NEW DELHI—For scientists in India, 2017 is becoming a year of feast or famine. India's annual budget, unveiled this week, doles out lavish increases for space, biotechnology, and renewable energy. Programs vying for scraps, on the other hand, include nuclear research, spending on which won’t keep pace with inflation.
The budget rollout comes on the heels of an economic crisis sparked last November, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government took higher denomination rupee banknotes out of circulation. The surprise move triggered massive queues at banks as people struggled to deposit old notes and withdraw scarce new ones. Independent estimates peg that the crisis eroded gross domestic product growth by as much as 2%. (GDP growth in 2016 was 7.6%.)
The Indian government hopes the new budget will help get the economy back on track. Most boats will rise in science and technology, slated for $8.05 billion in the budget year that starts on 1 April. That’s an 11.5% increase over last year, a robust growth in spending even after accounting for India’s projected inflation rate of 5.16% in 2017.
“We have a great opportunity to embark on many initiatives,” says Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan, secretary of the Department of Biotechnology here, which is getting a 16% boost. Meanwhile, a 23.5% jump in health spending includes an 11.54% rise for research that will help ambitious plans to eradicate four diseases from India: kala azar, a fatal form of leishmaniasis, slated for elimination by the end of this year; leprosy in 2018; measles in 2020; and tuberculosis in 2025.
India’s nuclear program didn’t get the raise it was hoping for. Its 5.51% increase “is small and inadequate,” says Anil Kakodkar, a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, headquartered in Mumbai, India. He expects that nuclear power expansion plans will stay intact, but that nuclear research “may get a hit.”
At the annual Science Congress last month, Modi exhorted Indian scientists to help the nation become one of the world’s top three science powers by 2030. The “lackluster” 2017 science budget won’t propel India far along that road, says Dinesh Abrol, a science policy expert at Jawaharlal Nehru University here. “India is nowhere close to China in terms of investment, capacity, or achievements.” Whereas China is rapidly gaining on the United States, he says, India has been “stuck for years with 0.9% of GDP spending on S&T, which is far less than 2% spent by China.”
VijayRaghavan is more bullish on India’s prospects. “Our approach is to get more for less and be more creative,” he says. “We will work to collaborate nationally and globally, and get more bang for the buck.”