Funds aplenty

Print edition : March 13, 2009

C.N.R. Rao, who headed the Prime Ministers Science Advisory Council.-K. GOPINATHAN

C.N.R. Rao, who

IN December 2008, nearly four years after the Prime Ministers Science Advisory Council (SAC-PM), Indias apex science advisory body, recommended the creation of an autonomous research-funding agency free from bureaucratic controls, on the lines of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the United States (Frontline, April 22, 2005), the Union government approved the establishment of the Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB) through an Act of Parliament.

The idea of a new research-funding mechanism was, in fact, mooted by a section of the Indian scientific community as far back as the mid-1980s and brought up every now and then at various forums. The Science and Technology Policy of 2003 (STP-2003) took specific note of this and stated that the issue would be examined. But this did not spur any debate among the wider community of scientists on the need for such a body. Indeed, given the experiences of the existing mechanism, called the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC) under the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and of the extramural research (EMR) funding mechanisms in other departments, the need for such a body is far from clear. In its wisdom, however, the SAC-PM, chaired by C.N.R. Rao, felt that the idea needed to be pushed and, in March 2005, articulated the idea in a four-page concept note. This was submitted to the Prime Minister for consideration and has resulted in concrete action now.

A scientist who had managed the EMR funding in one of the departments pointed out: EMR funding mechanisms such as the SERC were designed for, and at a period of, science and technology development in India when money was in short supply and young people willing to, and capable of doing, research were plentiful. In contrast, the demand-side situation for the past decade or so has been the opposite relatively no shortage of money but an increasingly acute shortage of young people willing and able to do research. The institutional design has to fit the new opposite situation how to leverage the demand side and not just keep increasing the supply, however well-managed or de-bureaucratised it may be. The SAC-PM proposal too fails on this count. We need a new model.

While this fundamental criticism remains unaddressed, the relevant new Bill, called the SERB Bill 2008, was moved by Union Minister for Science and Technology and Earth Sciences Kapil Sibal, and was passed, without any changes, by the Lok Sabha on December 11 and the Rajya Sabha on December 19 in 2008. The legislation is likely to come into force in the next financial year (2009-10) after its notification in the gazette, the constitution of the Board and the appointment of the associated functionaries.

Indias relative position in basic research among nations, notes the Act in its Statement of Object and Reasons (SOR), has slowed down in recent times due to a variety of factors which require immediate attention. A key reason, according to Sibal, is the bureaucratic procedures in the Ministrys existing funding mechanism, which is subject to normal governmental financing procedures. Sanctions for many project proposals, he said while moving the SERB Bill, took as much as three years, thus defeating their very purpose. The heart of the Bill, the Minister said, is to break away from these bureaucratic controls and set up a funding mechanism which is autonomous and independent.

For nearly 30 years, the SERC has been administering the DSTs EMR funding across disciplines. The SERB, an autonomous body that will be outside the Ministry and without the attendant bureaucratic financing procedures, will essentially replace this except for the component of Fund for Infrastructure Strengthening (FIST), which accounted for nearly 40 per cent of the SERCs budget during the Tenth Plan. The current level of funding through the council is about Rs.415 crore (as per the 2008-09 Budget), which accounts for nearly half of all EMR funding in the country. In fact, the SERCs funding and the EMR funding of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) together account for about 75 per cent of the total EMR funding.

The departments funding system has twin roles: the competitive project proposals part and the promotional part, said T. Ramasami, DST Secretary. We were getting overawed by the procedures and processes for the large number of the former resulting in the neglect of the latter. Essentially, the Board will take over project sanctions so that we can focus on promotion, which is critical for the university system, he added. According to him, the number of transactions under the SERC in a year runs into several thousands and the DST simply lacks the staff strength to handle this volume. The aim and scope of the new Board is stated very clearly in Article 7(2)(ix) to take over and continue the basic research projects and programmes funded by the existing SERC scheme of the DST.

For the SERBs 2009-10 budget, Ramasami proposes to double the amount that was disbursed by the SERC for projects during 2008-09, which means the Board will have an initial budget of about Rs.600 crore for 2009-10. The SAC-PM had, on the other hand, recommended a higher annual budget of Rs.1,000 crore. There should be an absorptive capacity for Rs.1,000 crore. Given the SERCs experience, I dont think there is, Ramasami observed. We will see how this amount is utilised, and if there is demand for more, the funding can be increased next year, he added. This is also made clear by Article 9, which states: The Central government may in this behalf make to the Board grants and loans of such sums of money as the government may consider necessary.

