Budgeting for science

Budgeting for science at this time of the year, the excitement surrounding the budget begins to build up. Speculation will continue till the Budget is presented in the Lok Sabha, followed by series of commentaries in the media. The hype surrounding the budget is understandable; after all, it is the an event of great significance. The Budget document is not merely a document of accounts; it is indicative of the policies of the government. Concessions, increased budgetary allocations, or in some cases a freezing of allocations are all supposedly part of the larger vision which the government has for the nation.

The importance of the Budget is more so for areas where the government is the only player. These include the all important science and technology ( s&t ) sector, where there is almost no private activity. The total allocations for s&t are traditionally divided into six heads: Department of Science and Technology ( dst ), Department of Scientific and Industrial Research( dsir ), Department of Bio-technology ( dbt ), Department of Atomic Energy ( dae ), Department of Electronics ( doe ) and the Department of Space . Virtually all civilian s&t activity in the country is covered by these agencies. Over and above all these, there is the Defence Research and Development Organisation ( drdo ) which caters to the defence related s&t . These agencies fund research projects in either institutes run by themselves, like the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research ( csir ) or give money to projects in other institutions (like the dst funds research projects in universities and technical institutions).

Let us look at some figures to get an idea of the levels of investments (all figures for the year 1998-99): The total expenditure of the ministries and the departments of the Government of India in the 1998-99 Budget was Rs 2,68,107.05 crore. The Gross Domestic Product ( gdp ) of the country in the same year was estimated to be Rs 16,12,911 crore. Looking at the head Science and Technology, we see that for dst, dsir , dbt and doe , the allocation was Rs 1,591.7 crore, while for atomic energy it was Rs 2,608 crore and for the space program, Rs 1,602 crore. The total allocation for s&t under these heads (including Rs 107 crore for ocean development) works out to Rs 5,910 crore or about 0.3 per cent of the gdp ( 2 per cent of the total expenditure). Compare this with a spending of 2.9 per cent of the gdp on defence. Even out of this paltry spending on s&t , the bulk (64 per cent) is taken up by atomic energy and space departments. In fact, in every year, except for 1997-98, these two departments have been taking up more than 60 per cent of the s&t funding.

It is important to have a close look at the above figures. First, it is clear that for a country of India's size, the amount of money spent on s&t is very small. We certainly need increased allocations in the s&t budget. Having recognised that, we need to ask more serious questions. What has been achieved with the money that has been spent on s&t ? Given that the government has been promoting s&t since independence, what do we have to show for ourselves in scientific or technological progress? Yes, we do have a large infrastructure in the form of scientific laboratories, research institutes and the atomic energy and space set-ups which employ hundreds of thousands of s&t workers. We also now have the bomb as well as a vehicle to launch it. But can we say that the level of scientific competence in the country is concomitant with the resources spent on it? This is not just a matter of nit-picking; a truthful answer to this question will have a profound effect on future policy and funding.

In my opinion, the huge behemoth that we have created in terms of scientific infrastructure is not worth the money spent on it. There are many reasons for this: a huge demotivated class of scientific workers, a top heavy scientific bureaucracy and so on. But there is another fundamental reason for the malaise. The s&t laboratories are completely isolated from from the other institutions of the country. In the case of the atomic energy and space establishments, this could possibly be justified. But why on earth is there such little interaction between the csir laboratories and the universities?

The state of science teaching in the universities is pathetic. Poor infrastructure, lack of motivation on the part of students and teachers are all part of the science teaching scenario in the universities. Since the universities provide the human resources for s&t institutions, it follows that the quality of science teaching in the country has a direct effect on research. An increased interaction between the csir laboratories and the universities will have a beneficial effect on both. The point being made is simple: increasing the s&t funding for the research institutions is not going to achieve the desired results if the universities are going to be starved for funding. The total budgetary allocation for education was Rs 7,046 crore. This includes primary, secondary and tertiary sectors. I do not have desegregated figures, but it is a safe bet that a large fraction of this money is spent on salaries and administration, leaving little for improvement and building of new infrastructure. Unless the government recognises the fact that a qualitative improvement in the state of teaching institutions is needed urgently, scientific research will suffer. Of course, one could argue that given the state of primary education in the country, increasing spending on the tertiary sector is criminal. This is certainly true. I think, what we need is a major shift in funding towards primary and secondary education and an increase in the university funding.

Shobit Mahajan is a professor at the department of physics and astrophysics, Delhi University

Related Content