Budget 2019: NRF

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Budget 2019: NRF

NRF a good idea, but govt must ensure that a “basic science focus” doesn’t come at the cost of tech, social sciences, etc, R&D

Source: https://www.financialexpress.com/budget/budget-2019-nrf-a-good-idea-but-basic-science-focus-shouldnt-come-at-the-cost-of-tech-and-social-sciences/1635976/

Why in news?

  • To achieve the objectives of research and innovation, the Budget announced setting up of a National Research Foundation (NRF) to fund, coordinate and promote research in the country.

National Research Foundation (NRF)

  • Objective: To catalyse and energise research and innovation across all academic disciplines, particularly at the university and college levels.
    • Strengthening research eco-system: NRF will ensure that the overall research eco-system in the country is strengthened with focus on identified thrust areas relevant to our national priorities and towards basic science without duplication of effort and expenditure.
    • Funding: The funds available with all Ministries will be integrated in NRF and would be adequately supplemented with additional funds.
      • NRF will assimilate the research grants being given by various Ministries independent of each other.
    • National Education Policy 2019: The idea for setting up the NRF was first mooted in the draft National Education Policy (NEP) 2019, which said an annual grant of 20,000 crore, nearly 0.1% of GDP, should be set aside for it.
      • Autonomy: NRF will have autonomy to set its own finance, governance rules and statutes.
      • The initial grant available to NRF will be increased progressively over the next decade as India’s capacity to do quality research grows.
      • As per the proposed plan, the NRF will have four major divisions
        • sciences,
        • technology,
        • social sciences and
        • arts and humanities.
      • Other additional divisions such as agriculture and environment can be added if the governing board of the NRF feels so.
    • Low expenditure on research: The NEP had expressed concern that India spends only around 0.69% of its GDP in research and innovation whereas countries such as the US (2.8%), China (2.1%) and Israel (4.3%) spend a much higher proportion of their GDP in research.

Analysis

  • The Budget proposal to consolidate the various research funding currently under ministries under a National Research Foundation (NRF) should seem a good idea.
  • Indeed, for a R&D-deficient nation like India — R&D expenditure has dropped from 0.84% of GDP in 2008 to 0.69% over the last few years, compared to the US’s 2.8%, China’s 2.1%, Israel’s 4.3% and South Korea’s 4.2%—any bid to avoid “duplication of effort and expenditure” will only be a gain for R&D.
  • The pittance that India gives to R&D is reflected in the fact that there were only 15 researchers in India per 100,000 population compared to 111 in China, 423 in the US and 825 in Israel in FY17.
  • Thus, while China made over 13 lakh patent application with just 10% of this being filed by non-resident Chinese researchers, India made a mere 45,057, of which >70% were by non-resident Indians.

Concerns

  • The government needs to make clear what it means by its announcement that the NRF will have a focus on “national priorities” and “basic science”.
  • Basic science: Does the government mean to say that a step up in funding of basic science (physics, chemistry, biology) research, will come at the cost of, say, technological research or social sciences/humanities or arts research?
  • National priorities: Also, “national priorities” need to be clearly defined, lest, with the mandate it has received, the ruling party or its ideological fount conflate their research priorities with the national priorities.
  • On both concerns, the government will do well to stick to the NRF vision outlined in the National Education Policy (NEP).

Way ahead

  • K 12 education: The National Research Foundation can be a game changer. However, there is a need for a higher focus on K 12 education (Kindergarten through 12th grade).
    • Unless we fix core issues in learning levels of school children – such as building foundational skills, tracking impact, board exam revamp, teacher training, etc. – initiatives at the higher education level will not yield desired results.
  • Interdisciplinary research: NEP, which says the NRF must fund research across the academic landscape, talks about the need to foster interdisciplinary research.
    • Even when research must contend with challenges such as access to drinking water, healthcare, energy, pollution and infrastructure, the NEP sagely notes that it will need approaches backed by technology and “in a deep understanding of the social sciences and humanities”.
  • It makes clear that while the NRF may periodically identify areas of research important to the country and prioritise funding to these, “all proposals” have to be considered.

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