Indian science budget fails to impress — despite funding boost

Ministers announce detailed spending plans, with focus on artificial intelligence and cyber systems.
Indian bank notes

A briefcase plastered with Indian 2,000-rupee banknotes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has delivered its annual budget.Credit: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg/Getty

India will raise its spending on science by 10% to 536.2 billion rupees (US$8.4 billion) for 2018–19, compared with the previous year, finance minister Arun Jaitley said on 1 February. The budget includes 30.7 billion rupees earmarked for a digital programme that includes artificial intelligence and cyber systems.

“Combining cyber and physical systems have great potential to transform not only innovation ecosystem but also our economies and the way we live,” Jaitley told parliament. He said India would invest in robotics, artificial intelligence, digital manufacturing, big data analysis, quantum communication and the Internet of Things. The nation would initiate a national programme for artificial intelligence, including research and development of its applications, he said, in the last budget delivered by Narendra Modi’s government before the country goes to the polls in 2019.

Despite the cash injection, India’s spending on science will remain relatively low, at around 0.8% of gross domestic product (GDP). That is well below the 3% that researchers demanded in August during ‘march for science’ events around the country. “There appears to have been only 8–10% rise in various scientific departments on average, which, factoring in inflation, is not much,” says Krishna Ganesh, founding director of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Tirupati. “Nowhere are we even near 1% of GDP.”

Soumitro Banerjee, general secretary of the advocacy group Breakthrough Science Society, says: “The scientific community of India feels let down by the budget presented today, as none of the real necessities has been addressed. There have been only marginal increases in the outlays on science, technology and education.”

Sharing the wealth

The cash injection will be shared by seven government bodies engaged in scientific research: the Ministry of Science and Technology; the Ministry of Earth Sciences; the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy; and the departments of atomic energy, space, health research, and agricultural research and education.

The Department of Space, which is gearing up for its second Moon mission in March, and is working on a project to study the Sun in 2019–20, gets a hefty hike. Its budget is to rise by 18.5% to 107.8 billion rupees.

Within the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Department of Science and Technology gets a 6.1% increase, to 51.1 billion rupees, and the Department of Biotechnology gets a raise of 8.5%, with an allocation of 24.1 billion rupees.

Science secretary Ashutosh Sharma says that he has plans for spending the increase in his ministry's budget, including the formation of a comprehensive programme covering artificial intelligence and cyber physical systems. The plan would comprise three tiers. The first would include software-driven tools of artificial intelligence systems, machine learning and big-data analytics. The second would be physical and consist of sensors, intelligent or smart machines and 3D printing. The final tier would integrate the previous two for applications in health, agriculture, manufacturing and for developing ‘smart’ cities with digital facilities.

Some 1,000 students from elite institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institute of Science Bangalore will be given fellowships to stay on in doctoral programmes, Jaitley announced. Sharma says that the aim is to “strengthen the supply of top-quality students to pursue PhD programmes and remain in academia”.

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Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 02 February 2018: An earlier version of this story miscalculated the budget allocations for departments in the Ministry of Science and Technology. It also implied that the space department received the biggest boost and overstated the allocations for artificial intelligence and cyber systems.