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Research Funding

India prioritizes new research foundation, biotech, and health in new budget

Other science agencies are slated for cuts

by K. V. Venkatasubramanian, special to C&EN
March 29, 2021

India’s government released its 2021–22 budget proposal on Feb. 1, claiming a massive increase in health-care spending and prioritizing biotechnology and health research while cutting funds for other science research programs. It also allocates the first funding for the country’s National Research Foundation (NRF).

India's science spending
COVID-19 drastically changed how much India's science agencies spent in fiscal year 2020–21, with the Department of Health Research spending nearly twice as much as budgeted and other agencies spending less. The big winners for 2021–22 are set to be the Departments of Biotechnology and Health Research, which are each slated for roughly 25% increases over the previous year's proposed budgets.
Bar chart showing proposed and actual spending by India’s scientific research departments for the 2019–20, 2020–21, and 2021–22 budget years.
Source: India Ministry of Finance. Note India's fiscal year starts April 1. a Figures were converted from Indian rupees to US dollars at the March 21, 2021, exchange rate of $1.00 = ₹72.44.

The NRF was first proposed in 2019 specifically to provide research funding to academic researchers. Historically, most R&D in India was done at its national labs, institutes of science and technology, and its central university system. But more than 95% of students attend state or other universities and colleges, where research is limited. The government intends to use the NRF to seed and grow research at such institutions, as well as “large projects and missions including international mega projects,” says Ashutosh Sharma, secretary of India’s Department of Science and Technology.

According to the proposed budget, the NRF will receive ₹100 billion ($1.4 billion) annually for 5 years to fund interdisciplinary research in science and technology, social sciences, and arts and humanities at colleges and universities. Whether the NRF will report to a ministry or parliament remains unclear.

Because of lab closures and other efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19, most scientific agencies did not spend money originally budgeted for 2020–21. For example, the Department of Biotechnology was budgeted for ₹27.9 billion in 2020–21 and spent only ₹23 billion; in such situations, agencies do not retain their claim to the funds and must start fresh with the following year’s budget. The proposed budget for the Department of Biotechnology in 2021–22 is ₹35 billion—a 25% hike from the 2020–21 budget and a 52% increase over what the department actually spent in the last year.

The Department of Science and Technology likewise spent less in the last year than budgeted—merely ₹50.0 billion out of ₹63.0 billion. The 2021–22 proposal, however, allocates only ₹60.7 billion for the department—a 3.8% decrease from the previous budget.

Similarly, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research is slated for a 3% decrease and the Ministry of Earth Sciences for an 8% decrease from their 2020–21 budgets. The Ministry of Renewable Energy’s proposed 2021–22 budget is flat compared to its budget for 2020–21.

In announcing the budget, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman heralded what she called a 137% hike in health-care spending, from ₹944.5 billion spent 2020–21 to ₹2.24 trillion proposed for 2021–22. The additional funds are directed to programs such as COVID-19 vaccination as well as drinking water, sanitation, and nutrition. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, however, is slated for an 11% decrease from its 2020–21 spending. The proposed budget for the Department of Health Research would also reflect a drop from its 2020–21 spending, although the 2021–22 allocation would still be a striking 27% more than its 2020–21 budget.

India spent about 0.7% of its GDP on federal research and development compared to a global average of 2.3% in 2018, the most recent year for which data are available from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.



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