‘Rent-a-lab’ policy to bring revenues to institutions

New Delhi, August 03, 2018:  The government has proposed a new policy that could transform scientific instruments in government labs into lucrative assets generating a steady rental income. It plans to hire out to researchers all lab equipment that cost more than ₹10 lakh. This would also reduce the amount of time such expensive instruments remain idle.

“To promote ease of access, sharing and monitoring, the granting agencies will henceforth tabulate and put all equipments funded by it costing more than ₹10 lakh on the Internet, to be accessed by researchers,” says a note on the website of the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

The policy, called the Scientific Research Infrastructure Management and Networks (SRIMAN), wouldn’t, “for the present,” apply to strategic sectors. The policy is open to public comments for a month according to reports published in thehindu.com

Explaining the policy’s rationale, the government noted that it was “common” to find in Indian laboratories, expensive equipment lying idle. A “large number” are not shared and are plagued by issues such as maintenance and availability of spares.

“This adds to the burden of research infrastructure costs,” the document noted.

The new system, according to the policy, envisages institutions declaring on a website how often their instruments would be available for use by those outside the department or university. Those who would like to use, for example, a DNA-sequencing machine, would have to pay a fee and specify the purpose and time they would want it for.

Currently, the practice of researchers bidding for time-slots to use lab instruments is typically seen more with very expensive equipment, such as radio telescopes and particle-accelerators, which cost crores of rupees. A biologist with a government lab, who didn’t want to be identified, said the policy had set a “low bar (₹10 lakh) for instruments” and that could mean that the government could potentially deny funds to buy equipment to researchers. “₹5-10 lakh is no longer a prohibitive cost for the kind of research and results expected today. Because the bar is so low, a researcher could be asked to spend time scouring for minor equipment [to lease],” he said.

“There are several universities that cannot afford expensive equipment. At the same time, these aren’t used beyond 20%-30% of their life time,” said Ashutosh Sharma, Secretary, DST. The larger plan is to develop “clusters” of instrumentation facilities.

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