Go-ahead to science think tank
OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
CNR Rao: ‘Delighted’
New Delhi, Dec. 12: The Lok Sabha today passed a bill to create India's first autonomous agency to fund science and engineering research, taking closer to reality an idea first proposed by science policy makers more than two decades ago.
The bill for a Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB), which will also have to be passed by the Rajya Sabha, seeks to build a new agency with an independent budget to plan and fund research in academic institutions and other organisations.
"I'm delighted. This is the greatest thing that's happened to Indian science," said C N R Rao, the head of the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister.
"We first started working on this in 1985-86," Rao told The Telegraph . Despite attempts in the 1980s and again in the 1990s to initiate the process, it was only in 2005 that the Council pitched the idea of the SERB to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who agreed.
It will have "greater autonomy" than existing government science funding agencies and is expected to work with an annual budget of about Rs 1000 crore, Rao said.
"This will be India's big think tank for science and engineering," said Maharaj Kishan Bhan, secretary, department of biotechnology. "It'll look at the big picture, the long-term, plan for mega-projects as well as guide reform in scientific research in universities."
But some top university scientists have already cautioned that the proposed constitution of the SERB puts a question mark on the level of its true autonomy.
The secretaries of several government departments -- including science and technology, biotechnology, earth sciences and health research -- will be members of the SERB. Other members will be drawn from academic institutions, research laboratories, and experienced scientists -- all appointed by the central government.
"We don't know how this mechanism will be different from any of the multiple funding mechanisms India already has," said a senior scientist at the Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, who requested anonymity.
"Autonomy is an interesting notion. All our universities and higher educational institutions are supposed to be autonomous, but we all know what the reality is," the scientist said.
Most scientists agree India needs to reform the way science is funded. "There's virtually no coordination between existing science funding agencies. Funds are sometimes doled out without accountability," said Kasturi Lal Chopra, former director of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.
"But high level of government influence on the Board may only mean more inefficiency and less autonomy" Chopra said.
One researcher expressed concern about the control of funding by SERB. "There's been a trend in India where fewer and fewer people control large amounts of science funding. The SERB may accentuate that trend," said Nandula Raghuram, a biologist at the Indraprastha University, New Delhi.
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Institute of Technology, Banaras Hindu University
Varanasi 221005, UP