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PERSPECTIVE

SERB and other sources of extramural support under the Ministry of Science and Technology

M. Vijayan

Reproduced with permission from Current Science

COMMENTARY
CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 114, NO. 9, 10 MAY 2018 1810
*
Views expressed in this note are those of the
authors only.
SERB and other sources of extramural support under the
Ministry of Science and Technology*
M. Vijayan
For decades, the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC) of the Department of Science and
Technology (DST) has been the most important source for competitive research grants in India. The Science
and Engineering Research Board (SERB) which recently replaced SERC, has turned out to be less effective
than SERC. An impression has gained ground that the Department of Biotechnology is shifting its emphasis
from competitive research grants to organizations and institutions. The famed extramural programme of the
Council of Scientific and Industrial Research appears to be in jeopardy. Except in a few islands of opulence,
most of the scientific research in the country in the non-strategic sector is being carried out using competi-
tive grants. The present crisis in the system for support of such grants bodes ill for Indian science. It needs
to be seriously addressed and overcome.
Preamble
Extramural support, especially competi-
tive research funding is central to normal
scientific activities. This is particularly
so in the case of basic research. Much of
scientific research in post-independent
India has been carried out using extramu-
ral grants with infrastructural support
provided by the respective parent re-
search institutions. In addition to the
quantum of funding, the mechanism for
the use of funds has also been a subject
of much discussion. In particular, the
need for autonomy in handling research
grants was acutely felt. The issue became
a subject of active discussion when, in
2005, the erstwhile SAC-PM recom-
mended the setting up of a National
Science and Engineering Research Foun-
dation (NSERF). The discussion raged
till 2012, when the Science and Engi-
neering Research Council (SERC) of the
Department of Science and Technology
(DST) was wound up. It so happened that
during this period, I was deeply involved
with the DST, the Department of Bio-
technology (DBT) and the Council of
Scientific and Industrial Research
(CSIR), the three relevant outfits under
the Ministry of Science and Technology.
During this period, I was also the Vice-
President and then the President of the
Indian National Science Academy
(INSA). Therefore I have been an active
participant in such deliberations. I give
below my personal take on these discus-
sions and their aftermath. In addition to
putting on record my understanding of
the historical facts, I shall also outline
my opinion on the current situation of
extramural support and views on future
course of action.
One or several
There was real or perceived thrust
towards setting up a huge monolithic
organization combining the extramural
mechanisms of all or many granting
agencies. There was considerable resis-
tance to and apprehension about creating
such a behemoth. Many of us felt that the
setting up of such a powerful and all-
embracing organization is not conducive
to the healthy development of science in
the country. Plurality of sources of re-
search funding is absolutely essential. In-
stead, many of us felt that it would be
desirable to have autonomous extramural
wings to different granting agencies. In
any case, eventually the idea of an all
embracing outfit was shelved. In the
report of the Steering Committee for Sci-
ence and Technology in the Eleventh
Five Year Plan (2012), it was mentioned
that the NSERF should function ‘as an
autonomous body in addition to the ex-
isting ministerial mechanisms for fund-
ing, which are being administered by the
various arms of the Government’. Even
this idea was not pursued. Eventually the
NSERF was rechristened as Science and
Engineering Research Board (SERB),
which was mooted effectively as a
replacement of SERC. The appropriate
legislation on SERB was passed in Par-
liament in 2008. I personally, like many
others, was not enthusiastic about the re-
placement of SERC by SERB, as seen
from the quotation, given below, by R.
Ramachandran (Frontline, 28 February–
13 March 2009).
‘Noted biologist M. Vijayan, however,
preferred to reserve his comments on the
SERB. Its functioning is yet to be seen.
Among the systems we have had so far,
the SERC and its system of PAC (Project
Advisory Committee) certainly worked
reasonably well and achieved a healthy
growth and spread of basic competitive
research. Admittedly, its functioning could
be improved; I am not sure whether we
need an altogether new body”, he said.
SERC to SERB
Nearly for four decades of its existence
DST–SERC was the backbone of extra-
mural support in the country. I, like
many others, have been intimately in-
volved with the system. To a substantial
extent, I myself and the area of science
which I helped to initiate and develop in
the country, are products of DST–SERC.
With rigorous, but flexible procedures,
the system was managed by a wonderful
set of officers who exhibited a high level
of sensitivity to the problems of scien-
tists, total commitment to work at hand
and great competence. During 2005–
2012, I was a member of SERC and
therefore privy to and contributed to the
discussions on SERB. My position at
INSA also was a factor in promoting my
involvement in the process. A major con-
cern of ours was how to map the positive
features of SERC onto SERB. We did
everything possible to ensure that.
SERB
SERB has been in existence for several
years and the broad outline of its
COMMENTARY
CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 114, NO. 9, 10 MAY 2018 1811
functioning is now clear. I doubt if
SERB is endowed with the kind of
autonomy originally envisaged. Our ma-
jor concern is to what extent SERB has
retained the positive features of SERC
and improved upon them.
The most important positive feature
that SERB has retained from SERC is the
officer corps. Most of these officers,
