Strong policy research is the cornerstone of policy formulation and a necessary condition for sustained good governance. However, it is widely acknowledged that the quality of policy research in India has been found wanting, both within and outside the government. Indicatively, not a single Indian think tank featured in the top 50 in 2012 Global Go To Think Tanks Rankings, and only six of them made it to the top 150.
There are several challenges that Indian think tanks face - insufficient funding, dearth of skilled staff, and limited support from the government.
Numerous factors contribute to the high cost of policy research. First, for rigorous policy research, access to quality data is the most essential. Government departments are often reluctant to share data they collect. Though the Right to Information Act seeks to address this gap to some extent, it is still a reactive and time-consuming mechanism for obtaining data. Even when information is shared, methodological inconsistencies in data gathering make comparison and aggregation challenging, if not untenable. In the absence of accessible data, substantial resources may be required for primary data collection.
Second, as the size and complexity of data increase, think tanks need to become adept at using appropriate tools for data analysis. But few think tanks can afford a heavy investment in computing infrastructure. In addition, licences and training for proprietary software can also be prohibitively expensive. For example, a single user licence for the TIMES suite, a popular energy modelling software, costs over Rs.10 lakh ($18,000). Free and open source software, though more economical, usually comes with inadequate support and training and is difficult to master in limited time.
Third, to stay up to date, think tanks need access to latest research. However, low price editions of books are rare and imported editions are expensive; subscription prices of international journals have risen steadily. Further, research infrastructure becomes economical with scale, which most Indian think tanks do not possess yet. In fact, even a well-endowed and large institution like Harvard University has described journal subscriptions as 'fiscally unsustainable'. While think tanks may not be unique in facing these costs, their non-profit nature and unsteady cash flow makes long-term planning to address these challenges difficult.
Can the government step in to improve the situation?
The government recently announced the National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy (NDSAP). Fundamentally, guidelines for data collection need to be put in place to ensure systemic and semantic consistency. Further, all data shared under this initiative, for example through Data Portal India, should be made open to facilitate access. The NDSAP also leaves the pricing of data at the discretion of relevant government agencies. Instead, to alleviate the cost burden for think tanks, the price of data should reflect only the additional cost incurred in collation and disbursement. As the National e-Governance Plan aims to automate administrative processes, the additional cost of providing data is unlikely to be significant.
The Indian government also launched the National Knowledge Network (NKN) in 2011 for data and resource sharing amongst education and research institutions. The NKN provides services such as collaborative research, grid computing, sharing of computing resources, and a virtual library. It has already connected 950 institutions and 14,000 colleges covering agriculture, education, governance, healthcare, and science and technology research. Such domain knowledge and resources are high in demand within the think tank community. However, it is not clear whether, how, and when, think tanks can join the NKN. Can they cash in too?
The inclusion of think tanks into this network will not only reduce their computing and library costs but also enhance research synergies - think tanks will benefit from better access to specialists in various fields, who can in turn profit from a deeper understanding of the policy implications of their work. As the ground work for the NKN has already been laid, the cost of extending it is unlikely to be significant. Even if think tanks are charged on cost-basis for the services they avail, it could be a win-win - they would benefit from increased resource sharing and the network would profit from increased scale.
The Indian think tank community is not new but, unlike its US counterpart, has not received much institutional or policy support to enhance the rigour of its work. By enabling think tanks to worry less about the cost and effort needed for quality work, government measures to inculcate better data practices and plug think tanks into the wider network of research institutions can help in tipping the balance. Further, they would also promote transparency and healthy competition in policy research. This could lead to the presence of more Indian think tanks in global rankings and, more importantly, contribute to improving the quality of governance in the country.
(Nihit Goyal is a policy analyst at Bangalore's Centre for Study of Science, Technology and Policy. Shweta Srinivasan is a research analyst at the same institute. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org).