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India creates funding council for basic science

Autonomous agency will begin operations in April.

The Indian government plans to create an independent agency to promote basic research in science and engineering, along the lines of the US National Science Foundation, prime minister Manmohan Singh announced last week.

The new body, to be called the National Science and Engineering Research Board (NSERB), is expected to control an annual budget of 10 billion rupees (US$200 million) annually — equivalent to about 15% of last year's total funding for science — in new funding. "It will provide unfettered financial assistance to researchers, academic institutions, research laboratories and industrial concerns," Singh told scientists on 3 December.

The idea of an autonomous funding agency was first mooted by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) in 2002. Prominent scientists including C. N. R. Rao, chairman of the prime minister's scientific advisory council, have been lobbying for it since. "I am happy that it has finally come through," says Rao.

Parliament will establish the NSERB during its session beginning this week, and the agency will be functional from the financial year beginning 1 April 2009, says DST secretary Thirumalachari Ramasamy. Its nine-member board will be chaired by an eminent scientist, to be named by the cabinet, and will have several advisory panels.

Scientists can currently get funding from departments such as health, agriculture, energy or biotechnology — but usually only for research related to these areas. The biggest source of funds for basic science is the DST's Science & Engineering Research Council (SERC), which was set up in 1974. Last year, it distributed 3.6 billion rupees for projects in all disciplines.

Rao says that the current funding mechanisms are too bureaucratic. Ramasamy says that "the NSERB can be fast" as it is not subject to the same government rules as SERC. SERC would continue to function but only to provide money to improve university science laboratories and to handle scholarship and fellowship programmes.

The idea of an autonomous board is "wonderful", says Seyed Hasnain, vice-chancellor of the University of Hyderabad and a member of the prime minister's scientific advisory council. "My only concern is it should not end up as another agency funding scientists in institutions already having a big budget. The bulk of the board's funding must go to university researchers, who are most neglected now."

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Jayaraman, K. India creates funding council for basic science. Nature 456, 685 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/456685b

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