play in) social impact – the green transition and also Sustainable Development Goals – and connecting to the community”.

Facilitating international and industry collaboration

The intent of the NRF is not necessarily to gear up for big international partnerships, but rather to focus on expanding the national knowledge base. However, others have noted that it will have a positive impact on international research collaboration.

“It will definitely make international collaboration easier because we will have a central higher body. Now we have decentralised, multiple bodies and very often people were unable to break through the channels, (to set up collaborations),” Singai said.

Public-private partnerships

Some have noted that the US$6.1 billion allocated to the NRF over five years is a small amount given the size of the higher education sector, although the number of research universities is currently small.

“It is not a big amount as it is for the five year period. But when you also take into account the absorption capacity of institutions during the initial phase, this is a good amount,” said Mathews.

Ensuring institutions are able to absorb the changes to the research funding environment “is going to be critical because funds alone cannot make any major impact. You have to have leadership-level changes,” Mathews noted. Using the available resources by setting up new initiatives also needs leadership which may be lacking in some institutions, he said.

Some commentators in India pointed out the allocation for the NRF includes industry funding though it is not yet clear how the industry contribution has been estimated. Mathews said the government was targeting Industry Corporate Social Responsibility Funds, to be brought under the NRF.

Facilitating public-private initiatives, particularly university-industry collaboration is a key plank of the proposed NRF.

The UGC this week issued draft guidelines on ‘sustainable and vibrant university-industry linkages’ for Indian universities, made public on 30 June for feedback. Higher educational institutions have been asked to take measures to boost R&D by creating R&D clusters at state or regional levels through university-industry linkages “to address problems of high societal relevance besides equipping students with required skill sets, making them job ready through internships”, according to the UGC draft.

Higher education institutions will also be allowed to appoint industry professionals in governance bodies such as boards of studies, academic councils and on other university committees, according to the proposed rules.

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