Kris Gopalakrishnan at the India Economic Summit 2008. File photo.
The Union Budget, 2021, allocated Rs 50,000 crore to the National Research Foundation (NRF) for five years to give the research ecosystem in the country a boost. The foundation will aggregate funds available across ministries along with the budget allocations for research in national priority areas.
The finer details on what these priority areas are and how the funding will be used, are not available yet.
In an interaction with Moneycontrol, Kris Gopalakrishnan, co-founder, Infosys, and chairman, Axilor Ventures, shares why this budget allocation is important and what needs to be done to further the research ecosystem in the country. The industry veteran also explains why he is optimistic this time.
What does the funding mean for the research ecosystem in the country?
This is a very good allocation for the research ecosystem. It will ensure that the National Research Foundation is funded very well when it starts. It is a very good signal to the entire business community that the government is optimistic about funding research.
I strongly believe that the industry now must come forward, the private sector must come forward and increase their spending for research.
How and where should the private sector participate?
Our tendency is to do research in-house. But the knowledge is limited in-house and the number of people they can assign is also restricted. Whereas if you invest that money outside in academic research institutions, resources that can be assigned to it are significantly higher.
There are multiple ways the private sector can participate. When it comes to basic research, it is either the government or philanthropic funding that counts. This research could be on new technology for vaccines.
For example, the messenger RNA vaccine is a new technology, right? We need to either find new technologies or leverage existing technologies to find cures for other diseases, say cancer. Private sector can fund that research in biotech.
Similarly, for example, there is a lot of scope is new battery technology for electric vehicles or self-driven cars. There are so many sectors in which we need to look at accelerating our own IP creation/technology and our own research.
There are also certain sectors where nobody else is interested. India has certain unique diseases or diabetes. Our country has a higher preponderance of diabetes in the population. If India does not invest in the problems we face, nobody else will.
Currently, the total amount invested in research is about 0.7-0.8 percent of the GDP. Of this 0.6 percent comes from the government and the rest is from industry. The government is trying to increase this number to 1-1.5 percent of the GDP. Industry contribution should also increase so that the total contribution becomes 3 percent.
While the Rs 50,000 crore funding is welcome, similar investments have been done in the past, but some of them are yet to see the light of the day like the Rs 7,000 crore National Artificial Intelligence (AI) Mission. Others are progressing slowly. So, do you see this funding fructify?
That is the challenge or that is how research happens. Research is open ended. You cannot predict when the outcome would happen. Basic research is completely unknown at this point.
An amount is allocated, and it will take some time to fructify or reach these institutions. Institutions will also have to build capacity to spend this money. So, I am optimistic that this will have a significant impact on the research output of the country in the next three to next five years. And definitely over the next 10-year period.
Could you tell us what we need to do to take the research ecosystem to the next level?
We need to think big. Currently what I see is that most of the research happens in a small way. You have one professor, one or two research or PhD students. They have a budget of say Rs 5-10 lakh and publish a paper. The student is happy because he/she gets a degree, while the professor goes on to the next student and the next research programme.
So, everything is small. They are not thinking very big. Now that you have a large allocation, you can start thinking big. You can think about major programmes. I hope that you can think in terms of larger teams, ambitious goals, and programmes, which I think will change the nature of research output from the country.
There is also a requirement for assured funding. If the funding is given on a year by year basis, researchers will be worried about whether the funding will continue or not. So, they set short-term goals not long-term goals.
Why am I optimistic? When you have such ambitious goals given to the group like ISRO for example, they can produce. We are one of the four countries in the world that was able to land on the Moon or Mars. So, I feel that with larger allocation and teams being more ambitious, even bigger goals can be met.
So, will the NRF funding guarantee larger and longer funding?
If I look at other subjects such as quantum computing and AI, they have given larger allocations and for longer periods. Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) is another example. They have been successful. One of the reasons why we have significant weights in the biotech area is because of the support the Department of Biotechnology has given and the private sector has also worked hard to participate in this area.
What we need is to expand the capacity to absorb this funding. It is right now limited to the Indian Institute of Technologies (IITs) and the Indian Institute of Sciences (IISc). We need a larger ecosystem, including even private colleges that are focused on research and education.