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The Sciences

Why the National Research Foundation Is Part Good News, Part Abeyance

While a body like the National Research Foundation would be welcome in the long term, most of the funding issues that researchers face can and should be addressed by existing bodies in the short term.

During her budget presentation on July 5, 2019, the finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, announced a National Research Foundation (NRF). In her words, the proposed NRF would

… fund, coordinate and promote research in the country. NRF will assimilate the research grants being given by various ministries independent of each other. NRF will ensure that the overall research ecosystem in the country is strengthened with focus on identified thrust areas relevant to our national priorities and towards basic science without duplication of effort and expenditure. We would work out a very progressive and research oriented structure for NRF. The funds available with all Ministries will be integrated in NRF. This would be adequately supplemented with additional funds.

The proposal appears to be inspired by one of the recommendations in the draft National Education Policy (NEP), prepared by a committee chaired by K. Kasturirangan and which is open to feedback until July 31 this year. It is odd to announce a mechanism based on a recommendation in a draft document that has not yet been accepted. It is also unclear, based on the words in the budget speech, to what extent the proposed NRF will resemble the one in the draft NEP, either in operation or in the extent of funding. Assuming that the announcement was intended to closely mirror the NEP recommendation, let us discuss the NRF as proposed in the NEP.

The NRF recommendation in the NEP should not be viewed in isolation but as part of a proposed comprehensive overhaul of the Indian educational system, from kindergarten to research institutions. The NEP repeatedly emphasises the importance of a broad-based and flexible educational system. In the higher education context, it decries the stratification of institutions into elite research-oriented institutes, specialised institutes like the IITs, and universities and colleges where teaching is divorced from research.

It recommends undergraduate programmes that integrate teaching in sciences and humanities, and envisions a re-integration of teaching and research in the country. Eventually, it aspires to three types of higher educational institutions (HEIs): research universities, teaching universities and colleges, with the categories being somewhat fluid, and with each having student enrolment in the thousands or tens of thousands.

All existing HEIs would transform into one of these categories, and several new ones would need to be created. The policy anticipates a dramatic expansion both in the teaching responsibilities of research institutes, and in the research activities of teaching universities.

The goals of the NEP are grand and will require dedicated focus at all levels, as well as immense funding, to achieve. The goals of the NRF, as envisioned in the NEP, are correspondingly ambitious.

Provisions of the NRF

The NRF is proposed as a mechanism to drive research at all levels and its ambitions are commensurate with the other goals in the NEP. The proposed budget for the NRF, as per the NEP, is Rs 20,000 crore (1% of GDP) a year initially, to be increased annually commensurate with inflation, and with unspent funds held in a corpus for the future. Sitharaman did not mention any allocation for the NRF in the budget. But the total expenditure on education in the 2019-20 budget is Rs 94,854 crore (increased from a revised estimated of Rs 83,626 crore from 2018-19).

The net allocation for higher education under the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) is Rs 38,317 crore. In 2018-19, DST, DBT, CSIR and MoES had budgets of Rs 5,135, 2,411, 4,776 and 1,800 crores respectively, totalling much less than the proposed NRF budget. So it seems unlikely that any allocation that has been made for the NRF in 2019-20 is on a remotely comparable scale to the NEP proposal.

Moreover, the NEP emphasises that these and other existing funding agencies (Department of Atomic Energy, University Grants Commission, etc), as well as private agencies, will continue funding research and that a diverse funding landscape is desirable. The NRF’s funding will be in addition to existing mechanisms. This conflicts with the minister’s statement that “the funds available with all ministries will be integrated in NRF”.

Assuming, however, that the goals of the NRF proposed in the budget are the same as the goals of the NRF proposed in the NEP: what would be the effect of this on the research situation in India?

The NEP has been criticised on a few counts. For example Vivek Monteiro and others have pointed out the undesirability of a central authority, the proposed Rashtriya Shiksha Aayog (RSA), chaired by the prime minister to oversee all of education. Monteiro compares it to Donald Trump being asked to oversee all educational and research activities in the US.

It is a valid concern: political interference has been the bane of the university system and of state universities in particular, and the national education setup cannot be beholden to the prime minister of the day but must function with independence and integrity. Monteiro also points out that though education is a concurrent subject, the role of states is downplayed in the NEP. While this is a concern for primary education, the reality in the research context is that states contribute negligibly to research funding in India. Other criticisms, such as the lack of certain keywords like “secularism” in the NEP, seem less relevant.

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Apart from the overall oversight by the PM-chaired RSA, the proposed NRF has a reasonable structure: an overall governing board, and divisional councils for each of four divisions (science, engineering, social sciences, and humanities), consisting of eminent academics from India and abroad, as well as subject committees within each division. The NRF would fund individual projects, collaborative or group projects, capacity-building initiatives (especially at universities) as well as transformative mega-projects or “moonshots”.

