Mainstream Weekly

Home > 2023 > Can The New National Research Foundation Redeem Ailing Indian science? | (...)

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 28, July 8, 2023

Can The New National Research Foundation Redeem Ailing Indian science? | Soma Marla

Friday 7 July 2023, by Soma S. Marla


The Union Cabinet last week approved the establishment of the National Research Foundation (NRF) to promote Research and development in the country. The Rs 55 thousand crore funded scheme (through a period of five years) 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, the task is to reorganize the foundations of Indian science with a big emphasis on markets and corporations instead of serving immediate people’s needs. The bill is proposed to be introduced in the forthcoming monsoon session of Parliament.

NRF, a single window research funding body and dissolves several earlier government funding agencies such as CSIR, DST, DBT, and others. NRF is established to centralize approval of funding and filter them to suit the objectives of saffron ideas of the National Education Policy.

NRF is being established at a critical time when Indian Science is plagued with a funding crisis and dilution of social objectives entrusted on it upon the nation’s independence nearly seventy years back. Rarely does one come across in Its or 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, sequencing of pathogenic genomes. Although many of the IITs and National institutes till the recent past were known to conduct some world-class research and have successfully developed turbine engines, heavy boilers, and 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 Tubercluosis, malnutrition, fundamental research in electronics, microchip development, alternative sources of energy, environment, safe drinking water and others are grossly neglected with the availability of very low funding. Instead, Thus of late, the aspiration needs of a truly functional research ecosystem in the country is being sacrificed to glorify mythical pseudoscience. Today the world is ruled by scientific innovation and knowledge. Four of the five major companies in the world (Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft) are knowledge-based and unless India rushes to conduct research in new knowledge areas like AI, genome sequencing or clean Green hydrogen we will again miss the technology buss and continue to remain huge market space for western multinationals.

India’s investment in research and innovation (R&D), as a percentage of GDP, has steadily dropped from 0.84% in 2008 to about 0.69% in 2018; whereas it was 2.8% in the US, 2.1% in China, 4.3% in Israel and 4.2% in South Africa. The number of researchers per lakh of the population is only 15 in India, compared with 111 in China, 423 in the US and 825 in Israel. As a direct consequence, India lags in the number of patents and publications generated. According to the World Funding size, funding is one of the constraints which troubles the scientific community. The other challenges include an inconsistent funding stream (uncertainty of regular salaries to project-employed young scientists and their low salaries and multilayered hierarchical administrative approval system. I personally experienced, funding agencies like the Department of Biotechnology or DST release bulk of the funds at the very tail end of the financial year.

According to the Intellectual Property body (WIPO), China submitted 1.538 million patents, USA 605,571, and India a mere 45,057. We pride that today emerging as the fifth largest publisher of scientific articles. However, near 80 percent of them are not from peer-reviewed major Scientific world journals but with low citation index.

In the beginning of the recent COVID epidemic, the Union government initially ignored all warnings by scientific community, instead encouraged huge mass gatherings (like Kumbhmelas) 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, public statements by the scientific community, the government finally woke up and took measures to import COVID medication and vaccines and their indigenous production. INSACOG, a genome body under Department of Science and Technology with branches across the country was established to genome sequence, and PCR testing, and identify, and monitor viral variants to help 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.

NRF would Foster scientific research in regional universities and colleges in provinces is another promise made by Union Minister for S & T. However, With meagre allocation of funds in GDP and with the exclusion of crucial scientific themes like Darwinism, the Periodic table, pollution and climate change in the syllabus in the school curriculum it is unlikely to promote enthusiasm to research in classrooms under recent National Education Policy. It may not cultivate right environment among young students and attracting them to Science. In this scenario, NRF would not be able to transform research ecosystem in regional universities and colleges and generate crores of jobs in knowledge economy as being promised. Hope it would not end up yet another Jumla as was with several other government schemes.

Self Reliance to Reliance

For overall industrialization and agricultural development, self-reliance in science and technology (S&T) assisted by scientific temper is crucial. In independent India till mid 80’s (till the beginning of neoliberalism) it is believed that science and technology are very much needed for independent development and they can not be borrowed or bought from West. We need to develop these capabilities ourselves indigenously. Consequently, indigenously developed science and technology in strategic sectors, like space, nuclear energy and defence, and agriculture supported by national research labs of CSIR, ICAR IITs and major universities helped the nation to be self-reliant.

Manufacturing goods under MAKE IN INDIA by importing knowledge and machinery does not help to build a self-reliant nation. India is a big and good market. Naturally Western multinational corporations are very 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 origin to ONGC, Steel Authority of India, and BHEL. For example, BHEL, a leading power plant supplier till 90s, is now a far weaker player in the global power plant equipment market, losing to MNCs and Chinese firms.

Prime Minister Modi is pushing the RSS agenda using 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 the 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 by private sector. Interestingly. The private sector is not interested in R&D or in developing significant indigenous capabilities. 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 used fruits of public sector research in petroleum technology, drug production, energy, agriculture or telecommunications. late PM Jawahar Lal Nehru had established five IITs and national research institutions like BARC, ISRO National Physical Laboratory, National statistical research institute and strengthened Indian Council for Agricultural Research.

RSS’s Philosophy

From the very beginning, RSS openly opposed self-reliance and planning for nation’s development. That’s the reason the present Modi government treats Atmanirbhar Bharat and Make in India as Self-reliance. Import of machinery, spare parts with transferred technology from Western multinationals in the production of automobiles, mobile phones and all other goods can not be meant by Self-reliance. Self-reliance meant use of indigenously developed technology, machinery and goods production should be local, generating millions of jobs for our youth. Savarkar’s Punyabhhomi and 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. And surrendering the vast Indian markets to Indian and Western multinational corporations.

Union Cabinet-approved National Research Foundation can not improve the research ecosystem but attempts to push self-reliant scientific research to rely on indigenous and foreign corporations. It is being done deliberately with the objective to arrest the nation’s independent development and the welfare of people.

(Author: Dr. Soma Marla, Principal Scientist & Head, Genomics, (Retd), ICAR, New Delhi)

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy|
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.