No Indian industry on board of reconstituted National Research Foundation

No Indian industry on board of reconstituted National Research Foundation

The executive and governing boards of the National Research Foundation (ANRF), the high-level body set up to provide strategic direction to scientific research in India, have no representation from Indian industry, according to a list of members made public by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST) earlier this week. It also lacks state universities, which the ANRF had said would be among the key beneficiaries of the new framework.

The absence of Indian industry is conspicuous, as the ANRF Act, passed in August 2023, was expected to spur research that would see Rs 36,000 crore, or 70% of its five-year Rs 50,000 crore outlay, come from non-government sources, industry and philanthropies, domestic and external sources, Science Minister Jitendra Singh had said in discussions around the bill’s passage in Parliament last year.

For this purpose, the text of the Act specifically empowered the Chairperson of the Governing Board—in this case the Prime Minister of India—to nominate or appoint “five members from a professional organisation or industry” to the Board.

However, the 15-member governing board notified by MoST has only one industrialist – Romesh Wadhwani, an Indian-American billionaire and former CEO and chairman of Symphony Technology Group. The other two Indian-Americans are Manjul Bhargava, Professor, Princeton University, US; and Subra Suresh, Professor at Large, Brown University and former head of the US National Research Foundation, from whom ANRF draws inspiration.

Only two universities are represented in this body, including the directors of the Indian Institute of Science and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Ajay Sood, Principal Scientific Adviser to the Central Government, is the member secretary of the governing body, while the rest of the members include the Ministers of Science and Education and the Secretaries of the departments under the MoST.

ANRF replaced the Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB) set up in 2008. Like ANRF, it was also set up by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to provide strategic direction to technological research. Headed by the Secretary, Department of Science and Technology (DST), it too did not have representation from state universities but had representation from vice-chancellors of Indian Institutes of Technology, Nalanda University and Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra, among others; and a representative from Intel India as the industry representative.

The ANRF is a significant reform, as it proposes a more expansive definition of research, covering science, engineering, information technology, liberal arts, social sciences and humanities – the ANRF board members also include Raghuvendra Tanwar, chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research. SERB was envisaged to fund only research, while NRF can receive funds from private sources and philanthropic and international organisations. With the repeal of SERB, all funds available to that organisation will now be available to NRF. ANRF was earmarked ₹2,000 crore for the 2024-2025 financial year. Hindu Dr. Sood and DST Secretary Abhay Karandikar were reached via text message for comment on the exclusion of Indian industrialists from the board. Dr. Karandikar cited Dr. Wadhwani’s presence as an example of industry participation.

A senior scientist involved in the creation of ANRF said ANRF was originally conceived as a board with “minimal” representation of secretaries from various ministries and a more “dynamic” one. “Politically, there was full support for a comprehensive restructuring of SERB, but the scientific establishment, especially the ministry, did not want too much change (from the SERB structure). They said it is a start and the existing structure is also flexible. If it is able to spend ₹2,000 crore this year and get 70% (of ₹36,000 crore external funding), it is a success,” this person said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In 2019-20, when the latest figures were published, only 36% of India’s research expenditure of about ₹1.2 lakh crore came from the private sector. This is why India’s expenditure on research and development is around 0.6% of gross domestic product (GDP), much lower than the 1-2% that characterises countries with strong science and technology infrastructure, and the global average of 1.8%.

In China, Japan, South Korea and the US, the private sector contributed 70% of research expenditure. About 70% of India's research funding was taken up by the Defence Research and Development Organisation, Department of Space, Department of Atomic Energy and Indian Council of Agricultural Research. The Ministry of Science and Technology, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and Indian Council of Medical Research accounted for about 20%.

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