Significantly, the Board is vested with far greater financial powers than before by the de-bureaucratisation move. The Board can now, on its own, sanction projects valued up to Rs.75 crore, five times the present limit, though it is not clear why this limit was increased. Given that the average value of research projects funded by the SERC is under Rs.1 crore, and there has been no instance in which the project value exceeded the current limit, it is inconceivable that a project requiring this large a sum will ever come up.

Sibal asserted in the parliamentary debate that the new mechanism was exactly on the lines of the NSF. In so claiming, Sibal was not being entirely truthful. Indeed, the fact that it is not like the NSF is precisely why the prime movers of the concept seem to be unhappy about the Boards approved structure. It is learnt that C.N.R. Rao and others from Bangalore have raised certain objections, in writing to the Ministry, over the Board structure.

The original structure envisaged by the SAC-PM was a replication of the NSF model, which is managed by a body of scientists. It recommended the establishment of a National Science and Engineering Research Foundation (NSERF), which would be managed by a non-whole-time Board (National Science and Engineering Research Board) chaired by a scientist of repute, with its membership comprising leaders of Indian science and chosen representatives of S&T agencies and industry. The SAC-PM Chairman had then remarked: A foundation that manages its own accounts and is run by scientists is the only way to reverse the rapid decline in Indian science.

Decline in Indian science is because of a variety of factors, and research funding is the least significant of them in the current context. This rationale of the SAC-PM for a new funding body, which Sibal has faithfully echoed, does not hold water. Notwithstanding this, the Board structure according to the new legislation is, indeed, drastically different from the SAC-PMs recommendation that it should comprise only scientists. The approved SERB structure will have up to a maximum of 16 members and will include the Secretaries of the DST (who will also be the Board chairperson), the DBT, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), the Department of Health Research (DHR) and the Department of Expenditure in the Ministry of Finance (or his/her nominee), the Member-Secretary of the Planning Commission, and up to three members each to be appointed by the government from academic institutions, government research laboratories and other socio-economic sectors including industry. The Board, in consultation with the government, will also appoint an eminent scientist as its Secretary.

T. Ramasami, DST Secretary, who will chair the SERB.-N. SRIDHARAN

Besides, in a bid perhaps to appease the proponents of the NSF model, the Act provides for an Oversight Committee of Experts (OCE)consisting of scientists and academics to advise and assist the Board. It will have a scientist of eminence and international repute as its Chairperson and a maximum of nine members. The OCE, which will be constituted by the Board, will include, besides the DST Secretary, who will be the vice-chair, the Presidents of the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), the Indian Academy of Sciences (IASc) and the Indian National Academy of Engineering; up to three distinguished experts in different areas of S&T; and the secretary of the Board. While, unlike the Board, the OCE will predominantly include practising scientists, it is only the Board that has the powers to take decisions.

It is not surprising, therefore, that there are objections to the Boards present form and function. It is a wonderful thing. Now we have a statutory body that can explore new modalities of funding. We have been talking about it for 25 years, C.N.R. Rao said. However, it is not properly constructed. Instead of this oversight committee with ex-officio members, there should be an advisory council managed only by scientists. We have suggested some changes and the Ministry has agreed to make these changes in the next [Parliament] session, he added.

The note sent to the Ministry apparently raises the following demands: the term Oversight Committee should be changed to Advisory Council; the Council should be constituted not by the Board but by the government; and its constitution should not have ex-officio members (including academy heads) but only eminent scientists chosen by name by the government. While the first demand would seem to be facile and in the manner of quibbling, because the Act clearly says that the OCE would advise and assist the Board, the other two, sources in the DST say, are unlikely to be changed.

