Has the National Research Foundation's draft let down the Indian research scene?

The document does not give the same hope as was promised in the NEP 2020, say researchers. How has it let down the Indian research space?
Pic: Edexlive
Pic: Edexlive

The National Research Foundation (NRF) has been formulated by the Prime Minister's Science, Technological and Innovation Advisory Council (PM-STIAC) in consultation with the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Department of Higher Education, and was one of the key recommendations of the Draft National Education Policy 2019. The objective of the NRF is to create, facilitate and promote an environment that fosters research culture in the country. The NEP 2020 document says that the NRF will help enable and support a vibrant research and innovation culture across HEIs, research labs and other research organisations. It further explains, "The NRF will provide a reliable base of merit-based but equitable peer-reviewed research funding, helping to develop a culture of research in the country through suitable incentives for and recognition of outstanding research, and by undertaking major initiatives to seed and grow research at State Universities and other public institutions where research capability is currently limited."

Recently, the Office of The Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India had released a draft of the NRF, which says that it has been prepared with the consultation of the MHRD. The document endorses the NRF as a liaison between the research and relevant branches of the government and the industry, so that the research scholars are constantly made aware of the most urgent national research issues, which can further be optimally brought into implementation through relevant policies.

The document, however, does not give the same hope as was promised in the NEP 2020. Student organisations like the ABVP (student wing of the RSS) have also criticised this draft as it has failed to maintain the balance among the disciplines.
In the 2021 Union budget of India, the FM had mentioned that the GoI has allocated fifty thousand crores for the NRF in five years. The allocation was a good intervention, but it has failed to mention the exact timeline of the allotment fund. After more than six months now, the Prime Minister's Science, Technological and Innovation Advisory Council has come up with a draft that fails to lead a constructive plan to achieve its objective of creating an ecosystem that promotes research. The NRF is supposed to encourage the overall research culture of India, as the NEP 2020 documents say 'fund competitive, peer-reviewed grant proposals of all types and across all disciplines', but the draft has been borrowed heavily from the USA's National Science Foundation, mainly from the field of science. The PM himself has laid the foundation of this organisation as a holistic institution that caters to the needs of all kinds of research in this country. Still, the draft fails to capture the imagination of PM Modi.

A draft like this, which is supposed to present the research vision of the country for the next 30-50 years, should be more inclusive and inspiring, but it has failed to acknowledge the present research status of the country and lacks the vision part. The PM and academic and industry fraternity keep stressing on developing a better R&D environment in the country, but the NRF could not meet those expectations. We all know that research and development is one of the essential aspects for any country of the world. Countries that have invested in R&D earlier are now developed and leading technology hubs. We do not need to go very far if we want to look for successful implementation of policies for research — the Asian Giants (China, Korea and Japan) have been enjoying the fruits of the investment they laid in research 30-40 years ago. The current draft has failed to address various multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary dimensions of research in academia.

Furthermore, it has not defined the objectives it envisages for the Humanities and even for the disciplines in Science. The document fails to capture the linkages between Science and Social Sciences in research and changes the narrative solely to address the challenges that the country faces. Often, a holistic picture has to be envisaged and a particular issue cannot be addressed through a single lens. This observation manifests itself in two instances. Firstly, the document acknowledges that a large chunk of funds would be devoted to the Sciences and Technology sectors. Secondly, it also categorically mentions that the Board President would be someone either with an engineering or natural sciences background. Evidently, one can see the dominance of the Sciences yet again at the expense of the Social Sciences and the Humanities.

This overt bias makes us question the claims of interdisciplinary research. To make the entire institution more inclusive, the drafting committee should be open to the possibility of a President representing different fields and not just those related to the Sciences or can have two or more Vice-Presidents from different disciplines. The document also misses addressing how the research would be implanted and has failed to capture the need for dialogue between industry and academia for innovative solutions. The NRF draft has also failed to acknowledge the gap between academia and industry, a significant problem in India. The draft has not adequately emphasised the technology part, which is very critical in today's world. It has used the word 'technology' six times along with 'science' only. They could not address the need for technology in today's world. They have not given any vision of how they want to build a conducive environment for technology. It advocates the same working culture as existing organisations like ICSSR, ICHR, CSIR. This makes the NRF the same institution that we already have. However, the policy document has promised that the NRF will carefully coordinate with other funding agencies and work with Science, Engineering and other academies to ensure synergy of purpose and avoid duplication of efforts.

The structure of the NRF is problematic as well, the selection of the members of the NRF — President, Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer — has not been defined at all in the document. It mentions that the Board will have a Chair that the Board members will decide from amongst themselves. Such remarks have the potential to leave room for biases and workplace favouritism. The consequence of this will be inefficient implantation of the initiative. Moreover, the document mandates that the Board meet at least four times a year. The frequency appears to be relatively less, considering the nature of intensive research and coordination that needs to be undertaken to actuate the plans and ensure effective execution.
The NRF, through an initiative that was well thought out, had the potential of changing the overall scenario of higher education in India. But this NRF document is an example of half measure at its best. Many issues need to be addressed to create an ecosystem that promotes research. As the NRF highlights, there is a pertinent need to address the lack of academicians in the country; a lot more needs to be done to encourage the youth to pursue a career in research. A vague document like the NRF leads to enough space for confusion and ineffective implementations. For successful implementation of the objective, a well-defined document is the need of the hour. Consultations with academicians in the formulation should be a priority. The biases against the Social Sciences need to be addressed as it is, today, a well-established fact that linkages between Science and Humanities are necessary for research.

The NEP 2020 has highlighted the importance of the research culture in the country, even if the chairman of the NEP committee is a Sciences person. Still, it has tried to give due importance to all the important disciplines to the country. The NRF document has failed in its objective at the primary level and does not give hope or aspiration to the research community through its preliminary draft. It has given more space to rationalising the budget and how it is going to use it. It gives the impression that one more organisation is coming into existence that will not do any favours to the research community.

Dr Ramanand Nand is the director and founding member of a think tank named Center of Policy Research and Governance (CPRG)

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