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India Needs to Foster Research and Innovation in Environmental Science

India Needs to Foster Research and Innovation in Environmental Science

Featured image: Representative image of climate change protests. Photo: Garry Knight/Flickr (CC).

With the world’s largest population and an upward economic trajectory, India’s impact on the environment is undeniable and set to increase in the medium-term. The third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China and the USA, it recorded the highest emissions increase among top contributors in 2022.

True to Newton’s third law, the effects of such environmental harm on the nation’s well-being are also significant. According to the World Bank, environmental degradation costs India 5.7% of Gross Domestic Product. The brunt of this impact is borne disproportionately by the nation’s poor. Promisingly, the government recognises the seriousness of the challenge and has been vocal about its intent to tackle it.

In seeking to foster India’s stewardship in the global fight for our planet’s future, India has made commitments in international fora to reduce its emissions intensity by 45% and restore 26 million hectares of degraded land by 2030. However, questions remain about its plan of action, and indeed capacity, to impart content to the rhetoric. 

Efforts to safeguard the environment have to negotiate a complex web of ecological, economic and social issues, and requires informed and innovative action. It is often taken for granted that faster economic growth requires laxer environment regulation. Various policy decisions of the Indian government over the past few decades have reflected this mindset. However, this is a mistaken view as research and innovation (R&I) can not only be a driver of economic growth, but also help to achieve environmental objectives at lower costs and improve the quality of life. R&I, by providing a comprehensive understanding of causes and a demonstrable basis to intervene in the consequences, plays a paramount role in managing environmental challenges.

Also read: Navigating the Crossroads of Culture, Climate, and Hope at COP28

What is important in this regard – and India has dearly lacked – is a publicly funded and socially relevant research agenda. India’s R&I investment as a percentage of GDP has steadily declined from 0.84% in 2008 to 0.64% in 2020. This compares dismally with countries such as Israel (5.3%), the US (3.4%), China (2.4%), and the global average of 2.5%. 

R&I expenditure related to the environment are even worse. As reported by the Department of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change accounted for a measly 0.8% of the major R&I expenditure of the Union Government. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, a crucial actor to achieve the net-zero target by 2070, spent 0.1%. While environmentally related R&I expenditure tends to be low across nations (ranging from 0.58% to 3.69% of total government R&I spending in G7 countries), this is widely recognised as inadequate.

Recognising this shortfall, the Paris Agreement calls upon signatories to accelerate, encourage and enable innovation for an effective, long-term response to climate change. India must pay special heed as unpredictable weather patterns, increased frequency of zoonoses, and deteriorating air quality and water tables are exacerbating the vulnerabilities of India’s public services.

The renewed, albeit fitful, attention of the Union Government to reinvigorating public research through the Anusandhan National Research Foundation (NRF) is, therefore, a step in the right direction. Passed into law in August 2023 and termed a ‘historic step’ by India’s Science & Technology Minister, the NRF aims to catalyse and converge research, innovation and entrepreneurship across disciplines. A corpus of Rs 50,000 crore for a period of five years has been envisaged for this purpose. The budgetary allocation is expected to be Rs 14,000 crore and a significant contribution is anticipated from the private sector. The bureaucratic machinery is currently churning to draft regulations and appoint the institutional bodies of the NRF. 

At the outset, an annual increment to the tune of Rs 10,000 crore is an inadequate addition to the current R&I expenditure of Rs. 127,380 crore (2020-21). This means that the GDP share of R&I will still hover below a lacklustre 0.7%. The extent to which existing R&I expenditure will be repurposed and the government’s strategy to mobilise non-budgetary funding are also currently unclear. Additionally, the prescribed composition of the NRF’s top bodies is heavily staffed by government members, raising concerns about red-tapism, lack of functional independence and the politicisation of science. This is in stark contrast to the government’s earlier discussion papers on the NRF which envisaged it as a body composed of, and led by, researchers and professionals from various scientific disciplines. This would have been consistent with the institutional design of corresponding agencies in other countries, such as the National Science Foundation of the USA. 

The abridged representation of the scientific community in the NRF has also led to a neglect of environmental science. Contrary to the Prime Minister’s Science, Technology and Innovation Advisory Council’s recommendation of environmental and earth sciences being one among the distinct directorates within the NRF, its prescribed institutional bodies lack representation – both official and non-official – of the domain of environmental science. In its Governing Board, to be chaired by the Prime Minister, there is no representation of the Environment Ministry and environmental science is not identified in the scientific disciplines from which non-official experts may be appointed. Its Executive Council, to be chaired by India’s Principal Scientific Advisor and including the Secretaries of 10 Union ministries or departments, also gives a miss to the environment ministry and domain experts. In the latter, the earth science ministry is represented and there is scope for the nomination of two secretaries from ministries that are not permanently represented. 

Given this composition, complex societal issues, such as the climate change emergency or issues requiring the OneHealth framework, are unlikely to receive adequate attention. This is surprising since the government recognises that these challenges require a multi-sectoral approach.

For instance, the domain of environment is a key part of the proposed National Mission for OneHealth that has the aim of integrating across disciplines to achieve better health outcomes, as well as the National Policy on Biofuels that identifies coordination across ministries to improve energy security. The limited role of environmental science in the institutional makeup of the NRF is inadequate to support these goals. This is likely also a poor financial choice as it would constrain the NRF’s the ability to channelise “green finance” which is gaining momentum in India

The UN Environment Program counts 93 of the total 244 indicators of the Sustainable Development Goals as environmentally related, and the clamour for nature-based solutions to address developmental challenges has never been louder. To secure a sustainable and resilient future, it is imperative for India to invest significantly in R&I in environmental science. This investment not only addresses the pressing environmental concerns that it faces, but also cements its aspiration of global leadership in green and sustainable growth. A vibrant ecosystem for R&I in environmental science can help to nurture homegrown scientific capacity, attract global talent and investment, and stimulate technological change which can yield positive environmental, economic and social outcomes. India’s reformed research agenda must respond to these opportunities, and the environment and climate has to be front and centre in it.

Gautam Aredath is a policy analyst at Centre for Policy Design, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru. Abi T. Vanak is the director, Centre for Policy Design, and professor at ATREE.

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