Columns Opinion

Fostering curiosity-driven fundamental research in India

Surajit Bhattacharjee, Mudrika Khandelwal, Prashant Kumar & Satyavrata Samavedi

Indian National Young Academy of Sciences (INYAS) calls for action to bolster fundamental research in India, and offer recommendations and solutions in this direction. 

Inyas white paper3

Background: motivation and need

One of the hallmarks of an advanced and progressive society is the emphasis it places on abstract and intellectual pursuits that may present no direct or immediate benefits to itself. In the context of science, this notion translates to engagement with fundamental research. For the purposes of this article, fundamental research (also termed basic research) includes, but is not limited to, scientific research that aims to develop new theories, challenges existing theories by generating data to the contrary, creates paradigm shifts, sheds light on mechanisms governing systems/​processes and improves our ability to understand natural phenomena. 

Fundamental research is usually driven by a scientist’s curiosity to seek unchartered territories in the pursuit of truth and signifies her/​his deep appreciation for the inherent beauty of scientific ideas. In contrast, applied research is utility-driven, and involves innovations in technology, creating new products, achieving improved control over systems and developing processes that are efficient and/​or cost-effective. The end-goal of applied research is usually well-defined and the deliverables, tangible. Although fundamental and applied research are diverse in their motivations and end-goals, most scientists today pursue both threads but exhibit a preference for one over the other in their research endeavours.

Due to the short-term impact of need-driven applied research, both scientific investment and progress in recent years have centred around societally relevant technological domains. Although translational research is essential for a developing nation, an exclusive focus on applied research at the cost of fundamental research can potentially lead to the eventual devaluation of scientific knowledge.

For a country like India that has historically taken pride in being a generator and exporter of ideas and has developed rigorous philosophies on epistemology and truth-seeking, investment in fundamental research and knowledge creation are well-suited to its ethos. Since advances in fundamental research drive innovation along trajectories that cannot be predicted easily, long-term rewards in the form of paradigm shifts, new theories and disruptive technologies can overwhelm short-term tangible/​defined deliverables arising from purely applied work. Indeed, investments in basic research have been shown to have long-term effects on the macroeconomic growth of a country.

Fundamental research can also have cross-disciplinary impact whereby the results obtained in one area influence an unallied area of research. Above all, fundamental research can serve as a vital tool for training future researchers thereby laying the foundation for continuous scientific growth.

Present status: considerations and concerns

Following the debt crisis of 2009, federal agencies globally have focused on the commercial rewards of science due to externally imposed budget limitations, while fundamental research has not been the core focus of subsequent policy-driven funding initiatives. Dedication of funds to specific areas considered attractive” makes the pursuit of fundamental research difficult, forcing researchers to work on research problems primarily based on fund availability. Since such areas change rapidly based on societal needs, researchers may end up working in areas that may have little to do with their domain expertise and training. 

The presence of a dedicated fund whose disbursement is not influenced by societal needs and federal policies sends a strong signal regarding the nation’s commitment towards supporting basic research even under dire circumstances.

To compound this problem, outcomes from fundamental research can sometimes take years to fructify and cannot be easily quantified. Together, all these factors can have significant implications for early career researchers wanting to pursue fundamental research. Many academic awards and recognitions are largely based on quantitative criteria which may neither accurately reflect a researcher’s scientific contributions nor serve as a useful guide for measuring research productivity. While metrics arguably have their place in academia, linking recruitment/​tenure/​funding to metrics makes the pursuit of applied research in one’s early career not only attractive but also imperative. Indeed, a conscious move towards applied research is reflected even at the institutional level with several universities increasingly reorienting their research verticals to align with societal needs and incentivizing specific types of applied research.

At the time of writing this article, the entire world is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic that is bound to leave an indelible mark on societies world-over. Apart from stunting the growth of economies and resulting in large-scale unemployment, the pandemic has had a significant negative impact on the global scientific landscape including large-scale loss resulting from laboratories being shut down for several months, ill-functioning equipment that have not been operational, sensitive chemicals/​reagents that have been discarded and countless (wo)man-hours that could not be leveraged for productive research. An immediate concern for researchers at such a time is to work on diverse aspects related to the virus and the development of vaccines. Rightfully so, a significant quantum of research funds has been used to support such work in most countries. 

