New Delhi: The science ministry plans to hive off one of its key functions—approving research proposals in basic science—to a yet-to-be created, autonomous body, tentatively called the Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB).
Through this, it hopes to expedite research proposal approvals and increase private funding for research projects in the country.
It’s not the first time that plans for an autonomous funding body have been discussed.
C.N.R Rao, who heads the scientific advisory council to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, had in 2005 recommended that such a body was essential to “reduce bureaucratic interference in clearing research projects.” However, it’s the first time that an actual draft Bill has been prepared and listed among the items to be discussed in Parliament.
The website of the Parliamentary Research Services, an independent think tank that monitors Bills introduced in Parliament, says the SERB Bill is mentioned under ‘Bills listed for Introduction during Budget Session (B).’
Expert suggestion: A file picture of C.N.R Rao, head of the scientific advisory council to Prime Minister. In 2005, Rao had recommended that an autonomous funding body was essential to reduce bureaucratic interference in clearing research projects. (Photo: Hemant Mishra/ Mint)
To be modelled on the National Science Foundation in the US, that country’s biggest science funder, the proposed organization will be headed by an independent scientist, and is expected to have an initial corpus of at least Rs1,000 crore.
Though several senior officials in the ministry have confirmed plans of a SERB, nobody wanted to be quoted, saying that the board can come in only by an Act of Parliament and Bill to this effect will be presented in the monsoon session of Parliament.
Top scientists, including Rao, have consistently lobbied for a such a body that by-passes the ministry’s bureaucratic control. “This has been a longstanding demand for the last 30 years,” he said. “I think it’s already very late, but we need this foundation. The key to China’s exponential progress on the scientific front has been a similar institution (National Science Foundation of China) which has full autonomy over funding decisions.”
Even though the new foundation is likely to have bureaucrats, Rao said that an organization managed mainly by scientists will be far more efficient than the present administrative structure.
Though the budget for funding scientific research in India has been steadily increasing and the range and number of subjects being investigated has diversified, some scientists say that the average time involved in actually laying hands on funds approved for a project was simply too high.
“On an average it takes 1.5-2 years for a researcher to get the money approved by the government; that’s unacceptably long,” said a scientist with Delhi University, who didn’t want to be named. “We ask for money to buy an instrument, but by the time we get the money, scientific research elsewhere would have already scooped us on the research and the instruments are useless.”
However, a government scientist, involved with the fund approval process, says: “I don’t think it’s right to entirely blame the government. Many times we clear projects, only to discover that the money lies unused within universities. Lots of universities just don’t have the capacity to absorb the money we give them.”
The biggest funder of basic science research in India is the Science and Engineering Research Council, a department of the science ministry that has a budget of approximately Rs300 crore, but on average it has spent only 20% on actually funding R&D programmes. This however doesn’t include money spent on scholarships, improving scientific infrastructure and science awards and sponsoring chairs at various universities which also form a substantial part of its expenditure.
The official adds that an autonomous institute, exclusively to clear research project proposals, will certainly speed up fund disbursal, but unless universities themselves restructure internally such an institute might not really improve university research.
“Only few places, like the IITs and IIS (Indian Institute of Science) and certain specialized centres of excellence have excellent absorptive capacties, and, unsurprisingly, that’s why they are able to better utilize, and corner funds,” he said.