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Doing Research Differently: An Analysis of Anusandhan National Research Foundation Act, 2023

THE POLICY LAB-37
JANUARY 13, 2024

By J B Mohapatra

5 AREAS in which the composition, objects, powers and functions of the newly crafted Anusandhan National Research Foundation (NRF) constituted under the Anusandhan National Research Foundation Act, 2023 (ANRF Act) differ from the Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB) earlier constituted under the Science and Engineering Research Board Act, 2008 (SERB Act) and now being repealed and replaced with NRF are:

(a) In objects and purpose, and in powers and functions:

SERB Act's preamble reads as follows: "An Act for the constitution of a Board for promoting basic research in science and engineering and to provide financial assistance to persons engaged in such research, academic institutions, research and development laboratories, industrial concerns and other agencies for such research and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto".

Section 7(2) of SEB Act elaborates the powers and functions as follows: (i) serving as a multi-disciplinary research agency for planning, promoting and funding of internationally competitive research in emerging areas (ii) considering and taking decisions on the recommendations and suggestions of the Oversight Committee (iii) identifying major inter-disciplinary research areas, groups or institutions and funding them for undertaking research (iv) evolving nationally coordinated programs in various identified areas involving institutions that will have a multiplier effect in promoting research (v) assisting in setting up infrastructure and environment for scientific pursuit (vi) achieving synergy between academic institutions, research and development laboratories and industry for promoting basic research in science and engineering (vii) evolving a management system to speedily provide for funding research including monitoring and evaluation by adopting modern management practices (viii) taking over and continuing the Science and Engineering Council Scheme

ANRF Act's preamble reads as follows: "An Act to establish the Anusandhan National Research Foundation to provide high level strategic direction for research, innovation and entrepreneurship in the fields of natural sciences including mathematical sciences, engineering and technology, environmental and earth sciences, health and agriculture, and scientific and technological interfaces of humanities and social sciences, to promote, monitor and provide support as required for such research and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto."

Section 4 of the ANRF Act elaborates the preamble and manner of achieving those through actions such as (i) preparing the roadmap for short, medium and long term research and development; (ii) seeding, growing and facilitating research at academic and research institutions, particularly at universities and colleges where research capacity is at a nascent stage, through programmes such as research and development projects, fellowships, academic chairs, and creation of centres of excellence; (iii) funding competitive peer-reviewed grant proposals to eligible persons; (iv) assisting in setting up research infrastructure and environment that is conducive for scientific pursuit with specific focus on matters of national priorities, emerging frontiers and strategic research; (v) increasing India's role and participation in key areas of national and global importance; (vi) supporting translation of research undertaken into capital intensive technologies; (vii) evolving nationally coordinated programmes to identify scientific and practical solutions for societal, developmental, financial and techno-economic challenges; (viii) coordinating across the Central Government, State Governments, public authorities, industries, and research institutions, to document and analyse the expenditure on scientific research and their outcomes during each financial year, and report the same to the Central Government; (ix) evolving participation in international collaborative projects and fostering exchange of scientific information; (x) encouraging collaboration with scientists from within and outside India, including scientists of Indian origin, with a view to enrich the Indian scientific ecosystem; and (xi) encouraging the Public Sector Enterprises as well as the private sector entities to invest in the activities of the Foundation. (xii) to undertake an annual survey of outcomes of scientific research in India, barring in strategic areas, with a view to create a central repository, for the collection, interpretation and analysis of information and data surrounding such research, and the aim of such a repository would include providing information for policy formulation and advising the Central Government and State Governments as well as the private sector:

(b) In laying down the governance mechanism:

SERB Act intended to run the mandated activities through the 'Board' constituted under section 3 of that Act comprising the Secretary, Department of Science and Technology (DST) as its Chairman, and Secretaries of Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), Ministry of Earth Sciences (MOES), Department of Expenditure (DoE), Department of Health Research (DHR) as Members apart from 10 nominated Members with experience in scientific research. An independent Oversight Committee constituted under section 5 with an eminent scientist as its Chairman, and Secretary, DST, Presidents of Indian National Science Academy (INSA), Indian Academy of Sciences (IAS), Indian National Academy of Engineers (INAE) and 3 distinguished experts on nomination basis as its Members was intended to render recommendations and suggestions to the Board.

