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Scientists at India’s government labs struggle to adjust to changing priorities

Budget cuts and emphasis on applied research challenge the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research

by K. V. Venkatasubramanian
March 12, 2018

Credit: CSIR - Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology
Researchers at India’s Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology are among those affected by the fiscal crunch.

Government lab researchers in India are feeling pushed to abandon fundamental research projects in favor of more applied, mission-driven work.

The shift follows deep budget cuts at the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR), India’s largest R&D organization. “The funding available this year is short by half of what is needed,” says Rakesh K. Mishra, director of India’s Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology (CCMB), one of 38 CSIR labs across the country.

Frustrated and angry, many scientists hesitate to openly voice their concerns because they fear retaliation.

“Many research projects have been affected. Projects cannot stop overnight, so we continue what we can with the reagents we have,” says a senior scientist from a New Delhi-based CSIR lab who asked to remain anonymous. “The institute is functioning at minimum running costs.”

India's government lab funding

Adjusting for inflation, CSIR will get a slight budget decrease under Prime Minister Modi's proposed budget for the coming fiscal year.
a Numbers adjusted for inflation to 2018 rupees using the combined rural and urban CPI in January before the start of the fiscal year.
b Proposed; figure converted from Indian rupees to U.S. dollars at the March 7 exchange rate of $1.00 = 64.98 rupees.
Sources: CSIR, Ministry of Statistics & Programme Implementation.

The changes began in June 2015, when CSIR’s lab directors agreed to work toward earning some of their funding through commercializing technology or developing partnerships with industry. The lab directors also agreed to support a set of government priorities: Smart Cities Mission to upgrade infrastructure and services, Digital India to use information technology to advance public services, Skill India to provide vocational training, Ganges River cleanup, and sanitation improvements.

Then, in 2017, implementation of India’s Seventh Central Pay Commission recommendations for higher pay and other benefits for government employees and retirees chewed up most of CSIR’s budget for the current fiscal year, which runs from April 1, 2017, to March 31, 2018. CSIR was left with 5% of its funds to pay for instruments, supplies, utilities, travel, and maintenance. Looking ahead, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposed budget for 2018 will leave CSIR with a 1 to 2% smaller budget for 2018–19, when numbers are adjusted for inflation.

Adding to CSIR scientists’ ire is a change in how India develops its science and technology budgets. Formerly, scientific departments and autonomous bodies such as CSIR were consulted during the budgeting process, and the budget was set for five years, says Swaminathan Sivaram, a senior scientist at the Indian National Science Academy, which is not part of CSIR. Now, budgeting is done annually, as it is in the U.S., and scientists are not as involved, Sivaram says.

Under pressure to raise funds, many research labs have accelerated commercialization of technologies to create external funding. CCMB has licensed out several technologies, such as a type of Samba Mahsuri rice that is resistant to bacterial blight and was licensed to Metahelix Life Sciences in 2015, Mishra says.

Overall, CSIR now “earns about 25% of its budget from external sources and is strengthening its patent portfolio,” Girish Sahni, CSIR director general, says. On average, CSIR files about 300 Indian and 250 foreign patents per year, and it owns 90% of U.S. patents awarded to any publicly funded Indian R&D organization, Sahni says. CSIR currently licenses about 14% of its patents and has identified about 200 technologies for commercialization in diverse areas, he adds.

The push to bring in funds through commercialization has critics. “CSIR is bending backwards to sell its technologies even without proper testing,” says Soumitro Banerjee, general secretary of the nonprofit Breakthrough Science Society. As an example, Banerjee points to concerns about lack of clinical evidence for a CSIR-developed diabetes treatment known as BGR-34, which is derived from plant extracts known in traditional ayurvedic medicine. “The problem is the push towards self-funding and showcasing indigenous products rather than doing good science,” Banerjee says.

Nevertheless, CSIR has been ordered to bring in half of its budget from external sources by 2020. “We are confident that we will achieve a major chunk of our sustainability cost in just a few years,” Sahni says.

“However,” Sahni adds, “earnings don’t just mean monetary ones to CSIR per se but should be quantitated in terms of value brought to society.”

To that end, India’s scientific community has some outreach to do. “Public funding of science is looked at as charity,” says Sivaram, who led CSIR’s National Chemistry Laboratory from 2002 to 2010. The country has lost sight of how government investment in science underpins a strong economy, he says.

That change in view is at least partly scientists’ fault, Sivaram concedes. “Our present-day science comprises old stories which have become outdated,” he says. “There is a need to construct a new science and public policy framework and dialogue that will defend future science.”

Going forward, CSIR as a whole must focus on a few chosen technologies in which it can be a global leader, says former director general Shri Krishna Joshi, adding that “this would be a great change; it would be hard to achieve but can be done.”



