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Home > 2023 > National Research Foundation gets Parliament’s nod | P. S. Jayaramu

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 34, August 19, 2023

National Research Foundation gets Parliament’s nod | P. S. Jayaramu

Friday 18 August 2023


14th August 2023

One of the key features of the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 has now become an Act after the “Anusandhan National Research Foundation” Bill was passed by the Parliament recently, amidst all the furore and daily walkouts in the two Houses. The nomenclature of the Act, bringing in the Hindi word Anusandhan appears a bit odd. NRF, as such, would have been alright. But, naming all Bills in Hindi is a feature of the Modi Government. While moving the Bill, the Minister for Science and Technology, Dr. Jitendra Singh said: “the Act will pave the way for India to join the select league of developed nations” and added that the “Act is going to have a long-term effect, long term outcomes and all of us, each citizen of India, are going to be the stakeholders, possibly history in making”. Lofty statements indeed!

Let me scrutinise the central features of the Act. The Act contains four chapters. Chapter 1, called “Preliminary”, refers to the short title and commencement. Chapter 2 with 12 sub-headings is about the NRF, giving details of the objectives of the Foundation, the Constitution and functions of the Governing Board (GB) and the Executive Council (EC) etc. Chapter 3 concerns itself with the finances, accounts and audit. Finally, chapter 4 entitled “Miscellaneous”, among other things, refers to the powers of the GB to deligate functions and issue directions, the EC’s powers to make regulations and finally the usual references to the powers to “remove difficulties” and “repeal and savings”.

Against the background of the overarching structure laid down by the Act, let me focus on the good and not so good features the Act. As is already well known, the Act envisages the Foundation to receive a total funding of ₹50000 crores spread over five years, with the Union Government contributing a meagre ₹14000 crores spread overover five years, which works out to ₹ 2800 crores annually, a very small amount compared to the lofty ideals and objectives associated with the Foundation’s dream of taking the country to the league of developed nations-the central government should raise its contribution to at least ₹25000 crores tofu d research in public universities and colleges. The remaining ₹36000 crores, as the minister and the Act has stated, are going to be raised from :a) private sources, including from public sector enterprises (many of them are in the red ), philantrophist organisations, ( India does not have the culture of philantrophists funding research, barring some exceptions), c)any amount from investment of the funds received by the Foundation, (a high hope again), d) funds in the possession of the Science and Engineering Research Board to be transferred to the NRF, as the SERB will be subsumed in the Foundation. e) any other sources, as may be prescribed in due course, ( Page 7 of the Act). The last source is quite vague, as there is no clarity either in the Act or the statement made by the minister while moving the Bill in the Parliament. More importantly, we need to wait and see what role the Union Government is going to play in asking the industries to make available funds for research. Will the government make it compulsory for the industries to set aside a part of their CSR funds to the NRF kitty? Can such things be made mandatory? Will such directives work, are some of the serious issues craving for the attention of the government and the academic community.

The Act refers to the initiatives the Foundation is expected to take. Prominent among them are : a) prepare the roadmap for short, medium and long term research, b) seeding, growing and facilitating research in academic and research institutions, particularly universities and colleges where research capacity is at a nascent stage, through fellowships, creating chairs and centres of excellence, c)funding competitive peer-reviewed grant proposals to eligible persons, d) assisting in the setting up of research infrastructure and environment conducive for scientific pursuits with specific focus on national priorities, emerging frontiers and strategic research. (Page 2 of the Act). Really well-thought-out initiatives to be undertaken by the Foundation. Along with funding projects linked to national priorities,the Foundation should also assist research relating to breakthroughs in theoretical research facilitating knowledge creation.

The other most critical issue which merits discussion is the composition of the Board of Governors. The Act says that the Prime Minister and the ministers for Science and Technology and Education will be ex-officio members. The other ex-officio members include a member of the NITI Ayog. Secretaries of the Departments Bo-Technology and Higher Education will be members, while, the Principal Scientifc Advisor, Government of India will be the member-secretary. The Prime Minister is also empowered to nominate two members from the PM’s S&T and Innovation Council, business/ industry and one member from the field of Humanities and Social Sciences. ( Pages.3-4). The impression one gets is that the GB will be top-heavy consisting of officials and government nominees. The fear is that they may play an overbearing role in the selection of research proposals for funding. If that happens, the very purpose of creating the NRF to guide India to the top league of the developed nations may not be fully served and in any case not be conducive to the conduct of meaningful research by the scholarly community. In the interests of independent path-breaking research, the government would do well to bring in outstanding academicians of proven integrity into the GB and EC and not pack the bodies with loyalists.

As regards the composition of the Executive Council, the Act lays down (page 4) that it will consist of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the GOI as ex-officio Chairperson and Secretaries of ten prominent departments including Earth Sciences, Health, Education, Space Science, Agriculture, etc, as members. Another top-heavy body, consisting of government nominees, which is not a good augury. The Act says that it “shall be the duty of the EC to implement the objectives of the Foundation, based on the policy direction and guidelines provided by the GB”. (Page 5). The Act further mentions that the EC “shall prepare the budget, maintain proper accounts, showing the estimated revenues and expenditures and submit accounts annually to the Parliament.”(Page7).These will be administrative responsibilities of the EC.

The Act talks about the opportunity for enrolling consultants and visiting scientists, which is a welcome feature. The best from within the country and outstanding Indian scholars working abroad should be invited to such positions. Their inputs must be taken seriously in guiding and funding research. While it is expected that research in cutting edge-technologies and areas outlined by the GB will receive priority, research in Social Sciences and Languages should also receive adequate financial assistance. It would be interesting to watch the functioning of the NRF in the days and years to come.

(Author: P. S. Jayaramu is former Dean, Faculty of Arts, Bangalore University and former Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi)

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