World class science funding model for India soon

Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan, the informal, go-getter, new secretary of India's Department of Biotechnology does not sound like your typical bureaucrat. Over cups of black coffee under a pleasant winter sun — no messy files, no bulky reports and no secretaries in sight — he talks of drastically overhauling India's science funding machinery and some more.

Subhra Priyadarshini

doi:10.1038/nindia.2013.157 Published online 25 November 2013

Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan

© Subhra Priyadarshini

Within March 2014, India's Department of Biotechnology (DBT) is all set to change how the country funds its science. The new secretary of DBT, Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan says he is examining some great funding models such as that of the National Institute of Health (NIH) of USA and the Wellcome Trust of UK to evolve a new model for India. This new model promises to drastically cut down the time it takes from applying for a grant to receiving it.

"The science funding situation in India needs an overhaul. The funding cycle — from applying for grants to getting them — is an extremely lengthy process. We are looking at changing that completely," he told Nature India in a wide-ranging interview.

The main challenge with funding in India, he says, is that the country has a much broader baseline of grant seekers to take care of — from modest capacity labs to excellent ones. "We are looking at tackling this huge disparity among people seeking government grants. That can be achieved by creating various bins — for instance, one for small grants, one for competitive grant applications, one for capacity building and so on."

VijayRaghavan says the major structural change in the system that DBT, with an annual budget of nearly Rs 1,500 crore, is considering is to create authorities at various levels for granting funds. "This means for every single grant, the President of India will not have to 'be pleased to' sanction. We have more than 4000 active grants at the moment and the solution is again, to create bins at various levels."

We are going to change the science funding system in India completely

He says by the end of this fiscal year, India will see a major shift in this cycle when "we intend not only streamlining the process to cut down grant allocation times but also giving the mechanism a brand new structure". The structure, he says, will heavily borrow from models such as the NIH.

VijayRaghavan is optimistic that once it is successfully tested at DBT, other government grant bodies can replicate the model.

Expanding the 'footprints of science'

Talking of structural changes, the other major thing that DBT will be aiming at is 'expanding the footprints of science' in India. "This will have to be done in the next five years by quadrupling the number of researchers through new institutional structures."

His idea is to double the number of researchers and then aim at doubling that figure again, all within the next five years.

DBT is looking at majorly amplifying research in emerging areas such as bioinformatics and marine biology. The idea is also to focus more on applications of science such as, vaccine and drug development, biotechnology and interdisciplinary innovation. DBT projects already reaping early success range from sanitation, mother and child nutrition and energy.

The kinetics of change is something we can’t ignore

On the criticism that new institutes alone are not the solution to doing quality science, he says,"There will always be resistance to such positive change. But the kinetics of change is something we can't ignore. Instead of questioning why we have so many new institutes, a tractable goal should be to make these institutes do well."

On science administration

VijayRaghan says he loves his new job as a government official though he continues to nurture his research interests in developmental biology. "Which is puzzling for me and puzzling for others as well, given what we know of government jobs! But my mandate is clear — to do what can be done. My ignorance of how government departments function is a positive — it works in a positive way for me," he adds.

The 59-year-old former director of Bangalore-based National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) says his philosophy of handling a government position is simple.

The solution is not in mourning about what can’t be done

"There are things that can be done in the Indian system, and then there are things that can't be done. The solution is not in mourning about what can't be done. It is in listing out what's possible and, given the resources we have, concentrating on this country's extraordinary possibilities."

VijayRaghavan says basic biology has grown tremendously in India in the last 20 years and in "any particular area of biology, we have an incredible number of talented people – that's a good sign."

"Foreign labs tell us that our postdocs are one of the best in the world — they find Indian postdocs very competitive and impressive. However, they do not say the same about our labs or institutions. For instance, they don't say we feel a sense of competition from such and such Indian lab. Until that happens, we can't have a competitive situation," he notes.

On Asia's prospects

Indian scientists must either have fire in the belly or fire in the rear

The S. S. Bhatnagar awardee feels comparing India with China in terms of research output is a 'fudge' – part valid, part serious. "Having said that, it is shameful for India not to have any benchmarks," he adds. Better flow of funds for Indian scientists should improve the present situation, according to him. "With their limited resources, Indian scientists do some great science."

The two Asian countries, being recognised globally for their brilliant scientific rise, should increase their international interaction, VijayRaghavan says.

However, he does concede that Indian scientists still need to have either "fire in the belly" or "fire in the rear" in order to make their presence felt in the world.