India's Budget Plan Disappoints Scientists, Despite New Mission to Mars

Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India

Eric Miller/World Economic Forum

NEW DELHI—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.

The new budget, however, suggests that, in the short term, government spending will help make only modest progress toward reaching that goal. India's $1.4 billion budget for the Ministry of Science Technology would get a 5% increase, with $100 million earmarked for a new National Science and Engineering Research Board that would award competitive grants in a process modeled on that used by the U.S. National Science Foundation.

The budget of the Ministry of Earth Sciences, currently $305 million, would also get a 5% increase. Spending on weather forecasting and monsoon monitoring would double to $100 million.

The budget's biggest surprise is a $41 million plan to launch a satellite in November 2013 that would orbit Mars. ScienceInsider has learned that the satellite is expected to weigh less than 500 kilograms and carry a 25-kilogram scientific payload. It will aim for a highly elliptical orbit around Mars and collect data on the red planet's atmosphere, climate, geology, and suitability for life. Overall, however, the Department of Space would see a 1% cut from its current budget of about $1.4 billion.

Future budgets might look brighter for science, analysts say. "This is a resource limited situation, but things may look up in the coming years," says space scientist Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan, a member of a government planning commission that is preparing a 5-year science spending plan for the government. But he warns that "some serious prioritization needs to be undertaken by the scientific departments."

The budget plan now goes to Parliament, which could approve it within weeks. India's 2012-13 budget year begins on 1 April.