What's ailing India's research funding agencies?

The role of government agencies funding science in India has come to question with the recent public outburst of eminent scientist C. N. R. Rao, scientific adviser to the Prime Minister of the country. In the backdrop of India's Department of Biotechnology chalking out a new funding regime, Nature India looks at some deep-set systemic issues.

Manoj Jadhav, Priyanka Jadhav

doi:10.1038/nindia.2013.176 Published online 30 December 2013

In 1943, Archibald Vivian Hill, one of the secretaries of the Royal Society of Britain, was invited by the Government of India to design a plan for scientific and industrial research post-World War II in India. In his report, he described the role of universities, the need to establish centers for research (such as AIIMS and CSIR). He also outlined some lacunae in the system. Primary among them were lack of skilled faculty, understaffed colleges, attitude to think on research problems, innovation and independent and rational research .

Some of Hill's observations, made almost 70 years back, seem valid even today in the Indian research and development scenario. Recently, the Science Advisory Council (SAC) to the Prime Minister of India said the country could be among top five science-faring countries in next 10-15 years, with good leadership and policies . Bharat Ratna Chintamani Nagesa Ramachandra Rao, adviser to India's Prime Minister, has been quite vocal about the meagre funds that Indian scientists receive.

The issues

Among the several factors that need special attention, according to science policy experts, are the lengthy grants approval time, creation of a healthy research culture, long term funding, state-of-the-art research facilities and an integrative approach in tackling research problems.

A limiting step in the government funding agencies is the lengthy, not so transparent process, lots of paperwork and too much time taken between submission of a research proposal to approval of grant. There's also a lot of peeve with the processes involved. For instance, in scientifically advanced countries, if a researcher orders a chemical or antibody, he gets it at his doorstep within 24-48 hours. The process could take months in most Indian labs.

"Reforms are inevitable. The technical paper work should be replaced by an online system," says S. D. Sawant, Principal of a pharmacy college in Pune.

Researchers with India's major funding agencies — Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR), Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and Department of Science and Technology (DST) — point out that these funding agencies currently take a long time to review grants. Also, the reviewer's comments are not always communicated to the Principal Investigators, there is no grading or scoring system, the number of expert reviewers are limited and there's no way to submit or track proposals online.

DBT secretary Krishnasway VijayRaghavan recently acknowledged in an interview to Nature India that the main challenge with funding in India is the much broader baseline of grant seekers — from modest capacity labs to excellent ones.

"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 said.

The solutions

VijayRaghavan said his department is all set to change how the country funds its science within March 2014. "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." If successful, DBT's model could be replicated in all other grant bodies, he said.

DBT 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 funding model for India. This new model promises to drastically cut down the time it takes from applying for a grant to receiving it.

A central grant database featuring all major grant bodies would be a great idea, according to Manish Taneja, a young scientist who recently returned to India after a PhD from the University of Houston. "The funding agencies should have a common platform or portal where all research areas are featured," he says. Such a database could help avoid duplication of research projects, decide thrust areas and translate promising findings of one group to another to advance discoveries. The cross-talk between agencies could help them prioritize objectives, mission and awards. The improved system would increase the efficiency of the staff at the agencies and move things faster.

Veteran clinical pharmacologist Arun Bhatt points out that research awards must be "merit based rather than one based on personal relationships". "A transparent, merit based, time bound award system needs to be designed. Besides, the funding agencies usually do not take private sector scientists on the assessment panel," he points out. The agencies should have a mix of young and senior reviewers with good research and administrative standing. Experts from both industry and academia should be involved in the review process, he feels.

Former Vice Chancellor of a Maharashtra health University and adviser to various funding agencies Mrudula Phadke says there's need to curtail wastage of large amounts of funds that go into establishment costs and duplication of research. Senior scientist and academician Bhushan Patwardhan also suggests that extramural components of all funding agencies must be increased substantially to bring in more competitiveness.

Dinesh Bharadwaj, a senior scientist at ICMR, New Delhi, suggests creation of a national 'mission mode' programme involving public bodies, trusts and private national and international institutions to bring about reforms in the India's science funding mechanism. The programme should come with a continuous audit on outputs by an independent agency to ensure accountability, he says.

Science policy experts feel that implementing some of these suggestions could drastically improve the way India's funding agencies function and help researchers access funds better.


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