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The ANRF plan has got off on the wrong foot

‘India underfunds research and development’
| Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

In 2023, both Houses of Parliament passed the Anusandhan National Research Foundation (ANRF) Bill, marking a historic start to an initiative to seed, grow, and facilitate research in India, especially in India’s universities and colleges.

The 2019 National Research Foundation (NRF) project report explicitly mentioned that “growing outstanding research cells already existing at State Universities” is one of the ANRF’s top priority. The scientific community welcomed the Bill and was hoping that the ANRF would provide much-needed breathing space for Indian academia for research free from the bureaucracy, in addition to providing a funding boost and a chance to work together with industry partners.

Lack of industry representation

Nearly a year later and the ANRF has got off on the wrong foot. Recently, it announced a 15-member Governing Board and a 16-member Executive Council, which lack representation from organisations the ANRF envisioned aiding and facilitating.

For example, the ANRF aims to strengthen the research infrastructure of universities. Even acknowledging that more than 95% of students attend State universities and colleges in India, the board and the executive council do not have any members from Central or State universities or colleges. In addition to the Principal Scientific Adviser, they are represented by people who are usually in any high-powered committees of the Government of India — Secretaries from all science departments (Department of Science and Technology (DST), Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), earth sciences, agriculture, health research, atomic energy, new and renewable energy, electronics and information technology), higher education and defence research and development, directors of the Indian Institute of Science and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the Chair of the Indian Council of Historical Research, a Princeton mathematics professor, a science administrator and former Director of the United States National Science Foundation from Brown University and a Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur.

However, the board and the council need representatives who understand the bottlenecks in the current system, especially in the university system, and know how to get things done on the ground rather than being in an advisory role.

Most importantly, the ANRF needs to avoid the confusion that can arise from multiple committees. Therefore, creating a single committee to formulate and implement strategies on the ground is crucial. This emphasis on ground-level knowledge and experience among the committee members should reassure the research community and stakeholders that the ANRF’s decision-making process will be informed, competent, and timely.

The lack of adequate industry representation and diversity is one of the most glaring omissions from the current board and council, especially when the ANRF plans to raise more than 70% of its funding from non-government sources and industry. The sole industry representative, Romesh T. Wadhwani, is an Indian-American businessman based in Silicon Valley, U.S., and the sole woman representative is the Secretary of the DSIR. There is no representation from Indian industry or any entrepreneurs from the country or eminent academics from the Central and State universities on the committee.

R&D underfunding

India underfunds research and development. In addition to increasing the research and development budget to 4% of GDP, a significant overhaul of the current funding system is required to boost research and to make innovation coming out of Indian organisations globally competitive. To achieve this, the ANRF must: be adequately staffed; implement a robust grant management system; have an internal standard peer-review system with an incentive for reviewers; ensure timely disbursal of research grants and student fellowships with a quick turn-around time (less than six months) between application and fund disbursal; have a system free from bureaucratic hurdles both at the funding body and at grantee institutions; provide flexibility of spending money without following the government’s stringent general financial rules (GFR), and permit purchases without going through the Government e-marketplace (GeM) portal.

The ANRF must function unlike any other current government science department. It should have more diverse representations of practising natural and social scientists from the university system, with more women and young entrepreneurs in its committee. Additionally, the future chief executive officer of the ANRF must have a background in both industry and academia, and be someone who can raise money for the ANRF and understand the global innovation ecosystem. A complete overhaul is required for the ANRF to avoid becoming like any other government department and to bridge research and teaching in our universities.

Binay Panda is a Professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University

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