The duration of funding would typically be for three years, but could be for five or longer in exceptional cases. Peer review would be conducted by subject committees with help external experts, including international ones, as required. Special committees would review proposed mega-projects. Conflict of interest would be strictly avoided: committee members must recuse themselves from proposals involving institutional colleagues, collaborators or family members.

The NEP’s NRF proposal emphasises the timely disbursal of grants, and the provision of suitable overheads to host institutions. Disbursal goes with accountability. The proposal suggests that only investigators who “handle initial funding well” will be eligible for new funding. But it acknowledges risks in research that need to be taken into account: proposals are necessarily of future work that may or may not work out.

Timely disbursal of grants is perhaps the biggest complaint within the current funding system. It is common for projects funded by the DST and the DBT to receive funds only towards the end of the financial year, with the result that the funds cannot be spent, unless the researchers belong to affluent institutions that can advance money for their projects. But there is no reason why this problem cannot be attended to within the current framework, or to expect that a new research foundation would magically fix this situation.

The accountability question is a thorny one. Internationally, project proposals are written with a rather concrete proposed workflow, with year-wise milestones and so on. But a new research project cannot possibly be thought out in such detail years in advance. It is not clear what the NEP means by ‘acknowledging risks’. It is common practice for researchers around the world to cross-subsidise nascent research with funds from previous projects, and submit projects that are already underway for further funding, so that a certain level of progress can be guaranteed. This ensures incremental progress but cannot guarantee transformational research. In my opinion, the NEP does not really address this question.

Problems to solve now

Other points made in the NEP’s NRF proposal include the following: All intellectual property would belong to researchers but should be licensed royalty-free to the government. Established researchers, including retired researchers, would seed and mentor research at universities. There would be no age limit for such mentors. Doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships would be provided at universities to attract talent. Outstanding research would be recognised via awards and symposia. And finally, international collaboration would be “encouraged and supported”, though the nature of the support has not been described.

The NRF as outlined in the NEP is thus meant to be a transformational body, for universities in particular, but it has been designed to complement – not replace – the existing funding mechanisms. Assuming good intentions behind the proposal and its implementation, the following details should be borne in mind.

First: what is typically funded by research grants? In the experimental sciences, the vast amount of research funding goes into equipment, reagents and other supplies. In the theoretical sciences, computational facilities can be very important. So presumably funding mechanisms for these will not change significantly, whether the funder is the DST, the CSIR or the new NRF.

Then, in all fields including humanities, there is the requirement of personnel. In the west, research grants often fund doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows, whereas this is generally not the case in India: they are funded institutionally or via national fellowships from funders like UGC and CSIR. Project assistants and research associates, however, are usually funded via grants.

The pay for all these positions is more or less uniform, depending on qualifications and years of experience. A project assistant without a PhD earns roughly the same as a PhD student, and so on. Currently, a researcher has very little flexibility to offer market-competitive salaries to, say, a very talented programmer who would otherwise be absorbed by industry, or to a brilliant student who is tempted by transfer options abroad. The NEP does not discuss such aspects, but if the NRF is actually being set up, flexible guidelines for payment of personnel should be on top of the list.

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Another very important aspect of research, in all fields, is travel, including foreign travel. This is where existing funding agencies are at their stingiest. The DST, the DBT, the SERB and others all require the researcher to not have availed an international travel award from the government in the last three years. (The DBT-Wellcome India Alliance is a welcome exception, in this and many other respects.)

While in theory a good publication will get noticed by peers, in practice the volume of research is such that dissemination in conferences, visits to and seminars in top universities and personal interactions with leading international researchers are essential to get one’s research recognised. This is especially important for students and early-career researchers.

In practice, this is not a huge expense per head per year relative to the cost of running an experimental laboratory. The miserliness of the government in this respect stems from the socialist-era view of foreign travel as a “perk”, in the days when few ordinary citizens could possibly afford it. This must cease – in the NRF as well as in the other funding agencies. Similarly, funds must be available to invite international researchers to India, a near-impossibility today via government funding.

Finally, the open-access movement has become widespread in some fields, especially in the biomedical sciences. But while this means no more exorbitant fees for libraries, authors do need to pay for manuscripts, which cost upwards of US$ 1,500 (Rs 1.02 lakh) each in good journals. There is an ongoing debate on whether this trend is beneficial to India. But despite the existence of many predatory journals, many of the most highly regarded journals also charge open-access fees, and these should be budgeted for in grant applications and awards.

In summary, the research funding situation in India can do with change. The draft NEP envisions an ambitious NRF whose role must be viewed in the context of other recommendations in the NEP, which seek to impact every aspect of education in India. The NRF as announced by the ministry is devoid of this context, its structure and funding allocation are unknown, and while in the long term such an organisation would be welcome, in the short term most of the funding issues that researchers face can and should be addressed by existing bodies, which the NRF intends to supplement, not replace.

Rahul Siddharthan is a member of the computational biology group at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai.