In the Paths to Science Policy series, we talk to individuals who have a passion for science policy and are active in advocacy through their various roles and careers. The series aims to inform and guide early career scientists interested in science policy. This series is brought to you by the GSA Early Care­er Scientist Policy and Advocacy Subcommittee.

The following transcript is from my candid conversation with Daman Saluja, Senior Professor and Joint Director of the Delhi School of Public Health (DSPH) in the Institute of Eminence (IoE) at the University of Delhi. She is also the former Chairperson of the Research Council and two-time Director of the Dr. B. R. Ambedkar Center for Biomedical Research (ACBR).

Please tell us a little bit about your career path and your current work.

I began my career as a botanist, completing my bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral studies in botany. My journey then took an exciting turn when I pursued molecular biology at NYU Medical Center in the U.S., transitioning from studying plant to animal cells. Since then, my focus has centered on gene regulation.

In 1997, I joined the University of Delhi as a faculty member, concentrating on diagnostics and developing molecular biology-based assays for prevalent diseases in India. I have taken on additional roles including the charge of Director of ACBR and Joint Director of the Delhi School of Public Health. Over the past year and a half, I’ve served as the Chairperson of the Research Council, focusing on policy development and enhancing research outcomes within the university. This role involves strategizing improvements to promote technology-driven projects and improve overall research output. 

In the last few years, how has funding for science changed in India?

From the start of my career, securing funding for my projects was remarkably seamless. I have been able to obtain substantial research funds. This success, I believe, stems from the clear definition of project objectives and the presentation of a robust project proposal. But now more than ever, there are multiple grants for STEM research in India. Funding agencies have started encouraging new and diverse frontline areas, creating more opportunities for researchers. Task-specific calls and team-based research initiatives have recently emerged, reflecting a trend toward increased specificity in thrust areas. Additionally, there is a notable preference for interdisciplinary projects that span various departments and universities.

Another noteworthy development is the emphasis on consortiums for larger projects, fostering collaboration beyond individual labs. This approach aligns with a broader goal of contributing to the nation rather than focusing solely on individual endeavors. Funding is readily available at varying levels depending on the nature of the project. Individual projects typically range from $30,000 to $60,000, while multi-institutional efforts or international collaborations can reach several crores or hundreds of thousands of dollars.  The introduction of consortiums for national initiatives opens the door to substantial funding. This funding landscape is instrumental in supporting projects aimed at nationwide development and societal benefit.

How do you think your research influences your policy work? Is there a mutual benefit of working in both sectors?

Indeed, when I first assumed administrative roles, my initial understanding of how I could contribute was unclear. However, I found that my experiences in research, particularly in areas like intellectual property rights filing and technology transfer, significantly helped me develop new, effective policies. These policies included the introduction of incentive-driven awards for publishing in reputable journals and university-support for article processing charges, which are often beyond our project budgets. The university, especially with the support of the new vice chancellor, proved to be receptive. I can now say that having a scientific background allowed me to communicate convincingly with the university authorities. I could share solutions based on our laboratory’s experiences, facilitating smoother discussions and implementation.

What aspects of the research ecosystem in India set it apart from the rest of the world?

The research ecosystem in India is fascinating–there are notable aspects that set it apart globally. Certain areas, such as ayurvedic and yogic research, are being pursued only in India, distinguishing it from many other countries. Moreover, each country’s uniqueness is evident across various disciplines, including political science, policy-making, and economics, but the Indian research landscape is exceptionally diverse.

India needs more resources in STEM research, especially in acquiring high-end equipment. However, our approach involves the shared use of centralized facilities in universities and research institutions, allowing researchers to gain access with a nominal fee while ensuring efficient equipment utilization. This collaborative structure sets us apart, providing a more organized framework compared to some countries with professional fee-based facilities and separate departmental and central facilities.

What are some of the challenges of scientific research and policy-making in institutions supported by public funding in India?

Over 90 percent of research in India is publicly funded, with only a limited number of private research institutes. Unlike their counterparts in the United States, most of those institutes primarily focus on teaching rather than pure research. The funding distribution is diverse, encompassing different tiers like central and state universities with allocations based on faculty and projects. Navigating this stratified system poses a significant challenge, requiring meticulously crafted and well-thought-out project proposals to secure funding from the government’s limited pool.

Despite the stress on domestic funding, there has been a noteworthy shift in recent years with many institutes now actively engaging in international projects. This development, which has gained momentum in the last decade, marks a departure from the earlier trend of population-based research. The involvement in international collaborations diversifies funding sources and influences policy adjustments, benefitting the research community by aligning policies with global standards and practices.

I have to say, though, that there is minimal government interference during policymaking; scientists and policymakers take center stage in this process. However, the government substantially influences policy implementation due to its role in research funding. Committees are formed with representativesfrom relevant ministries such as the Ministry of Electronics for artificial intelligence–related policies. As policies are crafted for various sectors like agriculture, health, and sustainable resources, guidelines are in place to identify expert committee members who are granted autonomy in policymaking. Government intervention occurs mainly during the implementation phase when feasibility and funding availability is assessed. At this point, the government plays a more active role in ensuring effective policy execution but refrains from extensive interference in guideline formulation, trusting the expertise of the involved professionals.

What is your advice for early career researchers, such as PhDs and postdocs, who are interested in science policy?

Science policy, I believe, is gaining prominence, fostering a deeper understanding among researchers. Previously, scientists were primarily recipients of policies but not actively engaged. However, the landscape is evolving. While I wonder whether a career in research policy is universally fitting, it may resonate with a select few who possess a passion for both research and policymaking.

Some researchers who were initially focused on their scientific pursuits later recognized the potential to contribute to policy formation. The trend is shifting, with more scientists being invited to collaborate on policy initiatives, marking a balance between government officials and scientific experts. While it may not be a predominant career path for all researchers, individuals are increasingly inclined to explore the intersection of research and policy for a more holistic impact.

Graduate student and postdoctoral leaders from the Early Career Scientist Committees of the GSA.

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