Q&A: ACS Omega’s Krishna Ganesh on the Future of Indian Research Funding

The Indian government’s recently unveiled 2017-2018 budget includes increased levels of public funding for research in a variety of disciplines. Yet, as C&EN reports, some Indian scientists are saying the new budget does not go far enough to support Indian research. One of those researchers is Krishna Ganesh, a chemistry professor, director of the Indian Institute of Science Education & Research, Pune, and a co-editor of ACS Omega.

ACS Axial reached out to Ganesh to learn more about his views on research funding, attracting and retaining important researchers, and the cultural changes that need to take place to help Indian research institutes excel.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made it a goal for India to become a major power in science by 2022. How realistic is that goal? What needs to change for India to reach it?

Krishna Ganesh: At the present state of the Indian science support system, this goal is far from reality. If we start towards this goal, it will take a minimum of 10 years from now to reach somewhere near the goal. A complete overhaul of the science support system, right from reorganizing the project grants system to the financial administrative/management system is necessary. Most importantly, the present level of funding has to be immediately doubled next year, with enhancement of at least 30-40% every year for the next 10 years.

In the C&EN article, you note that a small number of institutions saw much larger funding increases than others. In your opinion, is it better to strongly fund a small number of elite institutions or to provide smaller increases for a broader group? Which path better supports India’s goal of becoming a major science power?

Krishna Ganesh: We must immediately identify at least 25 institutes across India, which have potential to be come excellent by world standards. This should be based entirely on the present absolute merit of these institutes, without any regional or any other bias. They should receive complete freedom in terms of their administrative and financial management, faculty appointments and students admission. In addition to their normal budget, they should be granted extra and sustainable budget to initiate new research programs and set up competitive infrastructure. Persons of eminence, including bringing academics from abroad, should head these institutes. Internationalization should be encouraged and a strong post-doctoral culture be encouraged.

The rest of the institutions should be categorized for the sake of financial support, and given academic/administrative autonomy based on their present performance. Funds alone will not solve the problems in the majority of Indian educational and research institutes. A cultural change is necessary, with institutes moving towards good academic governance.

The internal research / administrative structures within institutes must change from the conventional basic departments to interdisciplinary centers and centers of excellence.

How should governments balance major long-term projects, such as space exploration and energy research, with the need to fund basic research in areas that don’t generate as much press? How important is it to have things like Mars landings that fire the public imagination?

Krishna Ganesh: It is important not to fuse space exploration, energy research, etc. (which are mission-mode projects) with funds for education and research. They have to be independently funded, not at the cost of each other. While big mission-mode projects are visible, enhanced support to small science in academic and research institutes is equally or even more important, as these are the ones which impart high-quality training to young researchers and give the nation the competent capability to reach the world-class level.

What do you think are the right metrics for determining how much a country should be investing in research funding? Should it be driven by the number of scientists? By the needs of specific national projects? By the funding levels of other nations? Something else?

Krishna Ganesh: It is important to allocate at least 1.5% of gross domestic product to science in academic and research institutions (excluding long-term mission projects in space, energy, etc). Considering the size of the country, the number of active researchers (per thousand citizens) and the number of excellent institutes is much smaller compared to many western countries. We need to drastically increase these numbers and this needs a huge investment. Unfortunately the contribution of private sector in science research is almost non-existent and so also the philanthropic culture.

Let’s talk about attracting and retraining promising young scientists. Is fostering a scientific community just about funding levels? Are there other things India’s government could do to bolster India as a research destination?

Krishna Ganesh: The experience of starting a large number of higher education institutes during the past 10 years has indicated that India is able to attract large numbers of highly skilled researchers / academics from abroad. It is important to foster this community by creating an appropriate ambiance for academics and researchers. The number of such institutes is small and most good scientists have limited choice and with no scope of expansion; these institutes are already getting saturated. This situation has to change. Expansion and replication of well-performing institutes is a good and achievable option. In India, in most research institutes the retirement age is 60, while in IITs, central Universities, IISERs, etc., it is 65. One suggestion is that well performing academics must be allowed to continue in active research past the age of 65, as long as they attract research funds and are qualitatively productive. The internal research organization within institutes must change to encourage interdisciplinarity.

(Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this interview are those of Krishna Ganesh and not of the American Chemical Society.)

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