However struggle for clarity on the ‘exclusively science or all inclusive’ mandate in the bill

The scientific community is upbeat about the proposed National Research Foundation (NRF) bill. The Union Cabinet on June 28 had cleared the proposal for the bill to be tabled in Parliament, which many see as India’s watershed moment to foster an ecosystem of innovation and R&D.

What is being equated with National Science Foundation in the US, the NRF has been provided a financial outlay of ₹50,000 crore (approx ₹10,000 crore each year) to be spent on research and innovation projects over a period of five years between 2023 and 2028.

Despite industry, academia and the scientific fraternity repeatedly raising the need for a strong framework to boost research, the NRF was realised only after about four years since its first mention by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an event of Indian Science Congress in 2019. Notably, the formation of NRF is also one of the recommendations in the National Education Policy 2020.

Addressing chronic issues

The NRF will address certain chronic issues faced by the research fraternity such as no uniform infrastructure for scientific research, lack of uniformity in funding as most of the scientific research is found to be conducted in silos — some by private entities or government departments or Central or State universities.

Commenting on NRF, Dr Anunaya Chaubey, provost, Anant National University, Ahmedabad, said, “In the last decade or so, there certainly has been a growth in research mindset across institutions. But, clearly more work needs to be in, and more support and bigger funding is required. The NRF addresses these gaps and I am sure it will go a long way in facilitating research across disciplines in the country and lead to more knowledge building, innovations and sustainable solutions.”

Underlining the current challenges for the R&D ecosystem, Vimal Shah, Deputy Registrar of Gujarat Biotechnology University, said, “The current framework of the research ecosystem has a challenge on the regulatory front. Instead of running through 8-10 regulatory institutions at present, if we get one regulatory institution it will be a big push. Considering the current challenges of administrative loopholes and flexibility issues, it seems that a single-umbrella approach is being developed. It will surely have an impact at the grassroot level. The NRF will have a spill-over effect of 10-12 times from what is being committed.”

NRF also has the potential to address the manpower issues that plague the research framework in India. Shah said, “In the case of a Junior Research Fellow, he would get much higher remuneration outside India. In order to sustain the talent within India, the financial emoluments will have to improve. NRF is believed to provide a steady engagement for 3-5 years under the contract.”

S Pavithra, a teacher and researcher in a Chennai college, describes how those in arts and science colleges affiliated to universities would struggle for grants and often were ignored as “we were not considered research institutions, since we do both academics and research. This is definitely a welcome move if they uphold and honour the real agenda.”

Somak Raychaudhury, Vice Chancellor, Ashoka University, said, “For some time, there has been a recognition of the need to unlock more public and private capital, to accelerate India’s ambition to become a global leader in Research and Development. The Central government has already taken steps in the right direction, in cutting-edge areas like quantum computing, semiconductors and artificial intelligence. The proposed bill leading to formation of NRF and strategic investments planned in wide-ranging scientific areas are key developments that are coming at the right time.”

Seeking bigger funding

However, for Pankaj Chandra, Vice Chancellor of Ahmedabad University, the key lies in the details of the NRF bill that is yet to be tabled in Parliament. “Setting up such a foundation is a good thought as it will bring funding and direction to the research. But is it an overarching body for all research in the country — science and non-science? There is no clarity yet. Today research in science and technology can’t be remote from social sciences research. These are interdisciplinary. I hope NRF has a broader mandate.”

While welcoming the NRF bill wholeheartedly, Chocko Valliappa, Vice Chairman, Sona group of Institutions, Salem, expressed his disappointment at the amount set aside. According to the recommendations, the government will contribute ₹10,000 crore over five years while the private sector is expected to invest around ₹36,000 crore. “It is groundbreaking that the NRF will be funded by both the private sector and the government as both stakeholders will have a skin in the game but the ₹2,000 crore per annum allocation from the government looks too insignificant to me,” he said. Research has the power to solve the problems of humanity, he said, hoping more funding will be created.

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