Meagre funds and red tape hobble Indian science

Even for the approved projects, the budget gets sharply pared by the finance bureaucracy.
Image used for representational purposes.
Image used for representational purposes.

The remarkable global growth of science during the 20th century was accomplished primarily by the gradual scaling up of government funding. Some countries have stayed the course into this century. But in India, direct funding for basic research has remained at a low of 0.6-0.8 per cent of GDP over the last decade, much lower than that of other BRICS nations. India’s total expenditure on R&D has, in fact, fallen from 0.82 percent to 0.64 percent of the GDP between 2005 and 2023.

Over the last few years, there has been a steady drop in fund allocation to the agencies such as the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, the Department of Science and Technology, Department of Biotechnology, the Ministry of Earth Sciences and Indian Council of Medical Research. This trend of under-funding is reflected in the low proportion of qualified researchers available in India—255 researchers per million people in 2017, in contrast to 8,342 per million in Israel, 7,597 in Sweden and 7,498 in South Korea.

Over the past decade, the number of universities jumped from 752 to 1,016. More Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research were set up. This increase in the number of institutes does not correlate with the science budget. This mismatch is more acute now with only seven out of 100 project proposals, on an average, getting funded. Even for the approved projects, the budget gets sharply pared by the finance bureaucracy.

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Even when you have secured a grant on paper, the funding may not arrive for months. The investigator would have little time to spend the money before the financial year ends. It has become a new normal that researchers receive their sanctioned project money in the later part of the year. When most are unable to spend the money in a few quick months, the rest goes back to the exchequer on March 31 because it was deposited in a ‘zero balance’ account, a norm introduced in April 2022.

Adding to this cumbersome procedure, a newly-imposed obligation requires principal investigators to submit quarterly reports on 'targets'. The bureaucracy seems oblivious that research is not an engineering project where time management techniques can be easily applied. Creative research is a means of producing new knowledge through trial and error. Scientists preoccupied with chasing grants and writing quarterly reports would have little time for careful contemplation of complex problems.

The individual researcher’s freedom to procure equipment with the required specifications has also been curtailed with the insistence on buying through the government e-marketplace. It enforces a compromise on equipment quality. Even to buy a spare part for a lab equipment, most of which is made outside India, a tender must now be floated for domestic manufacturers first. If any Indian manufacturer responds within 20 days, the scientist is bound to go with it regardless of the quality. If no one turns up, you can inform a government agency of your need to import; the agency typically takes about two months to respond. A scientist in her most important phase of the research would find such delays extremely demotivating and might even end up with a costly failure.

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The crippling procedures have also made the disbursal of fellowships difficult. Funds for postdocs and PhD scholars remain elusive for months or years. The inability to pay for manpower and supplies that are continuously needed for carrying out investigations, affects research. Earlier, the faculty would rely on institutional backup funds to tide over funding delays. Now, research grants are kept with a bank. Many departments complain about the low turnover of PhD scholars as funding hurdles demotivate students.

The Union government approved a new funding mechanism called the Anusandhan National Research Foundation (ANRF), subsuming the Science and Engineering Research Board. The ANRF Act was brought into force on February 5, with a DST secretary appointed interim CEO. Its functioning will be governed by an executive council chaired by the Principal Scientific Adviser to the government. The National Education Policy of 2020, on the other hand, mentioned the National Research Foundation (NRF) would be independent of the government. Initially modeled after the National Science Foundation, an independent US federal government agency, it is not clear how the ANRF in its current form will be different from its previous bureaucratic avatar.

Out of the Rs 50,000 crore set aside for NRF for 2023-28, about Rs 36,000 crore was expected to come from the private sector. The government funding was envisaged to be around Rs 2,800 crore a year. Earlier this week, the finance minister allocated Rs 2,000 crore for the ANRF for 2024-25—an amount hardly sufficient even to maintain the present level of support.

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The funding model being developed by the Centre encourages a greater role for the private sector and a gradual scaling down of public funding. Science institutes are now encouraged to develop research centres registered as Section 8 companies, wherein private companies or shareholders can invest money. The move to prioritise translational research over basic research is further strengthened in the interim budget for 2024-25. It has earmarked Rs 1 lakh crore for research and innovation among the youth by providing “long-term financing or refinancing with extended tenors and low or nil interest rates”.

Lessening the role of public funding and increasing marketisation could ruin curiosity-driven science. Private funding, including government-mandated corporate social responsibility funds, will skew the scientific process as donors have the freedom to decide whom and what they will fund. It’s perplexing why our scientists and the science academies are silent on the impediments to doing basic research in India, which is becoming increasingly arduous.

C P Rajendran

(Adjunct professor at the National Institute of Advanced Research, Bengaluru)

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