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India needs enhanced research funds in the 2022 budget for the global scientific leadership aspiration

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Scientific research and development (R&D) is the foundation of productivity, progress, and prosperity of a country. Expenses on R&D is an investment for sustainable economic growth and, hence, is one of the indicators of the country’s vision of development. For this reason, developed countries SPEND more of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) toward R&D.

The accelerated upward trajectory on the global scientific platform requires two focused fronts – first, the allocation of funds, and the second, research management creating an enabling ecosystem for research. Let’s look at India’s commitment on these two fronts in relation to its attempt to become a world leader on its own strength.

First, the budgetary provision in India for public sector research. In the 2020 Budget, the allocation for all the scientific and technical research was Rs 30516 crore. In 2021, it plunged to Rs 24815 crore, about 19% less than in the previous year. A similar reduction (20%) was reflected in the fund allocated to the Department of Science and Technology. Research projects run for several years. Such sudden reduction of funds in a year is the cause of instability in the research ecosystem and hence, research output.

It is true that the country’s 2021Budget saw a new visionary National Research Funds (NRF) of Rs 50000 crores for five years for research in all the disciplines. Another boost was Rs 4000 crore for Deep Water Mission. Competitive research projects got an impetus. With these additional funds, the total research allocation increased substantially and India jumped two positions up from 5th in 2019 to 7th in 2021 at the global level. But is it enough to become a global research leader?

In 2021, China with R&D expenses of US$ 621.5 billion occupied the first position followed by the US with US$ 598.7 billion. India’s expenditure was US$ 93.5 billion, accounting for 15% of that in China. Expenditure on R&D as a percent of GDP in 2019 exceeded 3% in most developed countries. Israel topped with 4.9% of the GDP. It was followed by South Kores (4.6%), Taiwan (3.5%), Sweden (3.4%), Japan, Germany, and Austria (each 3.2%), and the US (3.1%). China’s expenditure was 2.2% (14th position) as against 0.65% of India (54th position). However, the percent value on research should be taken in conjunction with the amount of GDP. The GDP of the US was more than US$ 20 trillion, China’s more than US$ 13 trillion, and India’s about US$ 2.6 trillion. Thus the low GDP and a small percent share together act as a barrier for the fast growth of the research in India.

On mining deep, the picture of India is still worse. South Korea ranks first on per capita expenditure on R&D (US$ 1935). It was followed by the US (US$ 1866) and Singapore (US$ 1832). The corresponding figure was US$ 368 for China (33rd position) and US$ 43 for India (70th position).

The low expenditure on research is chronic in India. But the worrying is that it continued to decline during the last 15 years. It declined from 0.81% in 2005-06 to 0.69% in 2015-16 and further to 0.65% in 2019. Only the 2021 budget saw some upward figure. It is noteworthy that the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister recommended increasing the research share to 2% of GDP.

Impact of low R&D funds

It is difficult to directly link productivity with R&D funding on a year-to-year basis. However, immediate output from the R&D funding can be assessed indirectly. First, the number of researchers in India is a fraction of the most developed countries. For example, the number of researchers per million people in 2017 was 8342 in Israel, 7597 in Sweden, and 7498 in South Korea as against just 255 in India. Second, the immediate output from the research labs is scientific publication. Each year Nature publishes high-quality publications in natural science journals.  In 2020 the Index was highest, 20677 for the US, followed by 14256 for China. The corresponding count was 1039 for India. The third concern is the sliding downtrend of quality publications in India. Many Asian countries showed a positive gain in counts in 2020 compared to 2019. However, it declined in India by -3.8%. All these indicate that quality scientific research is the casualty due to the meager research funds.

Research Management

Enabling the research ecosystem is essential for quality research output. In addition to infrastructure, manpower engagement and timely release of funds are two other key factors for carrying out the research efficiently. Up to now, the research institutes are engaging the scientific and technical staff in schemes and the scheme-incharge is given the freedom to select suitable personnel through open advertisement. This established system got to change now. The Ministry of Earth Sciences issued an Office Order in December 2021 that all the scientific and technical staff of a project would be engaged through outsourcing agencies. Until now, the role of outsourcing agencies was restricted to supplying non-technical staff such as security staff and labourers.  In the new system, it is not known how the middleman is competent enough to scrutinize and shortlist the highly qualified research personnel. Further, the new process may not be likened by the self-esteemed research aspirants to go to outsourcing agencies. It is also possible that in the situation of widespread unemployment, less competent persons may manage to succeed by using influences.

The second aspect of good research management is the timely availability of funds. In the existing system, funds are released in installments. The installment at the beginning of a financial year is generally delayed for which the salary and wages are held up unpaid for a few months. It is high time now to change the system so that the research program should not suffer from the unavailability of committed funds. In the United States, National Science Foundation releases funds at one go. It is proposed that a similar system is needed in our country for the smooth running of the research projects, at least for the projects sanctioned under NRF.

The third point to be noted here is very interesting. In several Ministries and Departments, the share of administrative expenditure and salary from the allocated funds is quite high, leaving only a small amount for the purchase of research materials. As per the media reports, the quantum of administrative expenses (10%) in the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) was nearly 1.5 times the research expenses (7%). The bulk share goes to salaries. It is time now to minimize these expenses and the savings from it need to go to the core expenses of the research. The reform needed is to reduce administrative manpower, enhance digital power and thus increase efficiency in research management.

Agricultural Research

Agriculture contributes about 14% of the country’s economy and 42% of total employment. September 2021 data shows that GDP from agriculture was Rs 4076 billion, which was much more than from construction (Rs 2405 billion) and about 70% of that from manufacturing (Rs 5867 billion). However, lion’s share of research funds goes to institutes of Engineering and technology. The share of ICAR was about 11% of the budgetary allocation of research funds in 2017-18 as against 32% to DRDO and 19% to space research. ICAR is one of the largest research organisations in the world. It provides research funds to 103 research institutes, 75 agricultural universities, 82 research projects, and 11 Agricultural Technology Application Research Institutes, networking 721 Krishi Vigyana Kendras. In 2020, it received Rs 7846 crore out of a total of Rs 14065 crore allocated to agricultural R&D. Of the amount received by the ICAR, only 7% was spent on research and operational expenses. As agricultural research is mostly field-oriented, much of the funds go to field works including the hiring of labours, and about less than 2% is actually incurred for research consumables.

In conclusion, it can be said that the prevailing scientific ecosystem in the country’s public sector needs to be enabled by incremental growth of the research funds by 22% each year over the base year 2021, so as to achieve the total budgetary research funds reaching 2% of the country’s GDP in next five years. Climate change requires more research on health, Lifesciences, agriculture, and climate science. Last year research funds on health sciences witnessed a quantum jump of 26%. But the health of humans, animals, and plants are integrated together as one health. It is prudent to strengthen our total research system and spend more on all the priority sectors for accelerating our upward research performance trajectory. It is hoped that 2022-23 Budget allocation will reflect such a new thrust to scientific research.

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