The DST cannot simply give money to a body that cannot be made accountable and be a mere spectator. Autonomy does not mean no accountability, said Ramasami. If my department is giving money, I should be in control on how it is spent so that I am answerable to Parliament. That is why Secretary, DST, is the chair, he added. It all boils down to how and who is authorised to sanction expenditure, pointed out a former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) official well versed in government financial procedures. Apparently, there exists a ruling of the Madhya Pradesh High Court of some time in the mid-1970s to the effect that a delegated power cannot be further delegated, unless the power to delegate is itself delegated. It is this ruling that apparently T. N. Seshan, then with ISRO, used to tweak the Department of Spaces financial rules to enable sequential delegation. This could have been easily done with a stand-alone legislation and the issue of accountability could have been appropriately handled, he said.

The scientific community is not homogeneous, pointed out a DST official. There are camps and lobby groups and even sycophancy. After all, the Secretaries of the scientific departments are also scientists of calibre in their own right, he added. Apparently, some scientists have pointed out that at least in the SERC there was a level playing field but in the SERB, funding might become vulnerable to the pressures from the Oversight Committee. It would have been even worse if it had been left entirely to the scientists, the official, who did not wish to be named, remarked.

Noted biologist M. Vijayan, however, preferred to reserve his comments on the SERB. Its functioning is yet to be seen. Among the systems we have had so far, the SERC and its system of PAC [Project Advisory Committee] certainly worked reasonably well and achieved a healthy growth and spread of basic competitive research. Admittedly, its functioning could be improved; I am not sure whether we need an altogether new body, he said. According to Ramasami, the SERB is also likely to adopt, at least in the near term, the well-honed project-scrutinising and approval mechanisms of the SERC.

According to Ramasami, in the originally drafted Bill the Boards structure was somewhat more along the lines of the SAC-PMs recommendations, but changes had to be made to include ex-officio members on the Law Ministrys suggestion. The Minister, too, while replying to a Members charge in Parliament that the formation of the Board had taken a long time, stated that the Ministry had a Bill ready in 2006 itself but because of the objections raised by the Committee of Secretaries it had to be cast differently and presented again. In its final form, the SERB remains firmly under the DSTs charge, rather than with an independent body of scientists as the SAC-PM had proposed, but with more financial autonomy than the SERC.

The changes sought by the Committee of Secretaries, the Law Ministry and the Cabinet seem to have resulted in some glaring oddities in the Act. The noticeable minor error in the references to certain clauses in Article 3(5) suggests that two members Secretary, DHR, and Secretary, Department of Expenditure were added at the last moment to the composition of the Board but without much thought. It is reliably learnt that the inclusion was made on the Union Cabinets suggestion.

In his explanation of the present structure in Parliament, Sibal stated that since all departments had their own EMR funding mechanisms (which would continue to function even after the SERB becomes operative), the inclusion of departmental secretaries would ensure that there was no duplication of research projects and that there was coordination between SERC projects and those funded by the other departments. If so, one could ask why the Departments of Space (DoS), Atomic Energy (DAE) and Defence Research as well as the University Grants Commission are not represented in the Board. Similarly, while the DHR has been included in the Board, the National Academy of Medical Sciences is not represented in the OCE.

Surely, the Cabinet note on the Bill would have been circulated to all these departments as well. It would seem that the three did not want any part of the SERB money, since money is not a constraining factor in conducting basic research in space, atomic energy and defence. The omission of the UGC is particularly glaring when the SAC-PM had observed that the new mechanism would provide a dramatic boost to science in the vast Indian university system, which will be a key to future progress in science and technology. It is clear what importance the Finance Ministry gives to this entire exercise from the decision to have a representative from the expenditure department. Its nominee is likely to be a junior joint secretary.

The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, a major centre of scientific research.-

An interesting provision in the legislation is Article 3(4), which is somewhat unusual. It states that the head office of the Board shall be in Delhi or in the National Capital Region.

This is clearly in view of the SAC-PMs recommendation in its 2005 note: Following the model of the DAE and the DoS, the main offices of the NSERF can be located at a suitable place in India. Observers in the scientific community had, however, perceived this recommendation as a bid to locate the agency in Bangalore.

Article 16, however, is the provision that defines the extent of autonomy that the Board can enjoy a killer provision, if one may say, to the total independence and autonomy that the SAC-PM desired. It says:

(1) the Board shall, in the discharge of its functions and duties under this Act, be bound by such directions on questions of policy as the Central government may give in writing to it from time to time; provided that the Board shall, as far as practicable, be given an opportunity to express its view before any direction is given.

(2) The decision of the Central government, whether a question is one of policy or not, shall be final.

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