Modi government tells scientific research organisations to find their own sources of funding

New Delhi: The Modi government has apparently told organisations involved in scientific research to start ‘self-financing’ projects send in monthly updates and ensure that research stays in sync with the Central government’s ‘social and economic objectives.’

Science and Technology Minister Harsh Vardhan

According to a report in the Hindu, the cash-strapped Ministry of Science and Technology, led by Harsh Vardhan, has asked the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to generate half of its funds and start sending report cards to the Centre. The report cards should describe how “each of the laboratory (is) focusing its resources on developing specific lines of inventions which would contribute to the social and economic objectives of the Narendra Modi government for the poor and the common man.”

The decision was taken at the two-day ‘Chintan Shibhir’ in June in Dehradun. Here, all CSIR labs resolved to turn research projects into ‘for-profit’ ventures over the next two years, says the Hindu.

According to the ‘Dehradun Declaration’, all laboratories signed up to develop a revenue model in a ‘business like manner’ with cost-benefit analysis.

The research institutions will have to submit their short-term and long-term projects(between 1 and 3 years) to the Modi government.

Funding for the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) — both under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) of the government — have not been affected, said a CSIR scientist to the Hindu.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the ‘Chintan Shibir’ was that representatives from Vigyan Bharati, an organisation affiliated to the RSS, were part of the meeting.

“While DAE institutions are spared for the moment, institutes under the CSIR are badly hit by the government’s budget slash. Under the Dehradun Declaration, research institutions have been asked to raise part of their money for research through external funded projects and grants. While senior and established researchers can manage to secure grants, young researchers are having a tough time. This will affect the quality of research,” a senior scientist at CSIR told the Hindu.

The report adds that CSIR labs are now required to show how their research contributes to ‘society outreach’. Apart from submitting report cards of their work, the organisation must now show what part of their work ‘gives back to society’.

All this sparks fears of a fresh thrust on ‘indigenous science’. Of late, RSS as well as some BJP ministers have called for a revival of ancient Indian science. Home Minister Rajnath Singh in September even went so far as to say that India’s ‘dhoti wearing pandits’ had better knowledge of space science than America’s NASA scientists. At a student function in a Delhi college, Singh said, “USA’s NASA can make the prediction that after a month, solar and lunar eclipse will happen at this time… the media says America has such advanced technology, it is predicted one and-a-half years, two years ago. I can say with confidence that if you go to the dhoti-wearing pandit in the neighbourhood, he will pull out the ‘panchang’ and tell you when the lunar and solar eclipses happened 100 years ago and when they will happen 100 years later.”

Moreover, apart from funds cut, the number of CSIR fellowships have also been reduced. The 2015 notification for Senior Research Fellowships (SRFs) granted by CSIR has not been issued so far. Last year fewer people have been granted SRFs.

But Science and Technology is not the only ministry to experience budget cuts. The Health Ministry has also pulled the plug on 18 donor-funded projects and 14 operational research projects financed by the National AIDS Control Organisation, in March this year. Thus, funds for HIV/AIDS research have been significantly cut down.

Minister for Science and Technology Harsh Vardhan told the Hindu that research in India needed to be commercialised, underplaying concerns. “The technology transfer is not happening and there is no harm in relying on industry to scale up or take forward the research projects under way. If the labs make more money, the research will be better utilised. We are not giving targets to research institutions. We just want them to be better coordinated and have more accountability,” he said.

It is however, difficult to see how this could impact PM Modi’s ‘Make in India’ initiative in a positive way.