ANRF Act envisages a Governing Board (GB) in terms of section 5 of the Act comprising the hon'ble Prime Minister as ex-officio President, the Union Minister of Science and Technology and Union Minister of Education as ex-officio Vice-Presidents, and (i) Member from the NITI Aayog dealing with science and technology (ii) Secretary, DST (iii) Secretary, DSIR (iv) Secretary, DBT (v) Secretary, Department of Higher Education, as ex-officio Members, and the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India (PSA) as ex-officio Member-Secretary. There are provisions in section 5 for further nomination of Members to the GB by its President: not exceeding 2 from Prime Minister's Science, Technology and Innovation Council (PMSTIAC), not exceeding 5 from business organisation or industry, one Member from the field of humanities and social sciences, not in excess of 2 from institutions engaged in scientific and technological research and development and not in excess of 6 experts in areas of health, mathematical sciences, biological sciences, engineering and technology, innovation and partnership, computer and information sciences, and engineering.

An Executive Council (EC) constituted by the President of the GB and comprising the PSA as its ex-officio Chairman, and Secretaries of DST, DBT, DSIR, MOES, Department of Higher Education, DHR, Department of Defence Research and Development, Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), Department of Space, Department of Agricultural Research and Education (DARE) as members of EC will be GB's implementing arm. There are provisions for appointment or nomination by the President of GB of 2 Secretaries to Government of India and 3 science and technology experts positioned in academia, philanthropic sector, research laboratories and industries to the EC. That EC will carry out the policy directions of the GB and guided by GB's instructions thereon is statutorily provided in section 10 of the Act. Apart from considering applications for financial assistance based on eligibility criteria and registration requirements, EC will support for assistance for IPR applications pursuant to research carried out with NRF's support.

(c) In Finance, Accounts and Audit:

SERB Act in section 9 thereof provides for no other source of funding except by the central government. The section reads as follows: "The central government may, after due appropriation by Parliament in this behalf, make to the Board grants and loans of such sums of money as that government may consider necessary". Though in section 10(1)(b) of the Act which envisaged creation of the Fund for Science and Engineering Research, receipt through donations from any other source is indicated. Second. SERB Act intended to have just the One Fund- the Fund for Science and Engineering Research -which shall be applied for meeting all expenses incurred for the purposes of the Act.

ANRF Act in section 13 thereof provides that apart from grants and loans from the central government, it shall be permissible for the Foundation to receive any sum under sub-clause (b) "…… for research and development, including through donations from any other source, including from public sector enterprises, the private sector, philanthropist organisations, foundations or international bodies;"; under sub-clause (e) "all amounts with the Fund for Science and Engineering Research under the Science and Engineering Research Board Act, 2008 as on the appointed date"; and under sub-clause (f) "such other sources as may be prescribed." Second, ANRF Act envisages multiple Funds: one, Anusandhan National Research Fund for financing activities under the ANRF Act; two, Innovation Fund for supporting outstanding creativity in areas supported by the Foundation; three, SERB Fund to continue the projects and programmes initiated under the erstwhile Act; and one or more Special Purpose Fund for any specific project or research.

(d) In rule-making power:

Both section 20(1) of the SERB Act and section 23(1) of ANRF Act provide that rules to give effect to the respective Act shall be made and notified by the central government.

(e) In devising provision for a special financial rule:

While SERB Act has no specific provision for a special or separate financial rule for accounting for its operational activities, ANRF Act through section 13(4) of the Act makes a provision for 'such financial rules' specific to utilisation of amounts in NRF's Funds, the rules to be framed by the central government. The provision reads as follows:

"(4) The Central Government shall frame such financial rules for the utilisation of the amounts in the Funds established under this Act."

What distinguishes NRF from any such policy setting-cum- implementing body for research and development, whether established through statute or other-wise, though appears at first glance as the scope of its mandated activities, which includes not just research and development, but also entrepreneurship and innovation, and the highest possible level of governance set-up, few other features also stand out, foremost among them is the

(i) manner of funding for its mandated activities. In answer to un-starred question no 1402 dated 14-12-2023 in the Rajya Sabha, MOS for the Ministry of Science and Technology informed that out of a total estimated budget of Rs 50,000 crores for the 5 years for 2023-28, 70% of the gross funding requirements would be from the non-government sources, through donations from PSEs, private sector, philanthropist organizations, foundations and international bodies. In what manner, whether taking the legislative or the administrative route or both in tandem to succeed in funds mobilization, NRF can get to the funding targets is a matter which needs careful planning. Consideration of past precedents, lessons learnt from earlier such attempts, and trajectory of policies under different legislations and administrative dispensations which deeply intersect the science and technology landscape is of paramount importance. Getting NRF approved as a scientific research association or a body corporate for the purposes of section 35(1)(ii) or (iia) or as a 'specified person' under section 35(2AA) of the Income Tax Act so that research expenditure incurred through NRF becomes entitled to deduction as a business expenditure can be the first step in that direction. Making efforts to include NRF within the list of entities in sub-clause (b) of clause (ix) to schedule VII in terms of section 135 of the Companies Act, 2013 so that CSR contributions can flow to NRF can be an important second step. The third of the options for funding is contained in section 13(1)(f) of the ANRF Act, and reads as follows:

