September 26, 2023
Presentation Aldo Stroebel, Executive Director National Research Foundation South Africa

Indian Government Announces $6 Billion National Research Foundation, Drawing Mixed Reactions from Scientists

The Indian government has unveiled an ambitious plan to establish a new National Research Foundation (NRF) with a proposed investment of $6 billion over a period of 5 years. While the plan has been met with positive reception by many researchers who see it as a potential boost to India’s modest funding for basic and applied science, there are concerns about possible political interference and doubts about achieving the envisioned funding, particularly the goal of securing 70% from private industry. Experts suggest that this target may be somewhat unrealistic.

The NRF proposal, announced on June 28th by India’s Union Council of Ministers, was prompted by a 2019 report commissioned by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The report, prepared by the Prime Minister’s Science, Technology, and Innovation Advisory Council, highlighted India’s comparatively low expenditure on research and the country’s lagging performance in research output and patent generation compared to other major nations. It also noted that many Indian universities are not engaged in any research activities.

To address these challenges, the report recommended the establishment of a robust research agency akin to the United States’ National Science Foundation. This proposed agency would coordinate science policy, consolidate and expand funding, and provide peer-reviewed grants to academic researchers. The report suggested an annual budget of 0.1% of India’s GDP, which was over $2 billion at the time, to ensure the agency’s effectiveness. It also emphasized the importance of safeguarding the agency from political pressure by entrusting its leadership selection to an independent board of distinguished scientists, ensuring operational autonomy and unhindered access to funding for worthwhile projects.

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However, the newly proposed NRF significantly diverges from this original vision. It proposes the prime minister’s involvement as the head of the NRF’s board, with two other top positions to be filled by the government’s science and education ministers. Additionally, the science ministry and India’s science adviser would have oversight roles in the NRF and its governing board.

The establishment of the NRF is seen as a step towards strengthening research in India, addressing the funding gap, and enhancing scientific output. However, concerns remain regarding potential political influence and the feasibility of attracting the targeted funding, particularly from private industry. The NRF’s success will depend on maintaining its autonomy and ensuring transparent and unbiased decision-making processes to support impactful research initiatives.