Ignorance and illiteracy about the budget can legitimately be interpreted by the Government as indifference.
Most scientists in India working in Universities and specialized research institutes have to apply for extra-mural funding for their research. And they usually do so by applying to government agencies such as DST, SERB, DBT, CSIR, DAE, ICAR, ICMR and a few others. This is because more than half of India’s R&D budget comes from the Government. The quantum and pattern of allocation of money for R&D is announced promptly every year in the Finance Minister’s budget speech in Parliament in the month of February. A great deal of information about the quantum of money and its distribution to different departments and different major projects, new and old, is given in that speech. And yet the majority of working scientists in India are strikingly ignorant and illiterate about the contents of the Finance Minister’s speech. What is this year’s allocation to science as a function of the GDP, how much for DST and for DBT and what about ICMR? How much for major new schemes and how much might be left for small individual projects? How do these numbers compare with the previous year and the year before, and with those of the previous Government? Most scientists, whose careers depend on successfully accessing research funding from Government departments, rarely have any detailed knowledge of these simple facts. Yet they are all seriously concerned about whether their own projects will be funded and they participate in endless debates and discussions about why their projects are not funded and even about why some others’ projects are funded. Such profound near-sightedness does not befit the scientific community. Besides, ignorance and illiteracy can legitimately be interpreted by the Government as indifference.
Fortunately, this serious problem can be fixed relatively easily. Without doubt, there are at least some individuals who are literate and knowledgeable and who follow the Finance Minister’s speech and are able to understand all the nuances that go with such a speech. We just have to organize ourselves and appoint one or a few such experts to educate the rest of us in a language that we understand and in a timely manner. Some of them can specialize in providing the facts and, where necessary, translating them into layman-speak, while others can specialize in analysis, interpretation and comparisons. The latter group of people will have all the lead time they need because the date of the Finance Minister’s speech is known well in advance. A reasonably detailed report of the facts and their interpretation can surely be prepared within 24 hours of the speech itself. Needless to say, we must accord credit, prestige and gratitude to these messengers. Then the science Academies can chip in by disseminating the report in their instant online organs such as Dialogue and Confluence. Facebook, Twitter and other social media can then multiply the reach almost infinitely. If we also add some social prestige to knowing, discussing and disseminating these facts, we can have essentially instant budgetary literacy before the end of every February. And then will follow the comments, clarifications and criticisms, in the bottom-up manner that social media is so good at. I have no doubt that with a little planning, perhaps by the Science Academies, or even just by the editors of Dialogue and Confluence, we can pull this off. Let’s resolve to begin in February 2019!
Now that was the easy part. The much more difficult but also the much more important part is to do a post-mortem of the budget. There is always a slip between the cup and the lip, between promise and delivery. It is common knowledge that money promised at the beginning of the financial year is sometimes not released, and often not released in time to be useful. But it is also common knowledge that sometimes more money can be released than was originally promised. I have had scores of encounters with individual scientists with their individual stories. And yet we have no accurate picture of the situation in the country as a whole. Here there is even greater ignorance and illiteracy, even the Finance Minister does not know it all! We need field work, data collection, statistical analysis, interpretation and recommendations. But isn’t that what we scientists mostly do? Then why not for the that which affects all of us the most? Of course this is a more difficult job and needs to be done in a project mode. The Academies should fund a small team of well-chosen scientists, students and post-docs included, to undertake a detailed study in the months of April, May and July, maybe with a different team every year. They need to collect data on the quantum and time course of money released to several randomly chosen individul projects, institutes and even Government science departments. They need to do field surveys, conduct interviews, access publicly available information, use RTI, or whatever it takes to get the data. While this will surely be a demanding task it will, I have no doubt, provide significant opportunities for creativity and innovation, especially in the statistical analysis and interpretation. The Academies should not only fund the expenses involved including salaries of students and assistants but even more importantly, find a way to reward the team with formal credit and social prestige. A quick publication in Dialogue and Confluence and wide dissemination in the social media will complete the job. For the whole exercise to be viewed as applied research rather than mere theory, it is imperative to do this in a time-bound manner and produce recommendations well in time to be useful for course correction in the current financial year. If we pull this off, it will be the first of its kind in the world and constitute true budgetary literacy. Are we up for the challenge?