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This is the first of a two-part review of India’s new National Research Foundation and the draft Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (2020). The second part is available here.
The virulence of the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic has understandably pushed to the margins two recently issued policy documents that are likely to have a considerable impact on India’s knowledge and research ecosystem.
The proposal to create a National Research Foundation (NRF) has been available in documentary form since December 2019, but the recent announcement of a Rs-50,000 crore budgetary allocation to be spent over the next five years moves the proposal from wishful thinking to the realm of the probable.
The second document is the draft Science, Technology and Innovation policy statement released by the Department of Science and Technology in December 2020. Notwithstanding the caution expressed in the word “draft,” we can take STIP-2020 as only the fifth such statement of its kind, the first being the now-venerable 1958 Science Policy Resolution (SPR).
SPR-1958 is widely assumed by historians to have been drafted by the physicist Homi Jehangir Bhabha, the first scientific adviser to the Indian cabinet. This makes for an interesting connection with the NRF proposal. While officially the NRF is the creation of the Prime Minister’s Science, Technology and Innovation Advisory Council, working with the Ministry of Human Resources Development (now Ministry of Education), a recent editorial in Nature editorial identified it as a testament to the political skills of the government’s current principal scientific adviser, biologist K. VijayRaghavan.
If the volume of funds being given to the NRF makes it “the most significant development in India’s research funding policy in at least a decade,” in Nature’s view, the latest science, technology and innovation policy statement has yet to receive equivalent accolades or even much mention by informed commentators. Yet the proximity of the release of these two documents and the considerable thematic overlap between them offers a valuable opportunity to reflect on India’s science and technology policies and paths as they have taken shape over the last seven decades.
The state of Indian science
STIP-2020 opens with the goal of making India one of the top three knowledge “superpowers” in the next ten years. Such a grandiose goal only serves to highlight how far India is from that end, whatever the term superpower is taken to mean. Far less prone to nationalist hyperbole, data presented in the NRF project report highlights starkly the distance between India’s current global standing and where STIP-2020 would like to be.
None of India’s universities are ranked in the world’s top 300 universities in the Times Higher Education index and only two appear in the top 400. The overall number of trained scientific researchers is small in both absolute and relative terms (15/lakh in India versus 111/lakh in China and 825/lakh in Israel).
Research and innovation investments as a percent of GDP have dropped from 0.84% in 2008 to 0.69% in 2018 (compare with 4.3% in Israel and 4.2% in South Korea in 2018). On the patent front – a proxy for innovation – India submitted 46,582 patent applications in 2019. If we remove applications made by non-resident Indians, the number drops to 14,906. In the same year, China made 1.38 million patent applications while the US had 606,956.
The quality of scientific research has improved but has still some way to go. And while the absolute number of scientific publications has increased in the last decade (contributing 4.8% to the global total), this number is a quarter of the number of annual publications coming out of China and the USA.
These numbers are familiarly depressing but they also tell only one side of the story. Beyond success stories – chemistry, computer science, pharmacology, telecom and molecular biology are among the fields where Indian scientists and engineers publish widely and well – these documents can also be taken to reflect on the distance between the bench (where science is done) and the conference table (where policy is formulated).
Read against the grain, the NRF proposal and STIP-2020 offer two very different ways of thinking about science and technology (S&T) policy. Both are characteristic of different aspects of the Indian scientific ecosystem as it has grown over the last seven decades, each reflecting different presumptions and leading to markedly different outcomes.
The most striking change that the NRF represents is a repudiation of the institutionalised separation of research and teaching. In seeking to return scientific research to the universities by providing massive funds to build up facilities, infrastructure, resources and training, the NRF seeks to correct a policy taken as an item of faith for decades. (Notably, it will support the humanities and social sciences as well as engineering and the natural sciences).
As Robert Anderson and Shiv Visvanathan have each shown, the separation of research and training dates back to policies adopted soon after independence, with the all-powerful triumvirate of S.S. Bhatnagar, Homi J. Bhabha and K.S. Krishnan arguing for the creation of well-funded standalone specialised research centres – set against Meghnad Saha and others, who were committed to integrating research and training within the existing university system.
The former trio justified their decision in terms of not denuding existing universities of top research talent and arguing resource scarcity required strategic choices to be made in deciding where limited funds would be allocated. The view that learning through textbooks and classroom lectures were an adequate substitute for a research-saturated learning culture would mean that higher educational institutions focused on the reproduction of existing knowledge while research centers produced new knowledge.
The lack of a bridge between these two cultures has led to a weak research and innovation culture today, the NRF report argues. PhDs have now become credentials for job security and promotion rather than doorways to theoretical advances and new knowledge generation.
Scientists as a ‘higher class’
SPR-1958 was just two pages long. Its intellectual premise was based on science as an instrument of national development in a context of resource scarcity. Science would beget technology and modern technology would substitute for the absence of resources. Industrialisation would lead to a more advanced and developed economy.
Such a formulation, however simplistic it may appear today, was entirely consistent with the thinking behind the second Five Year plan, which privileged heavy industry, as well as reflected on how contemporary economists understood economic development.