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Dr. Ashok Mohanty (March 13, 2018 10:53 AM)
Being a scientist in CSIR for last 10 years, I feel most of the scientists of CSIR are reluctant to adopt the change. Application oriented research leading to technology and products is need of the hour in India. This means accountability and taking responsibility. CSIR must adopt the change and do science for benefit of the Indian population instead of blindly following science pursued by other countries.
Manash (March 13, 2018 11:19 AM)
It appears that, CSIR started working towards "self finance" ideology and out licencing technology. Initial phase may appear tough, but in long run, it will be helpful. Until we allow a child to try and fell down, it will not learn to walk. CSIR is a overgrown child, who walked only with the help of walkers so far. Now it is trying to walk on its own. I am very happy to see that.
Innovation and out licencing products/technology will give better value addition to society than publications. I am happy to see that, govt is encouraging that and CSIR also taking it up. Only thing is, instead of taking up this as a setback, CSIR should take this opportunity as fun-filled challenge. Attitude is the most important thing for CSIR at this moment.
Tom C. (March 13, 2018 5:10 PM)
Dr. Mohanty: I do not completely agree with your comments here. We need to stop the politics and favoritism in all CSIR institutions. How you can make scientists accountable? I am also a product of one of the CSIR lab in India. It is all about the system and working environment and culture.
Jain (March 13, 2018 8:19 PM)
How many csir labs have accountability in spending annual lab budget? Only favourite or elite groups are spending for useless activities. Most of the scientists not even taken into account. Spending money to white elephants without proper returns is another concern. Temporary man in non R&D services without utilizing available man power. In conclusion spending by few, should be earned by a small group of working Scientists. Government should make accountability before giving funds to any agencies.
Dr.g.v.rao (March 16, 2018 4:30 PM)
Scientific policy to be readdressed. There should be accountability as Jain rightly pointed
Dr Anil Kumar (March 14, 2018 1:09 PM)
As Dr. Mohanty has rightly said, changes are required keeping in mind the national priorities. Scientists also owe a lot to the society and must have moral obligations for societal welfare.
Dr M V Jagannadham (March 15, 2018 8:13 AM)
Identify the problems of the Nation/people faces and show the solution through scientific research. Reorient the centers of excellence around the problems,rather than create centers of excellence and search for problems appears to be the policy. It may be difficult to adapt to the changes for CSIR initially, but it has the strength and capabilities to meet the requirements.
Dr AK Kashyap (March 15, 2018 7:20 PM)
CSIR is an Indian entity meant to carry out scientific and industrial research. It displays characteristic features of Universities and IITs, most of the time. It is therefore quite logical to expect similar kind of behavior from CSIR labs as one sees quite often from Indian academia. Based on my limited experience in the industrial laboratory for a period lasting nearly 35 years, out of which more than 10 years were spent in IP management, I can confidently say that Indian entities lack the skills to identify their IP needs. They need to focus on local, regional and national research needs. Filing patent applications is certainly commendable, but the CSIR scientists should not be expected to prepare patent applications. That's the job of an experienced patent attorney. Further, commercializations of technologies doesn't always happen through the efforts of the scientist inventors. Inventions need to be enforced. CSIR must develop a strong IP team. It's IPMD is obsolete.
Pan V (March 16, 2018 6:56 AM)
I also agree to Tom. The system is struggling through its outdated recruitment and assessment criteria. There is indeed a need to make system more transperant, balanced and productive. One opinion that is currently seem to have grip, is assessing tenure based on performance. Those who fail to meet the criteria need to be replaced with prospective candidate.
Waitingforfund (March 16, 2018 8:18 AM)
I am a scientist working in one of the csir labs. I believe publicly funded research organizations like csir are comparitively less corrupted than many govt funded institutions. The scientists in these labs are very highly qualified and do good research work. I believe the tax payers money invested on these institutes shall give good returns. Instead if govt curtails research funding and make the scientists sit idle without any research work, the nation is losing on a whole spectrum of development.
Dr.g.v.rao (March 16, 2018 4:27 PM)
csir scientists are appointed through favouritism not through their scientific zeal or temperament. Therefore they are working for their salaries just like in govt offices. Let young blood flow through right screening.
Tom C. (March 16, 2018 11:27 PM)
I agree with Dr. Rao here. How many hours scientists are working daily in the labs? Is any technology available through the CSIR labs for the industry or for the farmers to generate the revenues? If not, it will be difficult to be sustain for the long run.

Has any marketable drug is developed by CDRI, or any technology is developed by the IICT? These institutions has huge infrastructure and manpower available through the taxpayers money.
Amit Misra (March 19, 2018 6:17 AM)
Tom C. wrote: "Has any marketable drug is developed by CDRI..." Please see and references cited.
Saurabh (July 19, 2018 1:35 AM)
Interestingly, Mr. Tom C first disagrees with Dr. Mohanty and then points out similar things as him.

There is a definite need to bring objectivity to our research endeavours not only in CSIR institutes but everywhere. There must always be a very good balance of fundamental and applied research. Currently, the applied research in India is very trivial. It is also important to understand that one cannot have good applied research without solid fundamental research. Thus the scientific community must act by themselves to rectify and strike a balance. In absence of this the government has to interfere, the results of which will not please all.
There are lot of fundamental and procedural issues with all scientific institutes that need to be addressed. However, if we are critical about the productivity of any institution then the entire system is under a pressure to perform. In the long run this will remove of the inadequacies.

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