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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Assure basic scientific research its due supply of oxygen

Assure basic scientific research its due supply of oxygen

State funding must nourish it on a sustained basis without asking myopic questions about its purpose

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Photo: Mint 

On 28 June 1941, not long after the United States entered World War II, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order establishing the country’s Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). The organization was given unlimited access to funds and an extremely broad mandate to supervise the conduct of scientific research for military purposes. Its director, Vannevar Bush—a mathematician engineer and arguably also the most powerful man of science in his time—reported directly to the president.

By the end of the war, the OSRD had spent over $450 million and in the process was responsible for the development of technologies ranging from antibiotics and blood substitutes on one hand to radar and explosives on the other. The OSRD contributed massively to the Allied victory—and yet it was Bush’s influence on the post-war conduct of science that remains his lasting legacy.

After the war, Vannevar Bush wrote a report titled, Science, the Endless Frontier, arguing in favour of continued government investment in basic scientific research of the kind that simply could not be carried out in its laboratories. The problem was that even though government scientific work didn’t have to produce immediate results in the same way that industrial research was constrained to do, it had to have practical applications. Basic research, however, was performed without thinking about the practical ends to which it could be put. This, he argued, results in an understanding of nature and its laws that “provides the means of answering a large number of important practical problems, though it may not give a complete specific answer to any one of them."

Bush’s report ultimately lead to the establishment of the National Science Foundation (NSF), an independent federal agency in the US that has for the past seven decades been dedicated to the promotion of scientific research. Over that time, the research it has funded has led to some of the most remarkable advances of recent times, including such path-breaking technologies as magnetic resonance imaging, 3D printing, liquid crystal displays and CRISPR for gene editing.

While India has many scientific accomplishments to be proud of, we have never quite adopted the NSF approach to encouraging basic scientific research. As a result, we have delivered far less than our potential and nearly all our scientific achievements have either come from government institutions or through the investment of private capital.

In last year’s budget speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that India’s National Research Foundation (NRF) would be allocated a budget of 50,000 crore over five years, establishing for the first time a dedicated fund for investment in scientific research. While this is just a tiny fraction of the over $9 billion worth of funding that the NSF disburses every year, if deployed strategically, these funds could go a long way towards improving basic scientific research in the country.

However, in order to be most effective, it is important to make sure we adopt the correct approach to the deployment of these funds. Happily, many of the principles that we would do well to apply have already been carefully documented in Vannevar Bush’s seminal paper.

The first thing we need to do is ensure that all projects taken up by the NRF are assured of stability of funding—so that the scientists responsible for them have the confidence to undertake long-term research without the fear of either running out of money or being constantly pulled away from their duties to secure more funds. What this means, more specifically, is that projects funded by the NRF should be protected against changes in government and shifting political priorities. Science always operates on much longer time-scales than the poll cycles to which our political leadership is subject. Accordingly, NRF funds once granted should not be vulnerable to being revoked at the whims of the political class.

Secondly, all NRF funded projects should have the operational autonomy needed to be able to determine the methods and scope of their research. Unlike other government projects where funds are provided against identified milestones and deliverables, basic research should be free to proceed down diverse avenues of inquiry even if none of them bears the promise of any practical application. After all, it is not the function of applied research to provide practical solutions, but instead to generate the sorts of knowledge and information that will, at best, only tangentially inform industrial development. Unless researchers can freely choose the paths that their research takes them along, there is no point in asking them to embark on this journey.

Finally, none of the NRF funds should make their way to government laboratories. As discussed above, all government entities, much like their private-sector counterparts, are subject to pressures that come in the way of basic research. If the NRF is serious about supporting science, it will ensure that it only funds institutes dedicated to basic research. Wherever possible, the government should make it a priority to move its research projects out of its laboratories and into such research institutions where they can receive the attention they deserve.

India has a long history of excellence in basic research. We need to nourish that expertise by giving it the oxygen it needs to grow. After all, it is precisely from doing good science that our greatest technological breakthroughs have come.

Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal and also has a podcast by the name Ex Machina. His Twitter handle is @matthan

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Published: 18 Jan 2022, 10:07 PM IST
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