February 18, 2024

Privatising Research in India

S Krishnaswamy

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ON February 1, 2024 while presenting the interim budget 2024-25 in parliament, the union minister for finance and corporate affairs said the government proposed to create a corpus of one lakh crore rupees to boost private investment in sunrise technologies. It was to mark a golden era for our tech savvy youth with India showing solutions through innovation and entrepreneurship of its people. The slogan given by prime minister Modi “Jai Jawan Jai Kisan Jai Vigyan and Jai Anusandhan” was also mentioned saying “innovation is the foundation of development.” Elaborating on the announcement, finance secretary said government will identify a financial institution from within the ambit of the public sector for the scheme. “The provision is for a period of time as the need emerges. This will be provided as a 50 year interest free loan to a financial institution, which will be identified, which will be within the government ambit of financial institution, who will then finance or refinance projects at long tenor and at concessional rates of interest,” he said, adding that money has been provided in the budget to the department of economic affairs for multiple purposes including this scheme.

As has been usual for this government, these pronouncements are not accompanied by any details and plans for implementation.




None of India’s universities are ranked in the world’s top 300 universities in the Times Higher Education index and only two appear in the top 400. The overall number of trained scientific researchers is small in both absolute and relative terms (15/lakh in India versus 111/lakh in China and 825/lakh in Israel).

Research and innovation investments as a per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) have dropped from 0.84 per cent in 2008 to 0.69 per cent in 2018 (in comparison it is 4.3 per cent in Israel and 4.2 per cent in South Korea in 2018). On the patent front – a proxy for innovation – India submitted 46,582 patent applications in 2019. If the applications made by non-resident Indians are removed, the number drops to 14,906. In the same year, China made 1.38 million patent applications while the US had 606,956.

The quality of scientific research has improved but has still a long way to go. And while the absolute number of scientific publications has increased in the last decade (contributing 4.8 per cent to the global total); this number is a quarter of the number of annual publications coming out of China and the USA.

Allocations for public funding in science departments, namely the DST, the Department of Biotechnology, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), are only modest with the CSIR getting a 10 per cent raise from the Rs 5,746 crore allocated in 2023-24 to Rs 6,323 crore and the DST a 1 per cent raise over the Rs 7,931 crore in 2023-24 to Rs 8,029 crore.

Adequate investment in R&D is crucial for India to become self-reliant in technology and a global technology leader. All India People’s Science Network (AIPSN) had earlier highlighted that a robust indigenous R&D environment is essential for attracting domestic and overseas investment, enabling the country to excel in cutting-edge technologies and promoting overall socio-economic development.

India’s R&D spending is among the lowest in the world, according to a NITI Aayog study, published in 2022. India’s Gross Expenditure of Research and Development (GERD) is lower than the other BRICS nations. Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa spend around 1.2 per cent, 1.1 per cent, above 2 per cent and 0.8 per cent respectively. The world average is around 1.8 per cent.With such low contribution, R&D performance remains stagnant. Allocating less than 0.5 per cent of the GDP to R&D is insufficient. It is better not to spend anything at all on R&D than spend 0.5 per cent of the GDP or less. Maybe that is the idea with all these slogans and saying huge amounts of research funding for innovation will be given to private businesses while in real terms there is no increase in public funded research.




The India Innovation Index 2021 has found that the overall spending on R&D by India has been relatively low across the country.
For India to achieve its much talked about goal of a $5 trillion economy, India’s GERD needs considerable improvement and needs to touch at least 2 per cent. The answer therefore is to invest substantially more in public funded R&D and not in public funding for privatising research funding.

The lack of engagement in active research by higher education institutions is another concern. Out of nearly 40,000 higher education institutions in India, only 1 per cent  is actively involved in research. To address this, there is a need to strengthen state universities by recruiting more qualified teachers and researchers for permanent posts.



First proposed under the National Education Policy (NEP) in 2020, the National Research Foundation (NRF) aims to centralise scientific research funding in the country. It replaces the previously established governmental funding agencies such as the Department of Science and Technology, Department of Atomic Energy, Department of Biotechnology, Indian Council of Agriculture Research, Indian Council of Medical Research and the University Grants Commission.

One of the primary concerns All India People’s Science Network (AIPSN) had raised in 2023 was the funding distribution for the NRF. With only 28 per cent of the proposed five-year allocation of Rs 50,000 crores for R&D through the NRF coming from the government, the private sector will finance the remaining 72% per cent through a yet-to-be-identified process. AIPSN said that the proposed funding structure seeks to establish a more robust intellectual property mechanism, similar to the Bayh-Dole Act, which may not align with the interests of academic institutions.

Thus, the government is envisaging spending only around Rs 14,000 crore over five years, i.e., around Rs 2,800 crore per year. Anybody with some idea of the volume of research conducted in India knows that this amount is sorely insufficient even to maintain the present meagre level of support.

However, in reality for 2022-23 the government allocated a budget of just Rs 1 lakh!  In 2023-24, the union budget allocated Rs 2,000 crore for the NRF, which was then revised to Rs 258.60 crore. And in this interim budget, the finance minister made no mention of NRF in the budget speech. Whether the new corpus has a connection to the NRF is unclear.

Scientists and researchers have expressed concerns over the NRF’s political leadership. They cited apprehensions related to the Modi-led government’s endorsement of belief-based concepts such as panch-gavya and the so-called ‘Indian Knowledge Systems’.


As Prabir Purkayastha says in his book Knowledge as commons: Towards inclusive Science and Technology, “There is evidence today that private funding of research distorts the priorities upheld by public funding. Private companies are able to exercise decisive control over the trajectory of research by funding only select parts of a research project. And, of course, the fruits of public-funded research are placed at their disposal.”



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