In a pivotal move towards bolstering the nation’s research ecosystem, the Indian government has demonstrated its commitment to scientific progress by approving the National Research Foundation (NRF) Bill in 2023. While the Centre and others see this as just what the doctor ordered, others are skeptical.
Both governments and companies must continually innovate to stay relevant in evolving times. People’s preferences and tastes undergo constant change over time, necessitating products and services that align with current demands. Research and Development (R&D) encompass not only the tools people utilize but also the overall ecosystem in which they operate. Moreover, it involves ensuring that innovations and discoveries receive global recognition and attention. Emphasizing R&D is essential for staying at the forefront of progress and meeting the ever-changing needs of the world.
In India, It’s not that rosy. We’ve got world-class institutions like the IITs and others filled with veterans and the next generation of researchers. Yet, India trails behind in research output. The Institute for Competitiveness and the government think tank NITI Aayog published a study that found that India’s research and development (R&D) spending is among the lowest in the world. In fact, Data shows that R&D investment in India has declined from 0.8% of the GDP in 2008–09 to 0.7% in 2017-18. The National Research Foundation (NRF) Bill is a significant legislative proposal aimed at transforming India’s research and development (R&D) ecosystem.
Goals of the NRF Bill
- Boosting Research Funding: The bill seeks to establish the NRF as an autonomous body tasked with funding and promoting research across various sectors, fostering innovation, and driving scientific advancement. According to the comprehensive project report for the NRF, the foundation’s focus will be on funding competitive, peer-reviewed research proposals spanning various disciplines, including interdisciplinary research and research infrastructure.
- Promoting Interdisciplinary Collaboration: Additionally, the NRF aims to strengthen research capacity within the country. This will involve leveraging the expertise of exceptional active and retired researchers to mentor and nurture research at state universities and colleges, especially in areas where research is in its early stages or needs to be cultivated.
- Nurturing Research Talent: The NRF aligns seamlessly with a key objective of the 2020 National Education Policy (NEP), which aims to transform higher education institutions into centers of excellence for teaching and research. There will also be grants to universities for research proposals as well as infrastructure. Scholarships and fellowships offered by the NRF can attract and retain talented researchers, and empower more talented young people to join the research workforce, with a focus on under-represented groups to contribute to cutting-edge research and development projects.
- International Collaborations: The establishment of the NRF represents a significant stride towards propelling India into a knowledge-based economy. It will serve as a catalyst for large-scale research endeavors encompassing diverse interests, including national priorities like combating malaria, environmental conservation of rivers and clean energy initiatives, and global collaborative projects like LIGO.
- Focus on Social Sciences and Humanities: With India’s ambitious pursuits in healthcare, space exploration, enhancing manufacturing competitiveness, and developing smart cities, there is a pressing need for robust R&D efforts. The NRF is also mindful of ensuring research sensitivity to the specific needs and concerns of rural areas.
- Innovation Ecosystem: The Indian private sector demonstrates a keen interest in investing in cutting-edge research due to its potential for commercial applications. The NRF can collaborate with the private sector to secure a continuous flow of funds, extending beyond reliance on government allocations. Involvement from the private sector will foster stronger collaboration between academia and industry, ensuring mutual alignment of interests in accordance with industry requirements. Additionally, this partnership can inject an entrepreneurial spirit into research initiatives, driving innovation and facilitating the realization of practical solutions.
With careful planning, stakeholder collaboration, and responsive governance, the NRF can truly become a game-changer in India’s journey towards scientific excellence and technological advancement. However, addressing the potential drawbacks and challenges will be critical to unleashing the full potential of the NRF and ensuring it effectively supports cutting-edge research, fosters talent, and contributes to India’s growth as a global research hub.
- Overdependence on the Private Sector: In response to the Union government’s approval for the NRF, the Breakthrough Science Society, a nationwide voluntary organization dedicated to promoting science, culture, and a scientific outlook, has released a public statement expressing their disapproval about involving the private sector in the initiative.
- Inadequacy of Funding: The Union government has announced its intention to allocate Rs 50,000 crore for research through NRF in the upcoming five years (2023-2028). Notably, researchers have emphasized that a significant portion of this funding, Rs 36,000 crore, is anticipated to be contributed by the private sector. Consequently, the government’s direct expenditure on research amounts to approximately Rs 14,000 crore over the five-year period, averaging around Rs 2,800 crore per year. Concerns have been raised regarding the adequacy of this initial funding and what steps will follow once it is utilized.
- Impact on Curiosity-Driven Research: Additionally, the involvement of the private sector has sparked discussions about potential shifts in research focus. The emphasis on short-term industrial applications may divert support from “curiosity-driven research,” impacting research in social sciences the most.
- Potential for Political Influence: Despite being an autonomous body, the NRF could encounter bureaucratic obstacles in its decision-making process. The government’s involvement has sparked concerns among certain individuals. It is natural to be skeptical and concerned about the possible politicized or ideological bias, notably saffronisation, of potential and ground-breaking research projects in light of historical instances of government backing for research into concepts like “panchagavya.”
- Research and Development in India – An Overview – Invest India
- The NRF push to research in India: An explainer – Financial Express
- India’s R&D spends amongst the lowest in the world: NITI Aayog study – Economic Times
- National Research Foundation Bill 2023: Building a Foundation for a Futuristic and Self-Reliant India – Organizer
- Why the National Research Foundation Is Part Good News, Part Abeyance – The Wire
- Political leadership of NRF and private sector role in funding will hurt research, says researchers’ body – The Indian Express