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Some fear that science in Indian higher education institutions, such as this virology research at Manipal University, could stagnate under the proposed 2016–17 budget.

Some fear that science in Indian higher education institutions, such as this virology research at Manipal University, could stagnate under the proposed 2016–17 budget.

R Stone/Science

Indian scientists decry spending plan

Science spending in India is slated to rise 11% in the 2016–17 fiscal year to $1.19 billion, according to the budget proposal presented yesterday by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But many observers point out that inflation—projected to run at least 5% in the coming year—will consume much of the increase and that far greater investments are needed to revamp crumbling infrastructure.

“We have very few laboratories and institutions comparable to the best in the world. We need to provide much more support for improving this state,” says C.N.R. Rao, a chemist and science adviser to the previous prime minister, Manmohan Singh, in Bengaluru. Others say the spending increase is better than expected. “We are more than happy,” says Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan, secretary of India's Department of Biotechnology in New Delhi, which got a 10% hike. “We can tap funds from various other programs, which will take care of new initiatives.”

The big winners are agricultural research, slated to rise 19% and earth sciences and renewable energy, each set to increase 16%.

Others programs will at best tread water. The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, which runs a network of 38 national labs, will get a 4.6% increase, in line with orders it received last year to self-finance half its budget within the next 2 to 3 years. And two areas accustomed to lavish government spending—space research and atomic energy—will barely best inflation with increases of 6.6% and 5.09%, respectively. That rise “would mean no new programs can be initiated,” says Anil Kakodkar, former chair of the Atomic Energy Commission in Mumbai. Last year, he quit the governing board of the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, over allegations of political interference in the selection process of directors. 

A budgetary pall hangs over academia as well. Although the higher education sector overall is set to receive a 12% increase to $ 2.24 billion, most of that rise will go to increasing teaching capacity to cope with India’s burgeoning population. “University research will face serious challenges,” predicts Amitabha Mukherjee, head of the department of physics and astrophysics at the University of Delhi. “We do not buy new equipment, cannot maintain existing ones well, do not upgrade laboratories, and cannot even get good external speakers unless they are visiting Delhi since we cannot afford to pay even for their inland air travel.”

India’s parliament will review the budget proposal this month and is expected to pass a 2016–17 budget in time for the start of the fiscal year on 1 April. Hearings could be contentious, as the budget documents presented yesterday are “somewhat opaque”: lacking details on expenditures that budget documents in previous years normally contained, says Dinesh Abrol, coordinator of the Sustainability Program at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “In the absence of details, I wonder how the parliament will be able to discuss the science budget and articulate national science priorities,” he says.