For Science, Centre Puts Its Money Where Its Mouth is – But Not Much Elsewhere

An unexpected – and not wholly unwelcome – surprise this year were the relatively bigger hikes for social-sector-related research.

As part of the 2016 Union Budget, India’s finance minister Arun Jaitley doled out a mixed bag of goodies for the country’s science-related departments. While those of Science and Technology (DST) and Biotechnology (DBT) received modest increases (of 17% and 12%, respectively), allocations for many of the others weren’t enough to even tide over the annual inflation rate of 5%. Among them were the the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES – 3.27%), Department of Space (1.6%) and Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR – 0.76%), leaving them with little scope to undertake new programmes. The Department of Atomic Energy got a 7% hike.

An unexpected – and not wholly unwelcome – surprise this year though were the relatively bigger hikes for social-sector-related research: the Department of Agricultural Research and Extension (DARE) received a 11% hike in keeping with the budget’s focus on farming and rural development; the Department of Health Research received a 12.4% hike.

Some of this see-saw approach is best reflected in the allocation for the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE). Solar energy bagged the lion’s share in keeping with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s high-profile and highly-publicised announcements for the sector, including a target production of 100 gigawatt by 2022 and India joining the International Solar Alliance in December 2015. However, all other renewable energy sectors such as wind, small hydro-power and bioenergy got the short shrift.

Following Jaitley’s presentation on February 29, the budget drew mixed reactions from scientists. DST secretary Ashutosh Sharma and DBT secretary Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan expressed satisfaction over their departments’ allocations. Part of their cheer is based on the fact that, for the first time in eight years, the DST and the DBT didn’t suffer mid-term cuts in September 2015. And they believe the hikes take the development further with the departments now being able to go on with existing programmes as well as initiate new ones.

The DBT has high hopes for its ambitious National Biotechnology Development Strategy, unveiled in December 2015, which aims to turn India into a hub for genomic data analysis and rake in revenues to the tune of $100 billion by 2025. The strategy envisages five new research centres, 150 technology transfer centres, 40 technology business incubators, and 50 technology development and translation centres for research-intensive investments, as well as technology repositories for indigenous technologies and global acquisition.

Then again, the 12% hike for DBT falls far short of the kind of annual hikes it needs to implement any strategy at such a scale. VijayRaghavan’s own estimates put the annual hike at 25-30%, to both spur new research and expand biotech businesses to encompass genomics data analysis. So while the government funds can help DBT set up five new centres including for genomics, infectious diseases and marine biology, VijayRaghavan hopes to recover much of the rest from the Atal Innovation Scheme launched in January, in which biotechnology plays a key role. “The DBT is in the mission’s directorate and so we are confident that biotechnology start-ups and entrepreneurs can benefit from it,” he says.

DST’s Sharma, meanwhile, says he is looking toward using the 17% hike in funds for his department to undertake programmes on “high-risk” research on “big ideas and big problems”. However, he didn’t spell out any more details: “We have received some proposals and are reviewing them. We also want to encourage industry-relevant research in our academic institutions.”

Sharma is clearer on the newer programmes the DST will undertake. These include advanced manufacturing technologies; new programmes in waste management, especially electronic, plastics and biomedical wastes; clean coal technologies; electric mobility – and the science and technology of yoga and meditation. The DST also plans to set up five new technology research centres for translational research in biomedical devices, nanotechnology, energy, water and waste processing.

If the MNRE’s budget looks a big leap – from an estimate of Rs.303 crore last year to Rs.5,000 crore this year – it’s also a bit of a mirage. Former MNRE secretary Satish Agnihotri explained that in 2015, the ministry’s budget only indicated direct government funds and didn’t include funds from the coal cess, which went into a clean energy cess meant to fund renewable energy. After adding the coal cess, the MNRE’s budget estimates would have stood at Rs.2,600 crore and revised estimates at Rs.4,000 crore. (This year’s budget estimates include the coal cess, now renamed the clean environment cess, to stand at Rs.5,000 crore.)

Agnihotri thinks this is “a decent hike” – but it’s still half of MNRE’s own internal estimate, which pegs their requirement at Rs.9,000 crore. “If it performs well, then there is scope for [a] funds hike in the mid-term review, plus more funds coming in by way of doubling of the coal cess announced by Jaitley,” he said. “But again, the caveat is that renaming the clean energy fund as clean environment fund means the money could go into other programmes as well, such as cleaning the Ganga.”

Also, much of the renewable energy focus appears to be on solar with the other renewable sources sidelined. Now, according to Agnihotri, “The challenge to the other sectors is to create as much hype as solar to attract funds.” Additionally, indigenous research on renewables is unlikely to score in a major way. Funds for research development and international cooperation form almost a little under a tenth of MNRE funds – Agnihotri says R&D always received a small amount in MNRE budgets – but most of this is earmarked to foreign collaborations.

Another cause for concern is the paltry 0.76% hike in DSIR funds, most of which will go to the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). And it doesn’t augur well for CSIR, whose funding situation has elicited concern in recent times. At a meeting held in Dehradun in October 2015, when the then-director Madhukar Garg was set to retire, the CSIR was asked by the centre to raise most of the funds it needed to pay itself. Subsequently, there were reports of a funds crunch earlier this year adversely impacting CSIR’s development of a tuberculosis drug.

A senior official said on the condition of anonymity that the meagre hike is worrying. “Given the inflation rate, we will be stuck for cash.”