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Cabinet approves National Research Foundation, Rs50,000 crore budgeted for R&D over five years

The foundation, which was promised four years ago and expected to come into effect with the National Education Policy in 2020, saw roadblocks along the way because of the pandemic. It could have far-reaching implications for innovation in India

Published: Jun 29, 2023 05:18:46 PM IST
Updated: Apr 18, 2024 12:48:33 PM IST

Cabinet approves National Research Foundation, Rs50,000 crore budgeted for R&D over five yearsAfter Parliamentary approval and when an Act is enforced, the National Research Foundation will be established as an apex body to provide high-level strategic direction of scientific research in the country Image: Shutterstock

The Union Cabinet approved a proposal to set up a National Research Foundation (NRF), with an initial estimated budget of Rs50,000 crore over a five-year period, from 2023 to 2028. The NRF’s objective is to cultivate and incubate research at universities and colleges across India, and ‘democratise’ funding for science projects. The bill can now be introduced in Parliament.

What is the National Research Foundation?

If it receives Parliamentary approval and when an Act is enforced, the National Research Foundation will be established as an apex body to provide high-level strategic direction of scientific research in the country as per recommendations of the National Education Policy (NEP), at a total estimated cost of Rs50,000 crore during five years (2023-28).

According to a government press release, the bill will also repeal the Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB) and subsume it into NRF, which has an expanded mandate. It will cover activities over and above the activities of SERB.

The NRF body will facilitate collaboration between public, private, and academic and research institutions. It will focus on creating a policy framework and establish regulatory processes to encourage collaboration and private sector contribution for R&D.

The NRF will be under the Department of Science and Technology (DST), and be governed by a board, including researchers and professionals from across disciplines. “Since the scope of the NRF is wide-ranging—impacting all ministries—the prime minister will be the ex-officio president of the board and the Union minister of science & technology & Union minister of education will be the ex-officio vice Presidents. NRF’s functioning will be governed by an Executive Council chaired by the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India,” the government release says.

What sort of investment will the foundation make?

The government has announced a Rs50,000 crore budget for the NRF, to be disbursed over five years. “This amount is absolutely aspirational, and it’s great news,” says Kamlesh Vyas, partner, Deloitte, specialising in education and skills development. “For context, the DST’s overall budget has been Rs6,000 crore a year.”

It is not clear how that amount will be spread over the years—Vyas says that it is likely that it won’t be an even spread, and it will begin with smaller tranches in the initial years. “But my sense is that once it begins, we could see matching amounts come in from corporates and philanthropists, so it could quickly become a much larger kitty,” he adds.

Also read: India has the potential to create global-first products. What will it take to unleash it?

Has a poor focus on R&D at Indian institutes mainly been a funding problem?

The most recent QS World University Rankings show that Indian institutes have, for the most part, slipped a few spots, and overall, don’t feature in the top 100. A large reason for this is that they fare poorly in the rankings’ research metrics, which factor in the number of papers, patents, citations and so on that a university produces.

“Funding is just one of the parts of this problem,” Vyas says. “There’s virtually no research done at the undergraduate level, for instance. Introducing a four-year degree programme, for example, where students work on one year of focussed research, could really help stack up those numbers and impact a lot more students.”

The other two missing elements are experienced and curious faculty members who will themselves be interested in research, and the building of infrastructure and facilities to support the ecosystem.

While the infrastructure element could be fixed with appropriate funds, the faculty element will need a systemic cultural change at institutions. This culture must then permeate to students too, to really cultivate a culture of innovation.

A few things could help: The first is to involve industry early on, so that students are working on real-world problems. The second could be to have ‘professors of practice’, or industry managers who come in to teach. “The third and most critical one,” Vyas says, “is to create a lot of awareness that funding is available, and students should now begin thinking of research areas immediately after class 12.”

What sort of challenges should we be wary of during the implementation stages?

The partnership between industry, academia and government players will be key—any missing link could cause serious roadblocks in the programme.

“We need to ensure that it doesn’t become bureaucratic, or of small value. Giving away too many grants of small value helps no one,” Vyas says.

The filtering criteria, then, needs to be well-thought-out and water-tight. Moreover, it should be implemented in a way that it is accessible to students and institutes across the country.

“Technology will play a critical role here—there should be a way to collect pitches from across the country, and if need be, have certain applicants make their presentations virtually, so they don’t have to invest in travel,” Vyas adds.

What are some areas of research India could focus on, to achieve the larger NRF mission?

Vyas says that it is important to note that unlike the US’s National Science Foundation, the NRF is not necessarily meant for only scientific research. It shows an openness to multidisciplinary areas.

“To my mind, it should solve for big India problems: Climate change, agriculture, nutrition, diabetes, mining, urbanisation, semi-conductors, 5G use for different applications, and so on,” he adds.

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