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New national science body to set research free

The National Science and Engineering Research Board, a new science funding agency that policymakers hope will liberate Indian science funding from bureaucracy, will finally start functioning this month, nearly two years after it was first approved by Parliament, reports Anika Gupta.

india Updated: Apr 12, 2010 01:05 IST
Anika Gupta

The National Science and Engineering Research Board, a new science funding agency that policymakers hope will liberate Indian science funding from bureaucracy, will finally start functioning this month, nearly two years after it was first approved by Parliament.

“The Board will be ready by the end of the month, although it might take a few extra months to become fully operational,” CNR Rao, chairman of the Prime Minister’s Science Advisory Council (SAC) told HT.

The new Board is modeled on the US-based National Science Foundation, which is independent from the government and has the freedom to make its own rules. By creating the Board as a statutory authority that is separate from DST, policymakers are hoping the Board will be similarly independent.

It is this proposed autonomy, rather than the money, that scientists are looking forward to. Scientific funding in India is already on the rise. The government budget allotment for the Department of Science and Technology and the Department of Biotechnology – which between them fund three quarters of the country’s scientific research – has more than doubled over the past five years, from an estimated 1449 crore in the 2005-2006 budget to 3225 crore in the budget recently announced for 2010-2011.

“In terms of funding, the money in India has never been better,” said P Balaram, director of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. “But we need a more flexible funding agency. The way funds are currently given out is inefficient.”

The Board will have an initial allotment of 1000 crore, which it will distribute as funding for basic scientific research. Basic research advances scientific knowledge but does not directly result in patentable inventions.

The new Board will take over and enhance the extramural funding functions of the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC), a body within the Department of Science and Technology. The Board will not affect DBT’s funding.

T Ramasami, DST Secretary, will chair the Board. Members will include eminent scientists and representatives from departments within the Ministry of Science and Technology.

The Board will also have a 4 to 5 member Oversight Committee, appointed by the government and composed solely of scientists.

The members will be notified within the next 10 to 15 days.

The idea for an independent funding agency was first floated more than a decade ago. The SAC officially proposed the idea nearly five years ago.

Parliament gave the Board its nod in December 2008, with an expected start date of last year. Delays in the notification process, as well as discussion of some of the law’s finer points, led to the new date.

Whether the new agency will fulfill its intended mission, and liberate the funding process, remains to be seen. Although the Board will be independent from DST, it will still be subject to the dictates of the Central government.

“It looks like a positive step,” said AK Sood, a prominent researcher and president of the Indian Academy of Sciences. “Whether this will be different from what we already have, that we will have to see.”