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Budget: Big Bang Deals for S&T but Scientists Still Worried About Older Problems

Budget: Big Bang Deals for S&T but Scientists Still Worried About Older Problems

Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman holds up a folder with the Government of India logo, ahead of presenting the budget in parliament, February 1, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis.

New Delhi: India’s 2021-2022 Union budget pledged funds to boost the country’s research and development ecosystem, and improve the country’s capacity to study viruses. However, these announcements evoked a mixed response from the country’s scientists.

Specifically, they largely seemed to welcome the initiatives but expressed lingering concerns that they could end up being old wine in a new bottle if they don’t address persistent problems, especially inordinate funding delays and poor management.

The budget offers Rs 50,000 crore over the next five years for the National Research Foundation (NRF), Rs 4,000 crore for a national deep ocean mission to study ocean biodiversity, and a national hydrogen mission to generate hydrogen from green power sources.

On the health research front, there are to be four new regional National Institutes of Virology, to add to the one in Pune; a Regional Research Platform for WHO’s southeast Asia region; and nine Biosafety Level III laboratories (required when working with microbes that can can cause deadly diseases if inhaled). The budget documents also indicate that there will be nine city research clusters – “formal umbrella structures” that help “research institutions … have better synergy while retaining their internal autonomy”.

Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman didn’t specify the precise amount of money for each of these initiatives. Overall, the Department of Health Research got an overall hike of 26%, which is Rs 563 crore more than last year to Rs 2,663 crore. But in absolute terms, these funds amount to a tiny slice of the allocation for research-related ministries and departments — of Rs 75,374 crore.

This big number includes Rs 27,795 crore for the Department of Atomic Energy (4.1% hike); Rs 13,949 crore for the Department of Space (3.4%); Rs 14,798 crore for the Ministry of Science and Technology (2.1%); Rs 1,901 crore for the Ministry of Earth Sciences (–8.3%); and Rs 5,753 crore for the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (no change).

The NRF is expected to offer extramural funding in an attempt to boost university research – which various governments have neglected in favour of the bigger national institutes – as well as social science research. According to Department of Science and Technology (DST) secretary Ashutosh Sharma, these funds would add to the current corpus of extramural funds from the DST and the Department of Biotechnology both.

The government is yet to decide if the National Research Foundation will be attached to the science ministry or if it will be a standalone entity.

C.P. Rajendran, a senior associate at the geodynamics unit of the Jawaharlal Nehru for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), Bengaluru, welcomed the idea of a less bureaucratic, autonomous body “unlike the current science donors, in principle.” He said funding moves slowly at the moment, as funders and institutes follow “some obsolete rules and regulations.”

Rajendran pointed to a better example in the US National Science Foundation, which releases funds for academic activities for the entire stretch of a project tenure – most often for three years – in one go. “Would the new mechanism of NRF in India dare release the complete cost of a three-year project to the host institutes rather than the current practice of” sending “yearly instalments?”

And instead of having a technical committee evaluate the project’s progress every year and then release funds, the host institute could receive all the money, assess the project and release funds accordingly, he added.

A second issue “is how this autonomous funding body could be kept free from being politicised,” according to Rajendran.

The NRF’s success is expected to be in the form of facilitating research at currently disadvantaged universities and other academic centres – and will depend on professionalising its management. Otherwise, Rajendran cautioned, it could become just another component in India’s bloated science administration machine.

As Subhash Lakhotia, a professor at Banaras Hindu University’s zoology department, said, “Creating a new body by itself does not improve funding and quality of research.” Instead, these outcomes will depend on the quantum of funds and the body’s management policies.

“The advantage of decentralised funding is that each entity has different priorities, and a researcher stands a chance of finding support in one of them,” Soumitro Banerjee, a physics professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Kolkata, said. This is especially important if a scientist is pursuing some curiosity-driven research that doesn’t fall within the scope of the thrust areas of a central funding agency.

Minister Sitharaman also announced four new regional National Institutes of Virology, a regional research platform for WHO southeast Asia and nine Biosafety Level III labs.

In principle, the four new virology institutes are a step in the right direction. As was evident last year, the first people with COVID-19 had to wait for increasingly longer durations to receive their test results from the one NIV in Pune, and the government also incurred transportation costs.

So the four new institutes could help speed up testing and diagnoses as well as simplify the logistics, Anant Bhan, an adjunct professor at the centre for ethics at Yenepoya University, Mangalore, said.

“Together, these initiatives seek to strengthen the public health infrastructure at multiple levels to be able to identify and track outbreaks in real time,” Shahid Jameel, a virologist and director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences, Ashoka University, said.

However, he cautioned that India may not have a sufficient number of skilled people to populate these institutes. That is, the new NIVs may not amount to much sans active recruitment and training. In the same vein, Jameel also asked that the Integrated Disease Programme (IDSP), set up in 2004, be rid of its chronic shortage of trained persons and poor focus.

“In the end, funds, people and training are important – the government has shown the eagerness and urgency to support that,” he said. “Equally important would be the culture that the new institutions set for themselves. Otherwise, good money will lead to substandard outcomes.”

He also commended the plan to set up a national centre for ‘One Health’. One Health, according to Meghna Krishnadas, a project scientist at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, “is a framework recognising that human health links to the health of animals, environment and ecosystems. It … uses data and science to understand some human diseases as aberrations in a larger system of connections.”

About half of all disease outbreaks have viral origins and three-fourths of viruses that have emerged in such outbreaks in the past 50 years have been zoonotic. So, Jameel said, integrating human and animal health is critical. And since climate change and deforestation both drive disease, bringing the environment into this equation is equally important.

But Jameel also said the centre’s “effectiveness would depend on how well human, animal and environmental health are integrated” – since “each of these come under different ministries.”

Similarly, the decision to set up more high-containment laboratories is a good step – but “these should be linked to research and teaching institutions instead of being standalone”.

T.V. Padma is a freelance science journalist.

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