Science and Technology in Economic Survey 2018

Albert Einstein thought that the ‘hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax’. At least in India, income tax is just one piece of a larger financial jigsaw puzzle called the budget. One can only imagine how Einstein would have reacted to the often confusing budget figures and analysis.  In this backdrop, the Economic Survey’s chapter on Transforming science and technology in India is a lucid and well-written document largely steering clear of the routine budget jargon.


In the list of India’s hoary budget related traditions, this is indeed a welcome change. Economic Survey, generally presented a day before the union budget every year, is the Finance ministry’s official view point on the state of the economy and is supplemented with statistics. For nearly seven decades from 1951 to 2017, the Economic Surveys were largely confined to discussions of core economic issues ranging from agricultural and industrial production to fiscal deficit. This is the first time that it has focussed on the transformative role of science and technology for addressing India’s developmental issues.


For nearly a decade between 2005 to 2016, India’s spending on research has been stagnant at about 0.7-0.8% of the gross domestic product (GDP). This point has been repeated many times over and a demand for its upward revision was even part of a bouquet of demands of the Indian version of the March for Science held in August 2017. India under-spends on research and, as the Economic Survey points out, what makes it glaring is that it under-spends even relative to its economic strength as measured by the GDP. Even as India would inch closer to reach the economic might of China or the USA, we are still likely to spend far less on research than both these countries at the same level of economic strength.


What is the source of science budget? It is contributed mainly by the central government while the state governments do not make significant contribution. In order to increase the research expenditure to well beyond 1% of GDP, Economic Survey puts the onus entirely on the state governments and the private industries. This might be a reasonable corollary derived from the data presented in the Economic Survey, but it is also true that the idea of scientific research as a tool for social transformation has not sufficiently percolated down to the levels of the state governments. Not surprisingly, projects such as the Neutrino Observatory and establishment of some of the new IIT/IISER/NITs have been delayed due to lack of support from the respective state governments. As the Economic Survey too points out, state governments should be incentivised to focus on applied research relevant to their region and people. Even as more resources are demanded from the government of India, it is also imperative to press the state governments to move ahead on this front.


The demands for fund infusion for research has always hogged the limelight, though the research output have not generally received the attention it deserves. The Economic Survey paints a not-so-rosy picture of research output, both in terms of number of publications and patents. In the 1990s, India was ahead of China in the publications race but by 2010 China had gone past India by a big margin. Faced with an onslaught of fake journals with no clear solutions in sight (UGC had even given them sanctity by approving several fake journals), statistics such as these, especially pertaining to the last decade, need to be carefully examined. Measuring quality of published papers using citations or other similar metrics is controversial (some science academies outside of India, such as the Royal Society, have argued against it) but it is sufficient to say that quality is a paramount concern that needs to be continuously addressed by the scientific community as a whole.


Two significant statements in the Economic Survey, in my opinion, reflect the mood and emphasis of the present government. It says, “India needs to redouble its efforts to improve science and R&D in the country first and foremost by doubling national expenditures on R&D with most of the increase coming from the private sector and universities. But the metrics also need to go beyond papers and patents to a broader contribution to providing value for society.” If this is any indication, the central government is probably not going to share most of the burden for sharp increase desired in research outlay in the short term. This is of course a status quo that dates back to 2005. Any moderate increase is likely to be selectively targeted at research that has the potential to address societal problems. The latter cannot be faulted per se, provided the importance and the place for fundamental research is also given its due recognition.


Somewhat like the 2007 report Rising Above the Gathering Storm : Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future produced by the National Academies of  Science, Engineering and Medicine in the USA, the Economic Survey too goes beyond the contours of economics and research, and briefly addresses the status of science and math education for children in schools. In another bold effort, it attempts to outline possible research priorities ranging from dark matter to energy storage and cyber-physical systems.  This manifests right intentions though it is likely to remain contentious.


The important take-away is that research is getting the recognition it deserves as an indispensable part of the nation building process but is unlikely to corner the desired budget allocation unless state governments and industries significantly increase their contribution. With this recognition, it is also incumbent upon the researchers and the academies to engage with the government and the public in a continuous dialogue to showcase the tangible and intangible value of supporting research.


Here is why I believe this is a well-intentioned document that tries to balance many disparate factors that shape the budget allocation process in India. Firstly, it calls for orienting more funds for the research projects of individual scientists as opposed to mega projects. Secondly, this is probably the first time that an official document says that “Government rules such as those requiring L1 for procurement are simply not geared to providing the flexibility that is needed at the frontiers of research ….”. Budgets and allocations apart, action on carrying forward some of these ideas is long overdue.


MS Santhanam is an Associate Professor of Physics at IISER Pune.

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