One of India’s largest and oldest research and development organizations has a new leader. Shekhar Mande, a structural biologist best known for his work on proteins, starts this month as director-general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
Mande — most recently the director of the National Centre for Cell Science (NCCS) in Pune — says that a key goal for his new appointment will be to increase the organization’s focus on finding technical solutions for national problems, such as malnutrition, disease epidemics and access to clean drinking water.
But Mande arrives at a time when the CSIR faces major challenges. The organization’s 38 institutes are still reeling from a government order to increase its own funding three years ago. Subsequent hikes to employee pensions then put a dent in the council's already stretched budget.
“My highest priority is to take stock of CSIR’s funding situation,” Mande told Nature. Scientists also hope he will tackle the agency's entrenched bureaucracy.
In 2015, the government told the publicly funded CSIR that its labs would need to increase their funding from sources outside the department of science and industrial research within 3 years by inventing a steady stream of "game-changing technologies". The organization already had a target to raise one-third of its budget from external sources, which was recommended by a CSIR review committee in 1986, but many institutes struggled to meet that benchmark.
The government’s 2015 statement created panic because it did not specify how much more cash the agency would need to raise. Many researchers worried that the directive implied that the CSIR might have to survive on its own cash flow in the future. Since 2015, the council's funding from the science department has risen slightly, sitting between 39.8 billion rupees (US$0.54 billion) in 2015-16 and 47.4 billion rupees for 2018-19, but has not kept up with inflation.
The council faced another budget challenge when new rules on salaries and pensions for government employees were introduced in 2016. The agency was forced to pay additional personnel costs out of its existing budget.
The agency has heeded the government's order to increase its self-funding, says biologist Girish Sahni, who was CSIR director-general from 2015 until his retirement in August. Income from outside the science department has almost doubled, from 5.6 billion rupees (US$76 million) in 2015–16 to 9.6 billion rupees in 2017–18. This was raised through a mix of grants from other government agencies, industry partnerships, and revenue from CSIR patents, says Sahni. External industry sources now contribute close to 15% of the CSIR’s budget, he says, and this figure “is bound to climb”.
But the government still needs to determine what proportion of its budget the CSIR needs to raise from external sources, says Swaminathan Sivaram, a former director of the CSIR’s National Chemical Laboratory in Pune. “The government should be explicit [about] whether it expects CSIR to self-finance itself totally, or whether it will provide part [of the] money,” he says. Sivaram adds that it is unlikely that the organization will be able to meet its salary and equipment expenses without government funding, although it can raise money for research from other sources.
Mande says one of his goals will be to encourage Indian industry to spend more on research and development, which — with the exception of the biotech industry — it has historically been averse to doing.
Several former and current CSIR scientists say that another challenge facing Mande is the CSIR’s enormous amount of financial and administrative red tape, which hobbles the organization’s productivity. Anil Koul, director of the CSIR’s Institute of Microbial Technology in Chandigarh, says Mande will have to make administrative and structural changes so that doing science at CSIR becomes less burdensome.
“I strongly believe reduced bureaucracy and optimized operational processes are critically important to improve the scientific outcomes and productivity, as well as develop a long-term sustainable R&D organization,” says Koul.
Mande should also continue Sahni's efforts to streamline the research programmes of the 38 institutes to make them more collaborative, says Koul.
Mande’s cross-disciplinary background — he started as a physics postgraduate before turning to protein crystallography, DNA fingerprinting and computational biology — might help to steer the organization towards doing more of this kind of research, he says.
“I see great growth opportunity for CSIR both in areas of fundamental sciences as well as stronger focus in translation and product-driven research,” says Koul.
And, despite the challenges ahead, Mande is optimistic about the CSIR’s future. “The period of renaissance for CSIR has just begun,” says Mande.