Bridging India’s Science-Society Gap: National Research Foundation’s Opportunity

The National Research Foundation (NRF) has been recently approved by the Union Cabinet as a new research funding agency in India. With a budget of Rs 50,000 crore over five years, its main purpose is to enhance research and innovation in the country. By providing more funding, streamlining the research funding process, and strengthening connections between academia, industry, society, and government, the NRF aims to foster innovative solutions to practical challenges.

Since the announcement, scientists have engaged in discussions regarding the type of research that the NRF should support to ensure the development of innovative solutions. However, this task is challenging due to the academic culture in India, which is primarily driven by internal academic priorities and incentives, rather than focusing on social problems and challenges.

One popular argument regarding funding rationales is that the “relevance” and “utility” of research should not be the key factors. This viewpoint has been echoed in the NRF debate, with some commentators suggesting that research should not be prescriptive or directed, as scientific advancements often arise unexpectedly. On the other hand, other experts emphasize the importance of establishing partnerships between academic scholars and key players in the science, technology, and innovation (STI) system. This includes collaborating with line ministries and relevant industrial sectors from the inception of the problem statement.

Furthermore, several experts highlight the significance of involving societal stakeholders in determining both the issues and research pathways that the STI system should address. By including the perspectives of different societal groups, it becomes possible to ensure that the research conducted aligns with the needs and aspirations of the broader society.

The argument for the “free play of free intellects” stems from Vannevar Bush’s 1945 paper titled “Science: The Endless Frontier.” This perspective suggests that curiosity-driven research should be the driving force behind innovation. According to this linear, or pipeline, model, new knowledge naturally leads to new technology and innovation, which ultimately drives economic growth and addresses gaps in knowledge creation. In line with this thinking, the government should invest in scientific research, as breakthroughs will naturally find their way into practical applications through private sector innovation.

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Many technologies, such as genome-sequencing, medical diagnostics, and various construction materials, have been developed through discoveries driven by curiosity. However, this argument has been challenged by Daniel Sarewitz, a professor of science and society at Arizona State University. In his 2016 essay, “Saving Science,” Sarewitz argues that key inventions in postwar U.S. were not primarily the result of curiosity, but instead motivated by the technological demands of the Department of Defense (DOD). The DOD’s engagement with science demonstrated that the “free play of free intellects” was not the main path to innovation in most cases.

The DOD played a critical role in providing investment and direction for fundamental research in various fields, from physics to molecular biology. Its investments influenced the rapid development of computers in the 1950s and supported the growth of computer science as an academic discipline through research funding at institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University. This acceleration ultimately led to innovations such as the World Wide Web, which received further support and material resources from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and eventually gave rise to companies like Google.

Even the widely known story of the discovery of penicillin is less serendipitous than commonly portrayed. Alexander Fleming’s accidental observation in 1928 that a mold inhibited the growth of Staphylococcus bacteria led to the initial understanding of penicillin’s potential therapeutic benefits. However, it was a team at the University of Oxford’s Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, a decade later, that isolated the actual substance and undertook a target-driven endeavor from 1939, which, combined with industrial involvement, transformed penicillin into the life-saving drug it is today.

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Similarly, military foresight played a crucial role in the development of the first jet engines, which subsequently revolutionized civil and commercial aviation. These examples highlight the fact that many pieces of modern technology owe their existence to government-led innovations, as economist Mariana Mazzucato argues in her book, “The Entrepreneurial State” (2011). This challenges the notion that the “free play of intellects” is the main driver of scientific progress and innovation when examining the history of science more closely.

In the 1980s, a new innovation model known as the “national innovation system” emerged. This model posits that fostering connections, promoting learning within systems, and empowering entrepreneurship are essential for innovation to thrive in a country. While countries like Japan and South Korea did not have particularly strong basic science in the 1970s-80s, they achieved innovation-led economic growth through the successful implementation of an interconnected innovation system. By fostering collaboration between automobile companies and part suppliers, these countries were able to stimulate growth and achieve technological advancements.

In the field of science, technology, and innovation, these two frameworks have traditionally dominated the policy discourses of funding agencies worldwide. The pipeline model, rooted in the post-war era, emphasizes the role of basic research and assumes that it will automatically translate into innovation and economic growth. On the other hand, the techno-nationalist system from the 1980s focuses on building interconnectedness among universities, research institutes, companies, and governments to drive innovation.

However, a third innovation model is now emerging, which emphasizes transformative change towards sustainability. This model recognizes that science, technology, and innovation should not only foster economic growth but also work towards transforming society to be more environmentally and socially sustainable. Achieving this requires the involvement of citizen science and stakeholders’ participation to inform the types of knowledge that can drive transformative innovation towards a more just and sustainable future.

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Denmark’s wind power industry serves as an example of this third innovation model. In response to the energy crises of the 1970s, Denmark’s grassroots environmental movement formed local cooperatives and small firms to experiment with wind turbines. With support from national technological institutes and policies like feed-in tariffs, this coalition eventually propelled Denmark to become one of the leading exporters of wind turbines, contributing to its transition to green energy.

In the Indian context, research funding has traditionally favored the pipeline model, allowing “free intellects” to guide national progress in science, technology, and innovation. However, the establishment of the NRF presents an opportunity to revisit India’s STI policies. While support for basic research remains essential, it is now possible to reevaluate the affiliation with the pipeline model and pave the way towards newer models of innovation. These models recognize the importance of creativity driven by social challenges and stakeholder participation in achieving transformative innovation towards a more just and sustainable future.

Moumita Koley is an STI Policy Researcher at DST-CPR, IISc, and a Consultant at the International Science Council. Ismael Rafols is a senior researcher at CWTS University Leiden and holds the UNESCO Chair on Diversity and Inclusion in Global Science.

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