NRF, a Death Knell for Research in India
by Lekha Adavi

India is ranked among the bottom 30% among 179 countries in the world ‘academic freedom’ index  and has been called out for weakening university autonomy through centralization, bureaucratization and politicization of research. The recent raids on independent research organisations like Amnesty, Oxfam and Centre for Policy Research, comes to show how the BJP-led Union government is pushing knowledge generation in India into complete silence. It is in this context that the Union Cabinet has announced its approval to set up the National Research Foundation (NRF) – a direct outcome of the National Education Policy, 2020 (NEP).

The NRF, an apex body for research, being setup to provide for “high-level strategic direction” to scientific research in the country, will fund and facilitate research in universities and colleges, at both the central and state levels, and will coordinate with funding agencies and academies in science, engineering and other streams. The aim is to develop a culture of research, especially in the fields of population dynamics and management, digital marketplace, climate change, biotechnology and others, which means that research will be led by market-based needs and will in no way encourage critical scientific research, increase scientific temperament or take scientific research to the masses. There is no doubt that R&D sector in India requires to be strengthened. However, what the NRF envisions is a cause for worry.

Scientific research and development was earlier conducted by bodies like Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB), which has now been subsumed by the NRF, along with Department of Science and Technology, Department of Atomic Energy, Department of Bio-Technology, Indian Council of Agriculture Research, Indian Council of Medical Research, Indian Council of Historical Research, and University Grants Commission, among others. While the funding came from the Union government, the research conducted were independent and free from interference of the ruling regime. This was highlighted in 2022 when the Wildlife Institute of India was asked to have its reports and publications pre-approved by the Union Ministry for Environment .

Recently, the Union government enlisted the help of the Central Building Research Institute (CBRI), Roorkee, a CSIR facility, to ensure the “sun’s rays will fall on Ramlala’s head in Ram Mandir on Ram Navami 2024” . CBRI had also roped in researchers from the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bengaluru, and the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune for this “research”. National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru has been commissioned by the Ministry of Culture to fund a project to establish the genetic history and trace the purity of races in India . When science institutions are being used to serve the agenda of the Sangh Parivar, we see that the NRF being setup will be run by a Governing Board whose ex-officio President will be the Prime Minister, whereas the ex-officio vice-presidents will be the Union Ministers for Science & Technology and Education, and NRF’s functioning will be governed by an Executive Council with its chair being the Principal Scientific Adviser, Government of India. This is a direct assault on the independence and autonomy of research that will be conducted in India. About Rs. 50,000 crores has been allocated to setup this apex research body, with only Rs. 14,000 crore being provided for by the Union Government. Out of this, Rs. 4,000 crore will be used from the SERB as it is being subsumed by the NRF. The remaining Rs. 36,000 crores will be through contingent funding from private sector, including philanthropic initiatives, and such funding is in the realm of the unknown.

Even as the NRF aims to provide a reliable base of “merit-based”, but equitable peer-reviewed research funding, a study on ‘Brahmins as scientists and science as Brahmins’ calling: Caste in an Indian scientific research institute’ showed how science has been dominated by Brahmin and upper caste scientists, who perceive to be the “natural inheritors” of scientific practice . In contrast, we see how despite social justice measures being adopted in eminent science institutes, caste discrimination and mental harassment has led to death by suicides of students who are pursuing PhD. The rate of death by suicides among students has increased to 35 deaths per day!

Academic freedom is being proactively curbed where recently we saw that a talk on ‘UAPA, prisons and the Indian criminal-justice system’ with anti-CAA activists Natasha Narwal and Devangna Kalita, organized by students and academicians was cancelled by the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. When the event took place braving all odds and a signature campaign was undertaken questioning the move of the premier science institute, showcause notices were sent to two professors from Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali for endorsing the open letter.

Strengthening of public universities is the need of the hour, and to the contrary, what we find is an active effort to crackdown on progressive intellectuals and student politics, with dissent being considered “anti-national” and students like Devangna, Natasha, Umar Khalid, Gulfisha, etc., and professors like Anand Teltumbde, Saibaba, Hany Babu, being incarcerated by the State. On the other hand, saffronisation of education through textbook revisions, discouraging analytical thinking through introduction of multiple-choice questions, etc., will ensure the death of critical thinking in early education. The implementation of NEP has drawn large scale criticism from educationists and academicians, and the BJP-led governments continue to bulldoze the policy into implementation. With the NRF being the brainchild of the NEP, the quality of research and the kind of research that will be generated in the days to come, will destroy what remains of the research sector.

With academic spaces shrinking, discrimination being rampant, research becoming unaffordable, blatant privatization and corporatization of education sector, coupled with the active interference of the ruling regime to propagate their ideology through saffronisation of education and research, the NRF rings a death knell to research in India.

Policy Research