European funds dry up for Indian researchers

EU urges India to set up core funding to support home scientists

doi:10.1038/nindia.2016.31 Published online 3 March 2016

Beginning 2014, the European Union decided to stop funding Indian researchers working in collaborative projects with European laboratories. The EU feels that the Indian economy is now robust enough to fund its scientists in global collaborations. Subhra Priyadarshini caught up with Robert-Jan Smits, Director General of EU’s Research and Innovation to discuss this policy decision and its fallouts.

Robert-Jan Smits

© S. Priyadarshini

Nature India: What is the rationale behind EU’s decision to stop funding Indian scientists in collaborative projects?

Robert-Jan Smits: The EU always had a policy that developed countries should bring their own funding in collaborative projects. This included countries such as USA and Canada. In recent times, we have seen the enormous development in most of the BRICS countries – they are sending satellites to space and can’t be called poor any more. That's why we have decided that Russia, India, Mexico and China should bring their own funding in future when they participate in European projects. China has already agreed, in principle, to the move.

This is a change of policy and we now have to see that there are good arrangements made in India for cooperation with Europe. Until now we have been funding Indian researchers who are part of EU collaborative projects. There will be no automatic funding any more. This, of course, is going to be a stumbling block because many Indians who are part of European projects will need to bring in their own funding.

NI: Have you discussed an alternate mechanism for funding with the Indian government?

R-JS: We are now discussing with the Indian government if they can set up a core funding mechanism whereby Indian researchers get automatic funding if they are selected for European projects. China has signed a new arrangement for core funding to fund Chinese researchers get in EU’s Horizons 2020 programme. We hope to get a similar arrangement in India.

In this direction, we are seeing how Indian national research programmes could be opened up more for participation of European researchers, companies and Universities. That's the big issue at the moment – looking at the framework conditions of our cooperation because scientists are eager to work together. I think, it is our role as governments and funding agencies to create the right conditions for them.

We discussed the issue with Indian government officials during a series of meetings recently, besides identifying some flagship areas of collaboration. The discussions have been positive. We also had talks with all the stakeholders – researchers, academicians and industry – on what's going on in science innovation and international scientific cooperation.

NI: What’s your view of the Indian research landscape?

R-JS: India is a massive country with enormous population and many challenges. The number of people who are competing to get into Universities here is enormous. The best of the best get into the Universities and there's a huge pool of brilliant and hard working people. Many of these people have gone abroad, although some are also coming back as they see a new, encouraging environment here.

Only a third of India’s research is funded by the industry and the government is concerned, rightly so. There are very ambitious targets or objectives to bring science to the poorest of the poor. Frugal innovation or jugaad is very important because on the one hand, everyone wants to rise to the top by publishing in high impact journals, and it is of course important for your top Universities to compete with top Universities all over the world. But, on the other hand, it is also important to put more emphasis on inclusive innovation, to use technology to uplift millions of people living in poor conditions.

In all, I see an ambitious government, priorities and objectives.

NI: What challenges do you envisage for Indian researchers following the EU’s decision to stop funding?

R-JS: We have to see that the Indian government sets up a programme to finance scientists for these programmes. We hope we will get more collaborations in the years to come.

Of course, during my interaction with Indian scientists, I have felt they are afraid that if we don't finance them they won’t be able to continue to work with European Universities. Indian scientists have been asking us to talk to the Indian government to make sure that core funds are available for them. We had some exploratory discussions with the government. The Indian funding system is very scattered – there are various ministries and agencies funding science, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) being the most important in this context. I hope that we get some commitment from the government since it will be in the interest of both India and the EU.

NI: What are EU’s plans in India for the future?

R-JS: Through a joint committee, we are trying to establish new collaborative projects and research priorities.

EU has a cooperation with India in the field of science and innovation. We run some 200 projects in India with scientists from India and EU working together – this works extremely well in the areas of climate change in the Himalayas, new forms of energy and new materials.

We are now discussing the next phase of that cooperation by identifying a couple of flagship areas and investing in these collaborations together. For us, vaccine development, antimicrobial resistance, diabetes and climate change are some important areas. We are now looking into the modalities of such cooperation.

NI: EU is also planning an image overhaul in India?

R-JS: Yes, of course. We certainly need to brand European research in India better. Indians collaborate mostly with the United States. Europe also has so much more to offer. Indian researchers work in projects in some of Europe’s best Universities such as Max Planck, Cambridge and Wageningen. We need to be more visible and present in India and not be shy about it. It is amazing that such a small subcontinent with only 7% of the world population produces a third of the world's knowledge. And there's a long tradition of science, first class Universities, excellent companies and research organisations. We need to be much more visible here on the spot.

We need to step up the activities through road shows, by being present at conferences and going to social media to showcase what we have to offer. We need to communicate our work much better.

The EU programme Horizons 2020 is the biggest science innovation programme in the world at € 80 billion. We are opening it up completely for the best brains around the world – Indian researchers are free to join in since many of the challenges that India is facing, we are facing too, such as energy security, food security, climate challenges and water.