"13. (1) The Foundation shall receive monies from the following sources, namely:- (a) grants and loans of such sums of money as the Central Government may consider necessary, after due appropriation made by Parliament by law in this behalf;

(b)

(c)

(d)

(e)

(f) such other sources as may be prescribed."

A purposeful engagement with the government to explore alternatives and ascertain the appropriate source of funding for undertaking NRF's mandated activities is a priority requirement. There have been instances in the past for example the Research and Development Cess Act, 1986 which provided for levy and collection of cess on all payments made for the import of technology and through another central legislation the Technology Development Board Act, 1995 employed the cess so generated through TDB for the purposes of encouraging the commercial application of indigenously developed technology and for adapting imported technology to wider domestic application. One of the cesses yet not repealed for example the health and education cess which yields in excess of Rs 50,000 crores of annual collection, and a small portion whereof could be applied for NRF's activities can be an avenue. Finally, the undue stress on the quantum of funds invested in a knowledge sector such as science and technology and categorising those as sufficient or insufficient qua other countries or against data of previous years or under previous governments without having a consensus on a precise and measurable matrix of output/achievement effected through investments has always been worrisome. For NRF, a principle can be consensually agreed upon, where all projects and programmes, whether in private or public sector, if conceptualised or coordinated or led by NRF could be treated as NRF's own, no matter the requisite funds have not been directly deployed by NRF.

(ii) The financial rule, separate and distinct for NRF referred to at section 13(4) of the ANRF Act and to be framed by the central government, it can be argued, is by itself a statutory dispensation from application of the provisions of GFR, 2017 and DFPR. Nonetheless, effort should however be more on the significant areas of intersection between science and technology policy implementation and the myriad other laws and regulations (not just the GFR and the DFPR) and in what manner the unique financial rules envisaged under ANRF Act, without disturbing the twin principles of transparency and accountability, can be worked out. Expeditious incorporation of a company for commercialisation of a technology through a specific dispensation under the Companies Act, and by triggering an exception in Rule 229(ii) of GFR for example, or a dispensation from Rule 229(v) so that corpus can be created without seeking any approval, or a dispensation from applicability of Rule 230(8) of GFR which mandates return to CFI of all unspent amount at the close of every year or devising a set of special class of auditing norms and rules for science organisations etc could be the relevant areas of further action.

(iii) The more pressing of the challenges would be the manner in which the dissolution of SERB under section 27(1) of ANRF Act would be carried out, not just for finance and accounts but also for evaluation and deciding the fate of the projects and schemes that SERB had initiated in the past. SERB is the implementing agency for JC Bose and Ramanujan Fellowship Schemes, Newton-Bhabha India-UK Advanced Training School, ASEAN-India S&T Development Fund (AISTDF); it also partners Ministry of Higher Education for IMPRINT-II, and also Ministry of Food Processing. By itself, it runs a Young Scientists Program, SERB-Distinguished Investigators Award, an Overseas Doctoral Fellowship for research training for Indian PhD scholars, an Overseas Fellowship Scheme, a Distinguished International Adjunct Faculty Scheme, 15 virtual joint international centres in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and the PM's Doctoral Fellowship Scheme. While in the manner that DST continued some of the projects initiated by SERC even after SERB came into being, the challenge is to finding the right agencies and divisions which have the technical and administrative bandwidth to carry forward the really significant of the schemes and programmes of SERB after NRF comes into full effect.

(iv) Finally, an inevitable fallout and an worthwhile exercise after NRF comes into effect is to carefully segregate the areas of duplication that the new legislation has thrown up and evaluate the necessity of retaining the redundancies, where ever these occur. For example, activities under NSTIMS and Policy Research within DST's Policy Research Division are replica of the mandated activities of NRF. Similarly a large part of the mandated functions of PMSTIAC (Prime Minister's Science, Technology, Innovation Advisory Council) is reflected in the objects and reasons behind constitution of NRF. A careful consideration of the areas that NRF would be engaged in and the existing structures that are subserving those areas would be an appropriate and worthwhile exercise at this juncture.


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