But SPR-1958 was more than just a reflection of prevailing ideology. Its political thrust, if one may call it that, is made clear in the very last sentence:
“The Government of India have (sic) decided to pursue and accomplish these aims by offering good conditions of service to scientists and according them an honoured position, by associating scientists with the formulation of policies, and by taking such other measures as may be deemed necessary from time to time.”
Four decades before former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee would join ‘Jai Vigyan‘ to ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan‘ as national slogans, Bhabha announced that scientists were to be considered a privileged caste in the Indian state system. His particular bugbear were the bureaucrats who had sought to stymie his ambitious plans to build modern scientific institutions with state funds. Bhabha’s encounters with the fiscally cautious and politically conservative “iron cage” of the Indian civil service would lead him to create an entirely novel structure for the nascent Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and later the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE).
In these new postcolonial institutions, the scientist was king and the bureaucrat subordinate to their goals. Not only would scientists dominate the top leadership of the atomic energy establishment – the AEC/DAE would report directly to the prime minister to ensure autonomy from prevailing government regulations. Finally, to top it all off, the AEC/DAE would be located outside Delhi, in Bombay (now Mumbai).
The atomic energy establishment has retained its extraordinary autonomy until today. Vikram Sarabhai and his successor in the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and Department of Space (DoS), Satish Dhawan, would learn this lesson well. Being independent of Delhi and its sclerotic functionaries was the key to setting up viable technoscientific organisations in India. DoS would be headquartered in Bangalore (Bengaluru) and Dhawan would continue to head the Indian Institute of Science, just as Sarabhai would the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad and Bhabha, TIFR.
However, these exceptional victories did not mean that bureaucrats had been permanently defeated in their ambition of controlling the course of Indian science and technology.
When the charismatic and forceful head of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Pushpa Mittra Bhargava, was invited to be the first leader of the Department of Biotechnology, an institution he had long advocated for, he asked for the same privilege – of setting up an autonomous Biotechnology Commission in Hyderabad.
By the mid-1980s, however, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) under the leadership of M.G.K. Menon was rapidly expanding its empire and saw this request as leading to (another) strategic scientific institution slipping away from its control. The invitation to Bhargava to head the new department was rescinded and another scientist appointed in his place.
Since then, the number of new techno-scientific institutions supported by the now-Ministry of Science and Technology has increased manifold. This expansion has not been accompanied by the corresponding grant of autonomy of the DAE/DoS variety.
The need for autonomy
Whether technoscientific institutions’ relative success, or lack thereof, is determined by the extent of Delhi’s bureaucratic control is a question that cannot be resolved here. Regardless, it highlights the importance of genuine autonomy for the NRF. Independence will consist, at a minimum, of having a source of funds that does not rely solely on annual government budgets.
It further needs to be ensured that decisions of what to spend NRF funds on are not subject to individual whims or ideological state dictates, while simultaneously recognising the induced decay in the quality of university leadership.
The NRF proposal states that it will be conferred with the “autonomy to set its own finances, governance, and statutes.” Ideally that would mean the award of an independent corpus of funds for the institution at its founding. Instead, the NRF expects to receive a block grant of 0.1% of GDP (approximately Rs. 20,000 crore in current terms) annually to begin with, an amount expected to increase with time, while keeping unspent funds as an endowment.
Final decision-making authority will be in the hands of the NRF president and the board. They will have the collective authority to make all financial, staffing and other decisions and report these decisions to the Union cabinet, which will constitute government approval. The extent of actual autonomy in other words comes down to future governments maintaining this financial commitment and, on an everyday basis, the quality and reputations of the NRF president and the board.
Harbingers of doubt
The NRF will begin life as a registered society before being converted into an “autonomous body of the Government of India” through parliamentary legislation in three years’ time. The founding members of the society will be the Prime Minister’s Science, Technology and Innovation Advisory Council. At the same time as the society is being set up, the NRF board will be chosen, consisting of “some of the most accomplished and eminent researchers and professionals having a wide range of expertise across fields.”
Board members will be recommended by the Office of the Scientific Advisor and approved by the prime minister. The relationship of the founding members to the NRF board is unspecified, but it seems unlikely that the current composition of the PM’s Advisory Council will not have some bearing on the final choices.
Current members of the advisory council are drawn from “strategic” institutions like ISRO and the Defence R&D Organisation, as well as traditional research centres of high standing, namely the Indian Statistical Institute and the Indian Institute of Science. Two members are overseas Indians – one a Fields Medal winner at Princeton University and the other, Subhash Kak, a computer scientist at Oklahoma State and well-known proponent of Hindutva ideologies, from the “indigenous Aryan” myth to claims to advanced scientific knowledge in the Vedas.
This latter appointment is hardly a surprise in this administration, but its implications for an NRF board projected to be composed of “accomplished and eminent researchers and professionals” is deeply troubling. Rather than jumping to conclusions, however, it will be necessary to see who ends up in the NRF board and what the relationship of the board to the PM’s Advisory Council will be.
This founding act will speak volumes in either establishing the credibility of the NRF or consigning it to the likely fate of the latest Science, Technology and Innovation Policy document.
The author thanks Shiju Sam Verghese and Jahnavi Phalkey for their comments.
Itty Abraham is a professor at the National University of Singapore. He has been writing about Indian science and technology for nearly three decades.