Karela Fry

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Did I really say that?

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In January Mr. Manmohan Singh made a statement that seemed to indicate that a sea-change had occurred in India’s attitude towards science: a recognition that top class science requires a matching budget. In finance, money goes to higher salaries for management. In science, on the other hand, the money goes into building facilities and equipment. At that time Science magazine reported:

India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has vowed to more than double his nation’s spending on R&D over the next 5 years and build two major research facilities. The ambitious pledge, made here yesterday at the annual Indian Science Congress, is expected to be a highlight of the government’s new 5-year plan now being finalized before its submission to parliament in March or April.

Singh said he will seek to boost the country’s R&D expenditures to at least 2% of gross domestic product by 2017, up from the current 0.9%. According to his target for the central government, over the next 5 years public R&D spending would rise to about $8 billion per year, up from $3 billion spent in 2011. He also unveiled plans for a $1 billion supercomputing center at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and a $270 million underground Indian Neutrino Observatory in Theni.

Top scientists welcomed the news. “It is a step in the right direction,” says physicist Krishan Lal, president of the Indian National Science Academy in New Delhi.

The prime minister praised India’s scientific community for its publishing prowess, noting that in the past few years the number of scientific publications from India has risen by more than 12% per year, three times the global average. But the R&D windfall, if parliament approves it, is more incentive than reward: It stems in part from Singh’s belief that Indian scientists are not keeping pace with peers in China and elsewhere. “Over the past few decades, India’s position in the world of science has been declining and we have been overtaken by countries like China. Things are changing but we cannot be satisfied with what has been achieved,” Singh said. “We need to do much more to change the fate of Indian science.”

The fine print actually warned that all these grandiose statements were not going to yield more money on the ground. The prime minister’s promise was a little hollow: he wanted the doubling of the research budget to be funded by a notoriously reluctant industry. The rest of the increase was supposed to be in the XII plan, and this government might not even be stewarding that plan through till its end. In the beginning of March there was a re-iteration of this hollow committment. DNA reported:

“The prime minister has approved a vastly enhanced capital outlay for research in science and technology. The expenditure in the sector will be almost tripled from Rs 33,000 crore in the 11th Five Year Plan at present to around Rs 90,000 crore in the 12th Five Year Plan (starting this year),” minister of state for science and technology Ashwani Kumar told DNA.

The minister said the government would also be allocating two percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) for research in S&T field against the current spending of 0.98 percent of GDP.

Kumar said they are also taking steps to ensure an increased investment by private sector in R&D work in the field. “At present, government’s spending of the R&D expenditure is around 2/3rd against 1/3rd by private sector. But it should be the other way around. We are meeting top industry representatives to encourage them to take this up,” Kumar added.

The final budget exposed the government’s lack of committment. Spending on science remained static. Science magazine reports:

The announcement of India’s maiden mission to Mars is doing little to cheer Indian scientists disappointed with proposed spending increases for research in a new government budget plan. The annual budget proposal presented to India’s parliament on 16 March by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee calls for the operating budgets for science to rise, on average, by about 5% in 2012-2013—less than what many scientists had expected.

“This is not good news” because the increases don’t keep pace with inflation, which has been running at about 10%, says physicist Ajay K. Sood, president of the Indian Academy of Sciences in Bangalore.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had raised expectations in parts of India’s scientific community when he said earlier this year that India needed to double the share of its gross domestic product spent on research to 2% over the next 5 years.

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

March 20, 2012 at 2:31 pm

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