schooled in SERC activities, continue to
serve admirably the scientific community
under difficult circumstances.
The philosophy of SERC and the asso-
ciated committees was to support all
worthwhile activities. Now I learn that
there is a formal or informal understand-
ing that only a certain percentage of the
total number of proposals would be
funded. This is unwise and militates
against the approach that SERC used to
follow. Such arbitrary cut-offs should be
removed.
SERC used to fund projects ade-
quately, but not extravagantly. Now
when I examine the level of funding to
projects in areas which I understand, I
suspect that the financial support is often
sub-critical. One additional feature
which SERB introduced was in terms of
clubbing all recurring expenses into one
head. This gives the investigator a much
needed flexibility. Unfortunately, I un-
derstand that this flexibility has now
been withdrawn to a substantial extent. It
needs to be restored.
SERB was supposed to achieve quick
disposal of project proposals. This im-
plied that recommended/approved pro-
jects would be sanctioned and money
released quickly. However, this has not
happened. Often sanction and release
of funds are delayed much more than
what used to happen under the SERC
system.
Under the SERC–PAC system, the re-
lation between investigators and PACs
used to be highly interactive. At least in
the PAC I have been associated with,
most investigators used to be asked to
present their proposals before the com-
mittee and other investigators gathered at
that time. It was rarely that a proposal
was turned down without providing ade-
quate opportunity to the investigator to
present his/her case. Budgetary details
also used to be finalized on the basis of
discussions with the investigator. The
presentations often used to be made use
of as a mentoring exercise. I doubt if
such interactive relationship exists be-
tween SERB–PAC and investigators.
DBT
DBT has made a difference to Indian bi-
ology primarily on account of its extra-
mural programme, although the impact
would have been greater had the delivery
been more efficient. I have had the privi-
lege of being associated with DBT from
its very inception. In fact, I have been
associated with the National Biotechno-
logy Board (NBTB), which was the incipi-
ent form of DBT. Recently, an impression
has gained ground that the emphasis of
DBT is shifting from extramural research
to organizations and institutions. I hope
that this is a false impression.
CSIR
CSIR is a great organization which has
served the country with distinction for
more than 75 years. It is a highly under-
rated organization. Its extramural pro-
gramme has touched the lives of many
Indian scientists, including myself. Its
laboratories straddle the strategic and
non-strategic scientific activities in the
country. I deem it a privilege to have
worked closely with CSIR, including as a
member of the CSIR Society and its
Governing Body. Unfortunately, the ex-
tramural programme of CSIR is now
only a pale shadow of what it was origi-
nally. CSIR itself appears to be under
constant unfair attack.
The way ahead
SERC used to be a jewel in the crown of
DST. In the present scheme of things, is
DST expected to have the same com-
mitment for SERB as it had for SERC? Is
SERB empowered to act on its own, es-
pecially in financial matters, including
receiving funds, independent of DST? Are
there mechanisms to ensure that SERB is
not orphaned in difficult situations? Per-
haps answers to these questions exist or
clarity on them are yet to emerge.
The immediate task is to raise the
functioning of SERB to the level that
existed in the case of SERC. It should be
ensured that all worthwhile projects are
funded adequately. This would not in-
volve spreading the butter thin, as there
are not that many good projects available
in the country. This can be done perhaps
through an additional outlay of a couple
of hundred crores of rupees, which is
very small in the overall context of S&T
expenditure. The interactive mode invol-
ving the PACs and investigators as well
as the mentoring role of the PACs need
to be restored. Not only that the funding
mechanism should be as flexible as that
of the erstwhile SERC, new flexibilities
should be introduced. The clubbing to-
gether of all the recurring expenses into
one head would be a step in the right
direction.
The primacy of extramural funding,
including competitive research grants, in
the activities of DBT needs to be main-
tained and further strengthened. Perhaps
the procedures used earlier by SERC
could be profitably adopted by DBT. In
any case, the system should be made
more efficient.
CSIR should be protected and
strengthened. Its extramural support pro-
gramme needs to be restored to its old
glory.
The outlay for S&T research in the
country is very low. It is a little over
0.8% of the GDP as against around 2%
in China, a country which in many ways
is comparable to India. Furthermore, the
GDP of China is much higher than that
of India. Out of the total S&T outlay, the
amount set apart for extramural activi-
ties, including competitive research
funding, constitutes a small portion.
Very often, in difficult situations, even
the small outlay for extramural research
funding is reduced. This is unfortunate.
We need to design or devise measures to
maintain at all times support for extra-
mural research at a reasonable level and
to enhance it periodically.
Concluding remarks
My intention in writing this note is not to
find fault with anybody. I am fully con-
scious of the constraints under which our
colleagues associated with the govern-
ment work. In fact, my hope is that this
note would be of some small help to
them. Except in a few islands of opulence,
much of the research in the non-strategic
sector is carried out using extramural
support from granting agencies. There-
fore, measures to maintain and enhance
the level of extramural funding are
urgently called for. All of us need to
work towards this end.
M. Vijayan is in the Molecular Biophys-
ics Unit, Indian Institute of Science,
Bengaluru 560 012, India.
e-mail: mv@iisc.ac.in
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