Equipped for a collaborative future
doi:10.1038/nindia.2019.105 Published online 8 August 2019
India has set up a new platform to link researchers with the trove of scientific equipment housed in institutions across the country, an ambitious move whose success hinges upon how quickly and openly scientists and lab owners warm up to the idea of sharing.
The system for sharing research infrastructure will be managed by the Centre for Nano Science and Engineering (CeNSE) of the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. It is expected to create job opportunities in line with various government initiatives such as ‘Make in India’, ‘Startup India’ and ‘Digital India’, and enhance skill development across the country.
Sandeep Chhoker, an associate professor in physics at the Jaypee Institute of Information Technology in Noida has booked the use of an XPS machine to test samples at the National Institute of Technology, Jaipur. “My institute did not have this machine and I am happy that I will be able to finally test four of my samples,” he says.
Similarly, Deepa Bhagat, a principal scientist at the National Bureau of Agricultural Insect Resources, affiliated to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, will finally get access to a transmission electron microscope for her research. “My work was being hampered in the absence of this device.”
These scientists are among the earliest users of the new platform, Indian Science, Technology, and Engineering facilities Map (I-STEM). According to the 2017-18 report of the All India Survey on Higher Education and the University Grants Commission, there are 38051 colleges in the country of which nearly 61% are located in rural areas.
The portal www.istem.gov.in lists 14,033 pieces of equipment worth several crores of rupees installed in 380 research institutions, including CSIR, IITs, NITs and the IISERs. As many as 575 researchers and 52 experts have registered as users on the portal. To protect the IP involved in building the portal, a patent application has been filed with the Indian Patent office.
After registering, portal users are directed to search for the availability of the equipment needed. They are then routed to the payment gateway and given a time slot for using the equipment. The portal allows for funding agencies to monitor the use of equipment and facilities they have funded.
Users can also be providers by putting their equipment forward for use.
“I plan to put my CVD machine on the portal. This will help with the cost of maintaining it,” says Chhoker.
The government’s principal scientific adviser, Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan, says that the platform will help build India’s research architecture. “It aspires to provide all the researchers access to public-funded facilities.”
Affordability, accessibility and availability of infrastructure are the essential for a robust research landscape. "This kind of sharing through a web-based technology will motivate the researchers, especially those who do not have access to costly equipment,” says Raghunath Mashelkar, a former director general of India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.
“Most researchers do not have access to proper facilities and this can be extremely demotivating," says Ashutosh Sharma, Secretary of India's Department of Science and Technology, maintaining that this kind of sharing will bridge the gap between the researchers and the resources.
Despite its goals for streamlining the research ecosystem, there are challenges that the project could face, including attracting equipment, as some scientists have reservations about sharing their ‘research property’.
“There is no individual ownership. The nation is the owner of these devices and these should be accessible to all,” says Mashelkar.
Slow responses from institutional leaders, apathy of the custodians, and lack of public awareness are some other impediments. Despite being mandated by the government to be a part of the portal, most institutions are yet to come on board.
“The real task is to ensure institutional heads direct researchers to join I-STEM," says Anuj Kumar from the Central Building Research Institute, Roorkee. Linking I-STEM with the National Institute Ranking Framework (NIRF) and ensuring that sharing R&D resources becomes a parameter for ranking could act as a catalyst for these institutions to take part, he suggests.
Building awareness on the advantages of being linked online is another challenge. Researchers and custodians of equipment should understand that sharing would help them earn usage fees, and help them maintain costly equipment.
Another issue is ensuring real time updating of the register. The I-STEM team is hopeful that after the official launch, there would be more awareness among the researchers about this platform. “Lots of duplication can be curbed though this initiative,” says Sanjeev Shrivastava, national coordinator of I-STEM at IISc, Bangalore.
“We are confident that the sharing of facilities and the spirit of collaboration underlying I-STEM will enhance R&D productivity in the country,” says Navakanta Bhat, Chairman of the CeNSE.