Researchers complain of inordinate delays in receiving public grants. Credit: S. Priyadarshini

An editorial in a journal published by the apex peer body of Indian scientists has raised an alarm over funds crunch “hitting the Indian academia hard”. The lament has been dismissed as a 'wrong perception among a section of scientists' by the country's leading science funding agency, which claims that research allocation has actually doubled in the last four years.

The editorial in the latest issue of Proceedings of the Indian National Science Academy1 rued that an increasing number of research proposals are being turned down by India’s science funding agencies, and money is not being released in time for current projects. Subash Lakhotia, a professor of zoology at the Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi and editorial head of the journal says "the current situation is greatly alarming since it is slowing down the momentum of resurgence in research output from various academic institutions."

Government R&D funding in India has remained static at about 0.7% of the GDP for the last several years, and that’s the primary reason for the ‘depressing scenario’, he feels.

In February this year, India announced a 10% raise in its science spending to 536.2 billion rupees (US$8.4 billion) for 2018–19 over the previous year, which experts said wasn't much factoring in inflation.

Ashutosh Sharma, who heads the government’s key funding body Department of Science and Technology (DST), however, says funds for research had almost doubled in 2017-2018 from what they were in 2014-2015. “This is unprecedented,” he told Nature India .

The absolute number of grants given out in this period had also gone up, Sharma said. Quoting figures maintained by DST's basic science funding body Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB), he said about 4800 projects received competitive grants in 2017-18 against 3400 in 2014-2015. "This is a healthy increase," Sharma said . About a quarter of all applications have been granted over the last two years, he said, pointing out that the rate of success was comparable to global funding bodies such as the US National Science Foundation, which received far more competitive applications.

Lakhotia disagrees saying the research allocation, if doubled, does not reflect on actual disbursements on the ground. “What isn’t being spelt out here is that budget allocation for science has grown by default as a percentage of the GDP, which itself has grown.” Salaries of scientists have gone up substantially and so have the fellowship amounts for PhDs and post-doctoral scientists. “Competitive research grants have dried up,” he argues.

"Young researchers who started their academic careers with great optimism, now feel disillusioned and are worried if support, even at the minimal threshold level required to sustain the momentum, would continue”, he says.

While Lakhotia points to "organizational bottlenecks and an unhealthy ecosystem” in his editorial, Sharma says some delays in disbursing funds happen due to incomplete or faulty paperwork by researchers. The application process for grants has been streamlined in recent times, he says, making for far more number of applications. “Four years ago, you had to submit about 20-50 hard copies of documents for an application. The process is all online now and so we get a larger number of grant applications.” Sharma agrees that there’s need to upgrade the system further since “we live in times of e-mail where the expectations of speed have gone up.”

He says the country's scientific community needs to participate more efficiently in the review process for grant applications. “We send out proposals for scientific review, that’s where a lot of delay happens. Grants are largely based on robust reviews by our scientific community – this process is not driven by the government. If we don’t get quality reviews, and on time, despite reminders, it’s a weakness in the system,” he says.

Sharma says scientific approval of a proposal is followed by a financial review, which also takes time. Lakhotia calls it a 'teething problem' that can be ironed out “but financial review shouldn’t take more than a year after a project has been scientifically approved, as is the case with many projects.”

Structural biologist Mamannamana Vijayan, a former INSA president and now a professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru agrees with Lakhotia’s criticism. “The present crisis in the system for support of competitive grants bodes ill for Indian science," he told Nature India . "It needs to be seriously addressed and overcome".

The funds crunch problem is real, says Geneticist Lingadahalli Subrahmanya Shashidhara, INSA Fellow and chair of Biology at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune. "Irrespective of how much funds are provisioned in the budget, somewhere in the pipeline, there are blockages,” he told Nature India . Even a year after grants are approved, scientists don't receive the money, which affects not only the progress of research but also the long term career prospects of their students, he says.

Shashidhara advises young researchers to look beyond government funds. "Most countries and international funding agencies place emphasis on large multi-group, multi-institutional or multi-disciplinary research projects," he says. "Indian scientists, particularly those starting their career, need to reorient themselves and look out for large collaborative networks."

Sharma says a number of fellowships and early career schemes have recently been launched by his department to support young scientists. “For the young in India, there has never been a better time,” he contends.