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Budget 2021: What’s in it for research?

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Summary

For a science budget in the backdrop of a pandemic, it does make big moves but leaves some crucial details to be filled in later.  Finance Minister quoted Rabindranath Tagore in her budget speech – “Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark”. Until the details come in, faith must be kept that what the big print has given, the fine print will not take away.

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This year, the union budget is overshadowed by two issues that refuse to fade away from the headlines. Both of them – COVID-19 pandemic and the farm law related protests – figure prominently in the budget speech of the finance minister Ms Nirmala Sitharaman. Somewhere down the line, science does get some fleeting attention probably reflecting the perceived size and the influence of “science constituency” in a larger context. In any case, the budget is just one marker of the support for science and innovation. Far more than a headline-grabbing financial allocation, the fine-print will ultimately determine the actual outcomes in practice.

 

This budget does have its headline-grabbing announcement for science. For example, Rs 50000.00 crores have been allocated over the next 5 years for the National Research Foundation (NRF), a new overarching body that will, among other things, fund research and infrastructure in all the disciplines (including humanities and social sciences) across all the institutions. The NRF, according to the Detailed Project Report (DPR) submitted in December 2019, is conceived as “an integrated and comprehensive approach towards seeding, funding, coordinating, and monitoring research and innovation initiatives in the country.” This is indeed a welcome initiative but for some dangling imponderables. It is unclear if existing funding bodies would discontinue their schemes when NRF comes into existence or if they would be merged under the NRF umbrella and create a much larger financial pie for the research ecosystem. From the budget allocation, according to its DPR, the NRF will spend Rs. 5344.00 crores annually to fund competitive research projects. This represents a substantial increase, if we compare it with the allocation of Rs. 299.00 crores for the Science and Engineering Research Board, the primary funding body for research grants. The projected NRF spending is twice as big as the total research funding of more than Rs. 2700.00 crores given out by all the ministries and its agencies. This is a reason enough for optimism. However, it remains to be seen if this increase would imply cutting down of research funding by other ministries and agencies, and if mega-projects would also come under this umbrella, in which case this might not be a big change. This is a matter of detail that will unfold in the course of time.

 

Another reason for cautious, rather than unrestrained, optimism arises from closer scrutiny of the budget numbers. The budget estimate for all of science and technology in February 2020 budget was Rs. 30516.00 crores. This must be taken as an indicator of the Government’s inclination. However, as the year rolled on, the revised estimate plunged to Rs 24815.00 crores, reducing nearly 20% of the allocation. Incidentally, the department of science and technology also witnessed a similar reduction of about 20% during the last financial year. Often, this reflects in the reduction in the number of fellowships and other research grants given out by the funding agencies. I know many colleagues and students who complain about long delays in disbursal of funds and fellowships. Such sudden changes underline the need for an important but missing component of science policy – ensuring financial stability during the tenure of a research project. Delayed funding, to rephrase a well-known aphorism, is almost not too different from denied funding. The new science policy that is likely to be unveiled soon might incorporate dependable funding cycle as part of “ease of doing research” in India. More than the big picture of science funding as a fraction of GDP, these details have a greater effect on operational research environment and productivity.

 

The other big-ticket commitment in this budget is for the Deep Ocean Mission : to the tune of Rs 4000.00 crores over the next five years to tap India’s ocean wealth. Notwithstanding a meager increase in allocation for the Department of Science and Technology, the overall investment in science and technology (including NRF and Deep Ocean Mission) would still amount to about 0.7% of the GDP, well below the 2% benchmark recommended most recently by the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. The Economic Survey 2021, released ahead of the budget, notes this lacuna but argues that the Government already contributes 56% of the entire R&D expenditure. In comparison, the governments of the top ten economies contribute about 20% of their GDP, though the R&D expenditure in these countries is a respectable 1.5-3% of GDP. The Indian industry is expected to augment its share of R&D contribution. For this to take wings, the onus is on the Government to ensure growth and robust entrepreneurial and industrial activity. This feedback loop needs to be completed with Government as a facilitator.

 

For a science budget in the backdrop of a pandemic, it does make big moves but leaves some crucial details to be filled in later.  Finance Minister quoted Rabindranath Tagore in her budget speech – “Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark“. Until the details come in, faith must be kept that what the big print has given, the fine print will not take away.

 

MS Santhanam is a Professor of Physics at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Pune. Views expressed are personal.

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