Scale up funding for scientific research

Abhishek Goel | Updated on March 31, 2021

Funding must go beyond government grants, and the focus of research must be on improving human life

As the world faces a pandemic, science at the forefront trying to find a solution. Researchers across the world are working around the clock to find a way to neutralise Covid-19 and reduce its virulent impact on humanity. But the pandemic is not the only problem threatening us.

Two decades into the 21st century, humankind is facing problems similar to those faced by our ancestors — hunger, illness, maternal mortality, illiteracy, poverty, poor infrastructure, and a degraded environment — and is yet to find solutions to these to be able to make the next great leap as societies. The core of these solutions is a robust scientific infrastructure that has access to transparent funding.

Research in science is about extending the frontiers of knowledge, discovering things that have not been discovered, and asking the most piercing questions in the exploration of the reality around us.

Fraught with risk

The outcome of scientific research is fraught with risk. A lot of research fails to prove the researcher’s hypothesis, and most of the research may have no practical or immediate application.

For example, quantum computing was born in labs in the early 1980s. Four decades later, start-ups are trying to figure out how the research can be used to solve real-world problems.

Similarly, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, but the first patient was treated with it in 1942.

By investment standards, 14 years is a long period, but in scientific research, it is considered rapid deployment. The pay-off time for research is measured in decades, not months or years.

This probably explains why it is governments across the world that have been at the forefront of funding science. In the US, the National Scientific Foundation (NSF) funds research. Their mandate is to support research that “creates knowledge that transforms the future,” a future that is measured in terms of economic prosperity, national security, and global leadership in knowledge.

The European Union has pledged €100 billion for the next seven years for research in science, and has similar goals. In India, too, most of the scientific research is government-funded.

The leaps in science and technology that India has seen in the last 70 years has largely been with taxpayer money and very little participation from the private sector.

However, this is changing. Private capital across the world has begun funding research at all stages — basic research, applied research, and development.

In 2017, for example, government funding of science in the US fell below 50 per cent and was overtaken by other sources — corporations, universities, and philanthropic funding (see chart).



Revolutionary ideas

One of the major drawbacks of tight control on funding is that new revolutionary ideas may never be green-lit. Cutting-edge research is just that. There is no precedent in terms of discovery or the possibilities. In recent years, there have been many radical views on how the funding of scientific research should take place.

New Zealand, for example, has adopted a lottery system for up to 2 per cent of its grants. Under these so-called explorer grants, proposals that meet certain criteria are chosen randomly for funding.

This allows for the spotlight to shine on out-of-the-box or revolutionary ideas, without them being suffocated by the existing paradigm of what is acceptable in academic research, and may lead to discoveries that bring drastic improvements to our lives.

For example, it is unlikely that a scientist would have gotten funding to see the impact of mould on bacteria — and that is more or less how penicillin was discovered.

For science to solve the problems of humankind and allow us to take the next step in our evolution, both the practice and funding of science have to be democratised.

And we need to see how we can create more such explorer grants that allow researchers the freedom to explore and ask new questions at the frontiers of science. Researchers need access to funds that are like seed capital or angel funds.

The funding framework needs to accommodate the nature of scientific research and the long gestation period that is typical of such endeavours.

For India, and the world, to see science succeed, it must establish a robust framework of research funding. Right now, much of our investment is in applied technologies.

More needs to be done to support basic research that changes the way science perceives the world and the solutions to its problems. Funding options that go beyond the standard research grants are needed.

Innovative, out-of-the-box ideas and a radical approach must not be stymied by conventional wisdom. Government funding needs to be bolstered with philanthropic/private funding and crowd-funding to enable breakthroughs that improve human life and its quest for knowledge.

Funding for research that pushes the boundaries of what we know and how we solve problems is the need of the hour for the world to make the next great knowledge leap forward.

The writer is CEO, Cactus Communications

Published on March 31, 2021

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