Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 17 July 2023

Research in higher educational institutes

Source: By Amitabh Sinha: The Indian Express

If implemented as envisaged, the National Research Foundation — whose creation was approved by the government on 28 June 2023 — has the potential to address most pressing issues in Indian science and significantly improve India’s research output. K VijayRaghavan, former Principal Scientific Advisor to the central government, said it could be a “major landmark” for science in India.

The NRF is supposed to fund, promote and mentor research in higher educational institutions, but these are only the basic objectives. There are a number of other ways in which it is expected to improve the environment of scientific research in the country.

Broad-basing research

One of the main objectives of the NRF is to get colleges and universities involved in scientific research. The NRF detailed project report had pointed out that less than one per cent of the nearly 40,000 institutions of higher learning in the country were currently engaged in research.

“For some reason, there has been an artificial separation between research and higher education in the country. There are research institutions, and there are colleges and universities where very little research is carried out. One of the objectives of NRF would be to build research capacities in our universities. The union of education and research must be restored,” said Spenta Wadia, founding director of Bengaluru-based International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, a centre of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Wadia was among the scientists who worked on the detailed project report.

NRF plans to address this lacuna in multiple ways. Active researchers, whether serving or retired, can be encouraged to take up NRF professorships at universities and colleges to start or improve their research cells in collaboration with the existing faculty. There will be no age barrier for such research mentors; they can apply for funding as long as they are active and bring value to the host institution. It also plans to offer doctoral and post-doctoral fellowships to young researchers at these universities.

University professors and researchers will get opportunities to participate in long-term projects aimed specifically at solving societal problems, such as river cleaning, access to clean energy in villages, etc.

Research in social sciences

The NSF would fund and promote research not just in natural sciences but also in humanitiessocial sciences and art. This is considered vital for inculcating creativitycritical thinking and communication skills.

As of now, research in these areas has very limited sources of funding. “This would be a very welcome move. It is important to integrate social sciences and humanities in our decision-making process. It is an excellent idea to support research in these areas,” said Ashoka University vice-chancellor Somak Raychaudhury.

The detailed project report noted that finding solutions to big national problems required not just application of science and technology but an understanding of social sciences, history and various socio-cultural dimensions of the nation. Social sciences, Indian Languages and Knowledge Systems, Arts and Humanities are among the ten major ‘directorates’ sought to be established under NRF, along with others like natural sciences, mathematics, earth sciences and engineering.

National priorities

While the NRF is envisaged to support all good-quality peer-reviewed research proposals, it does aim to identify priority areas in which science and technology interventions can help larger national objectives. The priority areas could include clean energyclimate changesustainable infrastructureimproved transportation and accessible and affordable healthcare.

Towards this end, the NRF hopes to fund and support large-scale, long-term, multidisciplinary, multi-institutional projects. It also proposes to set up Centres of Excellence in major thrust areas to focus on research considered important for the country. In addition, the NRF would also back and coordinate the research happening in mega international projects like LIGO or ITER, that India is actively involved in.

Funding

The core objective of the NRF would be to sharply increase the funding available to scientific research in the country, both from government and private sources. India’s spending on research and development has remained below 0.7 per cent of its GDP, when even countries like Egypt or Brazil spend more. Advanced competitors, like the United States, China, Israel, Japan or South Korea, spend anywhere between 2 to 5 percent of their respective GDPs on scientific research.

Scientists have noted that the relatively small amount available for research in India has a direct bearing on the quality and quantity of research output. The number of researchers per million population is only 253 in India while it is more than 1,200 in China, nearly 4,200 in the United States and over 8,000 in Israel.

The estimated allocation of Rs 50,000 crore over a five-year period for the NRF does not form any substantial increase in the current spending, but scientists say this is likely to go up once the NRF starts to make its mark.

Rs 50,000 crore is not a bad sum to start with. We need to put this money to good use, and show progress in a time-bound manner. Completing projects and making full utilisation of available resources is very important. Once the NRF takes off and its utility is recognised, I am sure the flow of money will also increase,” Wadia said.

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