The Sciences

CSIR Lab? Work on Applied Research or Make do With Small Share of Funds

It's difficult to come away from the numbers believing that research into the basic sciences is at all a priority for the current government.

On March 19, 2018, a question asked in the Rajya Sabha elicited a compelling response: the data for revenue generated by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) through its research projects.

The data features three numbers for each of the CSIR’s 38 labs, two of which are independent: the number of group IV scientists and the total revenue generated.

It’s important to place this information in the context of the CSIR’s troubled financial past. The Dehradun Declaration, adopted at the CSIR Directors’ Conference in 2015, witnessed the council commit to aid national missions (like Swachh Bharat and Digital India) and develop “game changing” technologies. According to one press statement:

… the Union Minister for Science & Technology and Earth Sciences Dr. Harsh Vardhan said that CSIR should be a catalytic agent to evolve India into Samarth Bharat-Sashakt Bharat. The Minister said that a revenue model is to be developed in businesslike manner with clear input-output cost analysis.

Vardhan “emphasised the need for CSIR labs to be self-financing through generating funds by offering technology to industry” over two to three years.

Also read: Fifteen of 45 Companies have Defaulted on CSIR Loans

But two years later, the CSIR found itself in a financial emergency. Its labs were directed to mobilise intellectual property “that could be out-licensed to industries/stakeholders immediately”, as a source of funds. At the time, Girish Sahni, then the director general, clarified that CSIR would try to generate half of its annual budget – around Rs 4,000 crore – from revenue generated through its research projects by 2020, and generate at least a quarter of the same in 2017.

In 2018, CSIR claimed that it was not experiencing a fund crunch, although its budget allocation had gone up by a paltry 3.3% – lower even than the rate of inflation.

Now, the March 2018 data indicates that the council generated around Rs 1,900 crore in revenue from R&D projects in the last four years, which works out to about Rs 475 crore per annum. So on average, CSIR was only able to generate less than one-eighth of its annual budget each year. This demonstrates that the resolution to be self-sufficient adopted as part of the Dehradun Declaration is still a very long way away.

In principle, the suggestion that research laboratories be encouraged to patent their discoveries and inventions, and use royalties from these to fund their research is unproblematic. In the same way, it is in principle not at all controversial to suggest that laboratories that are dedicated to, say, medical research, be induced to collaborate with the pharmaceutical industry and help produce affordable medicines. In principle.

The nature of research in the basic sciences, however, doesn’t easily admit such neat categories as “pure” and “applied” research. The history of science has numerous examples of so-called “pure” research finding technological or medical applications decades after its initial discovery.

In light of this, government funding for research in the basic sciences is traditionally viewed as an investment whose dividends will be reaped on longer time-scales. To treat it otherwise – i.e. to expose the funding of laboratories to market forces and expect that laboratories operate in a “businesslike manner” – is to severely misunderstand the nature and purpose of research in the basic sciences.

Further, the push towards self-sufficiency raises questions of how the revenue generated through R&D projects is used within CSIR itself. Are individual labs expected to be self-sufficient, or is the CSIR as a whole expected to achieve this goal? Although much about the proposed self-sufficiency is unclear, it would be unfortunate if the revenue generated is used as a metric to evaluate the performance of individual labs. There’s no straightforward way to compare research into cellular and molecular biology with that into mining technology.

We’ve already seen a similar move by the current government in the education sector. Despite some very coherent criticism, the government has proposed that an educational institution’s ranking – “incomplete, incoherent and bordering on the random” – will decide the amount of government funding it receives, under the National Institute Ranking Framework.

And while CSIR has had a rough few years, other science and technology ministries have been better taken care of. The 2018 budget saw both the Departments of Science and Technology (8.2%) and of Atomic Energy (5.7%) receiving bigger hikes. Yet these numbers pale in comparison to the hikes in other research sectors.

Chemistry World reported, “Defence research … secured a whopping 29% increase. Other sectors that received a boost include space with an 18% increase, earth sciences with a 13% increase, agricultural research a 12% increase, while new and renewable energy got a 26% boost.”

In short, unless a lab works on applied research, it’s likely to receive only a small, and declining, share of the pie.

Also read: An Indian Drug Discovery Success Story – and Why It Might Not Happen Again

These numbers point to a wide chasm between the Centre’s talk of supporting the basic sciences and the Centre actually acting on it. Schemes like the Prime Minister’s Research Fellowship (PMRF) are unveiled with great pomp and touted as attesting to the government’s commitment to research and education, but ends up being disproportionately awarded to applied research. And this happens even as young research scholars’ dues are disbursed as irregularly as students’ fees are increased regularly.

The revenue data makes it clear that the CSIR is a long way away from sourcing even half of its annual budget from royalties. When viewed in this broader context, it’s difficult to come away believing that research into the basic sciences is at all a priority for the current government.

We as scientists would do well to pay close attention to how these trends develop this Friday at the unveiling of the Union budget, and be careful to not be taken in by the smoke and mirrors the government so expertly deploys.

Madhusudhan Raman is a postdoctoral fellow at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai. The views expressed here are personal.