Donors of the Bagchi-Parthasarathy Hospital signing a memorandum of understanding with the Indian Institute of Science. Credit: IISc

The Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru recently received a donation of 4.25 billion rupees ($US56.3 million) for a medical school and hospital to be built on its vast campus. The funds were jointly donated by philanthropists, Susmita and Subroto Bagchi, and Radha and N.S. Parthasarathy.

The IISc, a premier institute of scientific research, was established as an act of philanthropy by the industrialist Jamsetji N Tata, who recognised the value of higher education, science and technology as early as 1892. His ideas and endowment led to the founding of IISc in 1909, five years after his death.

After an initial burst of donations from India’s industrialists, there was a hiatus, said Govindan Rangarajan, the IISc director. In recent years, there has been resurgence in philanthropic contributions, he said. “We hope that this trend strengthens.”

With a dual degree MD-PhD programme, IISc aims to train a new cadre of physician-scientists that India currently lacks, Rangarajan told Nature India. “MD-PhD students will be simultaneously trained in basic research, innovation and clinical methods,” he said. “They will approach clinical problems with a fresh and holistic perspective that can lead to unanticipated breakthroughs.”

The EdelGive Hurun Philanthropists of the Century report published in 2021 called Jamsetji N Tata ‘the world’s biggest philanthropist of the last century’ for his donations amounting to $102.4 billion, in today’s money, towards a range of scientific and social causes.

Tata’s philanthropic legacy has lived on in the form of several research and medical institutes, and trusts that fund scientific research and education in India and support Indian students abroad.

According to the EdelGive Hurun India Philanthropy List, which accounted for donations of more than 50 million rupees in 2020-21, Indian philanthropists’ most favoured causes were education, disaster relief and healthcare.

With total donations of 392.5 million rupees, research and development (R&D) in science and technology didn’t feature in the top 10 primary causes. R&D is one of the least prioritised areas, said a source at Hurun India.

The share of philanthropic donations allocated to R&D in 2020-21 was about 0.26% of total contributions. All R&D donations (and 80% overall) were by individuals, the source said, from their personal wealth. The report didn’t account for donations under 50 million rupees, a gap in the data.

“Individual giving is the biggest missing piece in the philanthropic puzzle,” acknowledged a report published by Ashoka University’s Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy in 2019. Donations are often undisclosed. The report found that the total philanthropic capital in India — including corporate, foreign, government and individual philanthropy — is just 0.002% of the GDP (as of the financial year 2016-17). While philanthropic flow has grown recently, the report concluded that “the overall size of the Indian philanthropic sector is still relatively small.”

Philanthropic giving is also more prevalent in southern states, while northern and north-eastern states lag behind.

“Social contribution to scientific research is welcome,” said N Raghuram of Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University. Historically, that is how countries have achieved scientific growth, he said. “Scientific research is increasingly expensive and is also increasingly institutionalised. So, resources are required.”

Much of the private money comes with strings attached and is meant for research into particular kinds of cancer or rare genetic diseases, Raghuram said.