While such unprecedented circumstances mandate the diversion of funds, we believe that now is a time more than ever to not compromise the support, infrastructure and funds required to sustain curiosity-driven fundamental research. The presence of a dedicated fund whose disbursement is not influenced by societal needs and federal policies sends a strong signal regarding the nation’s commitment towards supporting basic research even under dire circumstances. Importantly, the outcomes of the research that may be carried out using these funds may prepare us for eventualities that we yet do not know exist, thus avoiding last-minute ad hoc solutions for problems that may arise in the future.

On the flip side, both the scope of the research and the nature of deliverables in fundamental research are difficult to define. Indeed, this issue represents the classical argument made against fundamental research. Phrased bluntly, it reads: Can taxpayer money be used to satisfy someone’s curiosity?” This question also perhaps represents a deeper societal trust deficit in our own institutions and scientists. Re-phrasing the question can help lead us towards a constructive solution: How do we ensure that the funds allocated for fundamental research be used meaningfully while allowing researchers the necessary intellectual freedom to pursue questions that they are interested in?” This re-phrasing puts the onus both on the funding agency to evaluate proposals primarily based on scientific merit (with lesser weightage for metrics and immediate translational benefits), as well as on researchers to use the funds responsibly. Since the spectrum of risk in fundamental research is wide, researchers can choose some problems that are risky and some that are not, so as to ensure a reasonable balance.

Why’ and How’ to foster fundamental research.

The way forward: recommendations and solutions

Given the critical need for investing and fostering curiosity-driven fundamental research, we propose the following suggestions:

  • Progress in fundamental research is usually incremental, and expecting breakthroughs within three years (i.e., the usual duration of most proposals) may be unreasonable. Multi-center calls for proposals with large budgets and limited durations may also not fully serve the needs of the scientific community. Instead, funding opportunities with limited budget per proposal and longer durations can help support several high-quality proposals initially; thereafter, researchers who have demonstrated significant potential could apply for successive grants with a bigger budget. Since most scientists pursue both fundamental and applied research, checks and balances are needed to ensure that not just a few researchers ultimately benefit.
  • Collaboration between scientists working in fundamental and applied research can be encouraged via joint proposals submitted against specific calls. Such proposals can have clear demarcation at the submission stage outlining the individual contributions of the scientists and a description of how the fundamental and applied portions of the proposal would work in tandem towards the proposed objectives. Such a scheme will also help scientists working on fundamental research develop a long-term vision/​plan.
  • Fundamental research often requires a multi-disciplinary approach. Continuous cross-disciplinary interactions can be facilitated at the institute level in the form of intramural grants. As many scientists would attest, some of the best ideas often arise from discussions with colleagues working in unrelated disciplines.
  • The continuous introduction of new technologies in most areas of science and engineering can eclipse specific types of applied research, thus limiting the possibility of significant long-term commercial returns. Further, many academic institutions may have neither the infrastructure nor the funding to scale up truly significant technologies. Thus, continuous transfer of applied research to the private sector for operational production can help federal funding agencies and academic institutes nurture fundamental research.
  • Holistic evaluation of a scientist’s contributions based on the quality of scientific output rather than metrics alone can encourage more early career researchers to pursue fundamental research. A possible model for recruitments/​tenure is peer-review wherein scientists external to the organization are asked to review the overall work of a particular researcher. Such a review process focuses primarily on the contributions of the researcher to her/​his field as assessed by experts in the same field.
  • Active funding for fundamental research will encourage a serious culture of post-doctoral research in India. Increasing the number of post-doctoral scholars will also likely increase academic productivity without compromising scientific rigor. Promising candidates can be directly recruited as faculty with assured federal funding for the first two years to supplement the start-up funds that they may receive from their parent institutes. 
  • Engaging Ph.D. students in fundamental research can lead to reversal of delivery-based graduation outcomes that currently exist. Rigorous training in scientific methodologies, refinement of critical thinking skills and a deep understanding of one’s area can serve as robust yardsticks for graduation.
  • Lastly, but importantly, scientists working on fundamental research should actively engage in societal outreach. Such initiatives can not only help overcome the trust deficit issue mentioned previously but also help taxpayers appreciate curiosity-driven fundamental research as a vital tool that enables the discovery of scientific knowledge. Such efforts can be channelled through scientific academies, both national and international.

In conclusion, sustenance of curiosity-driven fundamental research requires all stakeholders namely researchers, funding agencies and policy makers to work together to promote scientific temper, foster scientific values and nurture scientific creativity.