More than ever before, India is today at the leading edge of research in diverse areas of science and technology — largely because these are fields that are new to the rest of the world, too. Scientists are studying batteries, hydrogen and fuel cells, new energy, quantum computing and CO2-to-fuels — as opposed to ‘old science’ technologies such as space, telecommunications, semi-conductors, electronics and conventional energy, where India lagged behind other countries.
The emerging areas therefore represent a grand opportunity for India to come up as a leader, at least in certain niches. For example, while the country may be behind in, say, lithium-ion battery technology, it is catching up with other leading nations in sodium or zinc ion, or solid electrolyte batteries. And that is why scientific research in India, more than any other time in the past, needs financial nourishment.
While tech start-ups are able to raise money, early-stage research is under-funded. “Basic science research in India is suffering from lack of adequate funding,” observes Professor CP Rajendran of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.
Take, for example, the Imprint scheme, run by the government’s Science and Engineering Research Board, under which academics are given grants for projects that typically run for two years. In the first round, 142 projects were sanctioned ₹313 crore; in the second, 122 projects were granted ₹112 crore. A project gets between ₹50 lakh and ₹1.25 crore. However, these projects are developing at the cutting edge of technology; they could do with more funding.
Not that research spends in India have not increased over the years.
India’s Gross expenditure on R&D (GERD) nearly tripled from ₹39,437 crore in 2007-08 ($10 billion at the then prevailing exchange rate) to ₹1,13,825 crore ($17.5 b) in 2017-18, and further to an estimated ₹1,23,847 crore ($17.7 b) in 2018-19. As a percentage of GDP, India’s GERD is about 0.7 per cent, much lower than the target of 2 per cent. In purchasing power parity terms, the number looks better — $47 b in 2017-18.
A more disaggregated view reveals a different picture. Roughly, 42 per cent of the R&D spend is in the private sector, which has very little to do with basic research. Defence (DRDO) and space (see chart) account for half of the remaining 58 per cent of public spending.
Typically, a technology is developed from Technology Readiness Level 1 to 5 (early stages) through public investment; the industry picks it up and takes it to TRL 9 (market readiness). As such, more public spending happens in basic research.
Therefore, the GERD skew towards public spending is okay. But this also means the government’s budgetary allocations for this should increase. True, allocations to the three departments of science and technology (DST), biotechnology (DBT) and scientific and industrial research (DSIR) under the Ministry of Science and Technology rose by 52 per cent from ₹9,517 crore in 2015-16 to ₹14,472 crore in 2020-21. But nearly everybody agrees it spreads thin over a range of expenditure heads.
So, you have a scenario where ₹718 crore is allocated in Budget 2020 under ‘Research and Development’ for “International Cooperation, National Mission on Nano Science & Nano Technology, Mega Facilities for Basic Research, Alliance and R&D Mission (Climate Change) and SuperComputing Facility and Capacity Building, Technology fusion & Applications Research”; ₹1,580 crore for “Human Resource Development in biotechnology, Bioinformatics, Biotech Facilities, Centre of Excellence and Inter-Institutional Centres, Research and Development including Research and Development projects under International Collaboration and Societal Development and identified major National Missions” ; and ₹815 crore for 16 autonomous bodies under the Biotechnology department.
Keeping the fiscal deficit under check has constrained research funding. However, for 2021-22, it is widely believed that the government would press the pause button on fiscal deficit control, because of Covid-19. Now is a good time to shovel in more funds for research.