Reading the fine print: NRF may keep Indian research trapped in a rut

    • By,
      Pritish Anand – Academic Associate, Kautilya

On 28th June, 2023, the Union Cabinet approved the introduction of the NRF (National Research Foundation) Bill, 2023 to the Parliament. Aligned with the National Education Policy’s recommendations in 2020, the NRF is being hailed as a long overdue reform needed to transform the research ecosystem in India by boosting innovation. The NRF will be the main body responsible for directing the strategy and course of scientific research in the country. The government has approved a budget of ₹ 50000 crore from 2023 to 2028.

The main goals of NRF are to seed, grow, and mentor research across institutions in the country. It aims to address national priorities like sustainability, healthcare, etc., and resolve the issues of insufficient research funding, delay in grant disbursement, fragmentation and duplication of efforts in research, limited collaboration across stakeholders, e.g., industry, academia, etc., and the need to drive innovation, productivity and growth.

The Prime Minister will be the ex-officio President of the Board, supported by the Minister of Science & Technology and the Minister of Education as ex-officio Vice Presidents. The main governing body is the Executive Council, to be chaired by the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Indian government. NRF’s administrative department will be the Department of Science and Technology. NRF also proposes to subsume SERB (Science and Engineering Research Board).

NRF gets its justification from the reality that the current Indian research funding is insufficient. India spends 0.65% of its GDP on research and development against the global average of 1.8%. Furthermore, while India ranks 3rd globally in number of publications, it ranks 9th in citations and 40th in Global Innovation Index (2022). This disparity between publications, citations, and innovation means that most of the publications in India are not high-quality outputs. India also ranks 9th in patent applications. However, according to data from National Intellectual Property Office (2021), the ratio of patent grants to patent applications is approximately 1:2. Moreover, 62.5% of the patent grants are held by non-residents. These mediocre innovation statistics in India are expected to be solved by the NRF.

However, the design of NRF has many shortcomings that may result in a similar fate as that of SERB, a nearly-failed initiative far from achieving its intended purpose. The bill’s main drawback is its centralised and political leadership. The top positions in the governing board will be occupied by the government members, e.g., Prime Minister, Minister of Science and Technology, and Minister of Education. Thus, the shackles of political influence in research have not been removed in the NRF bill but rather have been tightened. Such leadership will continue to keep Indian research under a bureaucratic stronghold where the compliance burden is likely to be high.

NRF underscores that the projects must have clear goals and timelines. However, many projects can also be exploratory with uncertain outcomes, particularly in fundamental research. These projects drive success through creative choices during the course of research. However, NRF’s structured expectations may come at the cost of creativity in research as projects with stringent outcomes may get front-loaded or prioritised for funding. Thus, the strategic direction in research may get more mechanical than creative.

The NRF bill is getting rave reviews on the democratisation of research. However, the centralisation of funding may instead un-democratise research. The centralisation of funding will make rejected projects completely dead instead of giving them alternate funding options. Such rejection will particularly impact social science projects as the industrial alternatives to launch such projects are limited in social science-related fields. Hence, science projects will be favoured. Further, a highly centralised ecosystem will stifle autonomy which is fundamental for research. Researchers often cross-subsidize their projects through multiple funding opportunities and apply for fresh funding in projects under existing grants. This funding is helpful in projects with uncertain outcomes. NRF will take away such flexibility from the researchers.

Another critical issue with the bill is its contradictory approach towards the private sector’s role in research. While on the one hand, NRF will be the apex body regulating research, on the other hand, it is expecting the private sector to bring 72% of the budget, i.e., ₹ 36000 crore. However, one may ask: Where is the incentive mechanism for the private sector amidst such a centralised research environment? In terms of returns, fundamental research has a long gestation period, while applied research has a short gestation period. The private sector mostly counts on research with a short gestation period, i.e., applied research. The private sector may fear sunk costs in projects with long gestation periods. Further, it may be worth questioning why the private sector would fund more than the government. To shell out such large sums, it cannot be convincingly said whether the private sector will have the strategic vision and direction the country’s research ecosystem should take. Will that vision and direction be uniform and shared across different players? The private sector contributes to more than 70% of the expenditure on R&D in major economies; however, it accounts for less than 40% of R&D expenditure in India. Hence, the private sector’s extended role in funding with stringent government regulation is likely to be an incompatible marriage.

Another telling feature of the bill is its second-rate treatment of humanities. The NRF bill underscores the importance of funding research in science and technology. The project report on NRF developed by the Prime Minister’s Science, Technology and Innovation Advisory Council (PM-STIAC) clearly mentions that the majority of NRF’s budget would go to research in science and technology. It is critical to note that a significant funding proportion for science projects goes to equipment and materials. However, in humanities, the major funding proportion goes to personnel. Most key personnel, e.g., a PhD student, in a humanities project are funded by institutions or fellowships, which are largely uniform. So the humanities projects struggle to make the case for additional funding. Further, humanities have a high proportion of exploratory research with uncertain outcomes, which conflicts with the expectations of NRF. Hence, science projects may occupy the frontline of NRF funding, and humanities topics may get ignored. Further, the representation of experts from science in the governing board of NRF is higher than that of humanities.

IITs corner a major proportion of research funding in India. According to the Department of Science and Technology, about 65% of SERB funds are given to IITs, and a meagre 11% are given to state universities. This reality is not due to the lack of meritorious projects from state universities; rather, state universities often face systemic hurdles like persistent lack of infrastructure, complex internal compliance requirements, lack of execution capacity due to personnel shortage, etc. These ground realities may continue to be there even after NRF’s arrival. It is unclear how NRF will address the hegemony of IITs in Indian research.

Many other questions related to the NRF continue to linger: whether existing SERB projects will get disrupted, how NRF will support and encourage international collaboration, whether foreign travel during research will continue to be ignored in budgets, and how NRF is going to address the gender disparities in Indian research. The bill needs to be more specific on structures for seeding and promoting research, especially for institutions that are short of grants and endowments. It needs to address why sanctioned funds are often delayed.

In a nutshell, NRF is just a patchwork without addressing the root concerns plaguing Indian research. India needs a decentralised research ecosystem by giving autonomy, access, and support to institutions to raise funds and providing the private sector more “skin in the game”. Further, an academic leadership structure, a stronger representation of humanities and women, incentives for the private sector and the de-regulation of stringent compliance are critical to truly democratising research.

*The Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP) takes no institutional positions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views or positions of KSPP.