The 28th of February is celebrated as ‘National Science Day’ in India, in memory of C.V. Raman who was responsible for the discovery of what was later known as the ‘Raman Effect’. Raman was the first Indian and also the first ‘non-white’ to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics, in 1930. Given the significance of this day, it makes sense to review the policy initiatives to put India back on the research track. Image of C.V.Raman from here.
In 2010, the President of India has declared the present decade as the ‘Decade of Innovation’ and the Government in the last decade has announced several new policy initiatives to boost research and innovation in India. The problem however with the present government is the fact that several of these initiatives have completely stalled either in Parliament or at the Ministry of Science and Technology.
For instance, although it has been more than three years since Parliament has passed the Science and Engineering Research Board Act (SERB), 2008 there does not seem to be any notification by the Government operationalizing the provisions of the Act. The SERB was supposed to take over the activities of the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC) which was working directly under the Department of Science and Technology (DST). The proposed SERB, which was to function as an autonomous institution, has the powers to award substantial grants for basic research into science.
Similarly there is no news from the government on the Protection and Utilisation of Public Funded Intellectual Property Bill, 2008. This Bill which is touted to be the Indian version of America’s famous Bayh-Dole legislation had proposed the sharing of patent royalties with the inventors of public funded inventions. The Bill had a tumultuous ride through a Parliamentary Standing Committee, which in the end sent the Bill back to the Government with a request that the entire Bill be redrafted. The Department of Biotechnology (DBT), which was responsible for piloting this Bill through Parliament, had carried out substantive amendments to the Bill which were subsequently approved of by the Parliamentary Standing Committee. It has been two years since that Bill was approved by the Parliamentary Standing Committee but the government is yet to make a strong pitch for it in Parliament. This is one of those Bills which will sail through Parliament without any opposition and yet we find the Government dragging its feet on the subject.
There is however also some good news. In the recent past, the Prime Minister has setup the National Innovation Council (NIC) under the Chairmanship of Sam Pitroda. The NIC came out with its first report in November, 2011. The report has sought to place innovation at the centre of the Indian growth story. Similarly the Prime Minister, who in all fairness seems to be obsessed with ‘innovation’, has announced the creation of a $ 1 Billion dollar fund to finance innovation. While more money towards innovation is always welcome, somebody really needs to audit the existing schemes to fund innovation. For example we already have a Technology Development Board (TDB) and also the National Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Board (NSTEB) which were meant to fund innovation. What has happened to these organizations? How are they functioning? Why are we creating new bodies when we have existing bodies? Similarly we have the National Research and Development Corporation (NRDC) which is supposed to be pioneering technology transfer from public funded institutions to the private sector. So far its earnings or revenues do not seem to be exceptional in any respect. Should there not be some kind of reassessment of these institutions before we set about creating new ones?
Last but not the least, while talking about innovation and research into basic science, it is important to not forget the need for creating an appropriate regulatory and structure especially for new-age technologies like bio-technology. The controversy over Bt-Brinjal a couple of years ago was a sign of low public-confidence in biotechnology. A major reason for this was the lack of an independent regulator. In the last session of Parliament, the Government finally introduced the much-delayed National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill in Parliament in December, 2011. This Bill has already been dissed by several commentators but there is at least hope that now it is in Parliament. Other issues which need to be looked into are existing legislations such as the Biological Diversity Act which has created a suffocating and inefficient bureaucratic setup to regulate any joint research into India’s gene-bank by Indian and foreign researchers.