By Dr. Soma Marla
The Union Cabinet last week approved the introduction of the National Research Foundation (NRF) Bill 2023 to promote Research and Development in the country. The program which is budgeted with Rs 50,000 crore for five years (2023-28) is aimed at fostering research and development in various national institutes, IITs, Universities, and local colleges with an emphasis on innovation. As part of the controversial National Educational Policy (NEP 2020) the task is to reorganize the foundations of Indian science with a big emphasis on markets and corporate instead of serving the immediate needs of the people. The bill is proposed to be introduced in the forthcoming monsoon session of Parliament.
NRF is a single-window research funding body. Several earlier government funding agencies such as CSIR, DST, DBT, and others stand dissolved now. NRF is established to centralize approval of funding and filter them to suit the objectives of saffron ideas of the NEP. The bill repeals the Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB) established by Parliament in 2008 and subsumes it into the NRF.
NRF is being established at a critical time when the Indian science sector is plagued with a funding crisis and dilution of social objectives entrusted to it at the dawn of Indian independence. Rarely does one come across within national research institutes a basic research project aimed at the improvement of fuel efficiency of engines in either aircraft or automobiles, nuclear fusion, alternative fuels, climate change, silicon chips, and sequencing of pathogenic genomes. Many of the IITs and national institutes which in the recent past were known to conduct some world-class research and have successfully developed turbine engines, heavy boilers, animal, and human vaccines (against TB, leprosy, and others) are now encouraged by government funding agencies to address either insignificant research projects aimed at “unearthing” miracles of Vimana related ancient aircraft or Panchgavya, cow urine or dung insect repellent capsules.
Sadly, important research projects addressing waterborne, endemic diseases like Tuberculosis, and malnutrition, fundamental research in electronics, microchip development, alternative sources of energy, environment, safe drinking water, and others are grossly neglected through the austerity in funding. The aspirations for a truly functional research ecosystem are being sacrificed for myths and pseudo-science. Today the world is led by scientific innovation and knowledge. Four of the five major companies in the world (Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft) are knowledge-based. Unless India rushes to conduct research in new knowledge areas like AI, genome sequencing, or clean green hydrogen we will miss the technology bus and continue to remain a huge consumer space for western multinational companies.
India’s investment in research and innovation (R&I), as a percentage of GDP, has steadily dropped from 0.86 percent in 2008to about 0.66 percent in 2018; whereas it was 2.9 percent in the USA,2.14 percent in China,4.8 percent in Israel and 0.69 percent in South Africa. The number of researchers per lakh of the population is only15 in India, compared with111 in China, 423 in the US, and 825 in Israel. As a direct consequence, India lags in the number of patents and publications generated. The challenges include an inconsistent funding stream (uncertainty of regular salaries to project employed young scientists and their low salaries and a multi-layered hierarchical administrative approval system. I personally experienced, funding agencies like the Department of Biotechnology or DST releasing the bulk of the funds at the very tail end of the financial year.
According to World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), China submitted 1.59 million patents, USA 591743, while India made a mere 61,573. We pride ourselves that today we emerged as the fifth largest publisher of scientific articles. However, nearly 80 percent of them are not from peer-reviewed major scientific journals. At the beginning of the recent COVID epidemic, the Union government initially ignored all warnings of the scientific community, encouraged huge mass gatherings (like Kumbh melas), and promoted unscientific and pseudo-science practices like banging utensils, lighting diyas, use of cow urine or clinically untested country medicines.
Only after huge resistance, and public statements by the scientific community government finally woke up and took measures to import COVID medication and vaccines and their indigenous production. INSACOG, a genome body under the Department of Science and Technology with branches across the country established RTPCR testing for genome sequence, identifying, and monitoring viral variants to control the spread of the epidemic. The huge contribution by scientists of INSACOG in speedy sequencing and identification of variants from time to time in controlling the epidemic deserves appreciation.
With the meagre allocation of funds in ratio to GDP and in NRF, the exclusion of crucial scientific themes like Darwinism, the periodic table, pollution, and climate change from the syllabus in the school curriculum it is unlikely to promote enthusiasm to research in classrooms under recent NEP. It may not cultivate the right environment among young students and attract them to science. In this scenario, NRF would not be able to transform the research ecosystem in regional universities and colleges and generates crores of jobs in the knowledge economy as promised.
For overall industrialization and agricultural development, self-reliance in science and technology (S&T) assisted by scientific temper is crucial. In independent India, till the middle of the 1980s (till the beginning of neoliberalism) it was believed that science and technology are very much needed for independent development and they cannot be borrowed or bought from the West. We need to develop these capabilities ourselves indigenously. Consequently, indigenously developed science and technology in strategic sectors, like space, nuclear energy, and defence, agriculture was supported by national research labs of CSIR, ICAR IITs, and major universities.
Manufacturing goods under “Make In India” by importing knowledge and machinery does not help to build a self-reliant country. India is a big and good market. Naturally, western multinational corporations are quite interested in influencing our policies in scientific research. Hence western nations denied assisting India in the first decades after independence. Only USSR helped us to build our public sector and strengthen our economy in sectors like steel, energy, pharmaceuticals, space, and atomic energy. Reliance, Mittal, and other industries owe their origins to ONGC, the Steel Authority of India, and BHEL.
Prime Minister Modi is pushing the RSS agenda through National Research Foundation to replace self-reliant science with reliant research. NRF intends to hand over public funded research, to the private sector to serve corporate business interests. Of Rs 50,000 crores (for a period of 5 years), only Rs 10,000 crores will come from government coffers, and the rest Rs 40,000 crores will be from the private sector. Interestingly, the private sector is not interested in R&D or in developing significant indigenous capability and the share of the private sector in scientific research conducted in the country is very minimal. The private sector prefers to import ready-made technology from Western multinational companies to manufacture cars, mobile phones, and other goods. But it readily uses the outcomes of public sector-sponsored research in petroleum technology, drug production, energy, agriculture, and telecommunications.
From the very beginning, RSS openly opposed self-reliance and planning for the nation’s development. Import of machinery, and spare parts with transferred technology from Western multinationals in the production of automobiles, mobile phones, and all other goods cannot be defined as self reliance. Self-reliance means the use of indigenously developed technology, machinery, and goods production should be local, generating millions of jobs for our youth. Savarkar’s Punyabhoomi and the aim of Sangh’s philosophy is to suppress questioning, reason, and science by subjugating people to the myth of ancient scientific, cultural, and scientific glory by denying the development of indigenous science and technology. The Sangh also aims to sell out the vast Indian markets to Indian and Western multinational corporations.
National Research Foundation cannot improve the research ecosystem but attempts to push self-reliant scientific research to rely on domestic and foreign corporations with an objective to arrest the country’s independent development and welfare of people. (IPA Service)