Scientific research in India is hampered by a growing inability to spend budgetary allocations fully.
INAUGURATING the 94th Indian Science Congress on January 3, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated that the government was committed to increasing the annual expenditure on science and technology (S&T) from the present less than 1 per cent of the gross domestic product/gross national product (GDP/GNP) - the current fraction is actually only about 0.78 per cent - to 2 per cent over the next five years. The statement itself is hardly new. A similar statement was made in 2001 by the then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The statement also formed part of the Draft S&T Policy of 2001 as well as the accompanying Draft Action Plan formulated by the Science Advisory Committee to the Cabinet (SAC-C). This was reiterated in the final S&T policy document released by Vajpayee two years later at the 90th Science Congress in Bangalore in January 2003, and the target was set to be achieved by 2007.
But as the graph shows, the rising trend in research and development (R&D) investment evident until 2001 actually reversed and has continued to decline since then, notwithstanding the enunciated policy of 2003 and the new government with Manmohan Singh at the helm, which came to power in mid-2004. We are in 2007, the year when, according to the previous regime, the target was to have been achieved, and the apparent political commitment is now being aired for the first time in 30 months by the present government.
But President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, speaking from the same podium two days later, made an interesting remark: "This commitment from the Prime Minister is very good news for [the] scientific community. But when I studied the utilisation profile of budget allotments for the scientific Ministries yesterday night, [I noticed] there has been approximately more than 20 per cent of the funds [that] has remained unutilised during 2005-2006." Putting the statements of the two leaders together - which was how the media had reported them - would lead one to conclude that the increase in S&T allocation promised by the Prime Minister is uncalled for because the community does not have the capacity to absorb even the current level of investment.
The capacity to absorb investment is not a stand-alone intrinsic factor of the scientific community; it is actually a function of several factors that depend on the systems and mechanisms that are in (or not in) place for the administration of S&T in the country. This was, in fact, the point that the President was making. Investing 2 per cent of the GDP in S&T is indeed a desirable objective if we wish to become a developed nation. The President, too, was not opposed to increasing the investment per se. He only urged that there be a focussed action plan to realise this progressively and suggested the constitution of a joint team comprising members from all the scientific departments of the government and other agencies and departments concerned to work out the growth plan in an integrated way for the five-year period, keeping a 20-year perspective. Significantly, he recommended allocating 0.5 per cent of the GDP for basic research as against the present level of around 0.2 per cent.
But there are caveats that need to be addressed before any higher investment is envisaged, and this was perhaps what the President tried to emphasise in his address. "Keeping that vision in mind," the President said, "we have to build adequate capacity in the system in terms of mission-mode projects in basic research and applied research, development of high-quality scientific manpower, creation of state-of-the-art infrastructure, planning collaborative ventures with friendly countries, and, above all, evolving a robust policy and management system" (emphasis added).
If one analyses the reasons for budgetary allocations not being fully spent, the nature of these caveats - and their seriousness - becomes clear. The unspent fraction has shown an increasing trend in the last couple of years (see table): unspent fractions greater than 10 per cent have been highlighted in the table. Data over the last 10 years suggest that an overall unspent fraction by the science Ministries/departments of 5-8 per cent is normal and arises mainly because of slow progress and genuine delays in implementation or procurement or construction of facilities. This level of underspending is perhaps even acceptable. There are, however, Ministries/departments such as the Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources (MNES), now called the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, and the Department of Ocean Development, which have consistently not been spending large amounts. The former, in fact, has not spent as much as 50-60 per cent of the allocation in the last two years.
It is important to remember that the unspent fraction is with reference to budget allocations and not the revised estimates that are made in October-November. Cuts, rather than hikes, are the norm at the time of revision and are ostensibly made on the basis of the progress made in the previous six months in the various budgeted programmes. Even though the across-the-board mandatory economy cut of 10 per cent, which used to be imposed before 2001, is no longer made, the revised estimates are usually about 5-8 per cent lower than the budget estimates unless there are supplementary post-budget allocations for some specific new programmes. According to V.S. Ramamurthy, former Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology (DST), the cuts during revision are plainly arbitrary and bureaucratic, and the Secretary is never consulted when they are imposed.
One may be tempted to ask what prompted the President to make such a remark now. It is quite likely that, having looked at the 2005-06 expenditure figures, he must have discovered, to his utter despair, that the Rs.200 crores allocated for the national Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Mission (Nano Mission), of which he was the prime moving force, had to be surrendered entirely unspent. The total amount unspent by the DST is 14.68 per cent of the total allocation in the 2005-06 budget, and the Nano Mission alone accounts for 12 per cent.
Almost three years after the high-powered meeting at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on April 29, 2004, that had recommended a five-year Nano Mission with a total investment of Rs.1,000 crores (see Frontline, July 14, 2006), the requisite Cabinet approval for the Mission is yet to be given. It transpires that although the Expenditure Finance Committee (EFC) of the Finance Ministry had already in principle agreed to the setting up of the Mission, which is why the budgetary allocation could be made, the Plan Finance Committee (an entirely non-technical body) rejected the Mission proposal with a two-line remark stating that the Mission did not seem essential. The whole bureaucratic process of renegotiating and convincing the Committee had to be gone through again, and the DST feels that the Mission should now get Cabinet clearance. But, as a result, the Rs.180 crores allocated for the Mission in the 2006-07 budget also had to be surrendered. There seems to be a further hitch even if the Cabinet does eventually clear the Mission. Apparently, the Department of Personnel has refused to allow the creation of additional posts to manage the Mission. So, even if the money were there to be utilised for the Nano Mission, it is likely to be inefficiently implemented in the absence of adequate staff support.
The case of the proposal to set up a corpus fund of Rs.150 crores as the Pharmaceutical Research and Development Fund to be operated by the DST is similar. Even though the proposal was mooted in 2001, the sanction only came in mid-2004. As a result the money allocated in the 2003-04 budget remained unutilised. This alone accounted for 10.5 per cent of the total unspent fraction of 17.17 per cent. This money was reallocated in the 2004-05 budget, but within a year the government decided to abandon the corpus altogether and replace it with an annual grant for pharmaceutical research. This meant that the grant allocation made in 2005-06 could not be utilised fully because new mechanisms for the new dispensation had to be created.
The following illustrates how the bureaucracy in the Finance Ministry functions. In 2004, the Finance Minister stated in his budget speech that a grant of Rs.20 crores was being made to the National Innovation Foundation, which would be administered by the DST. But when the department found that actual budgetary allocation had not provided for the grant and raised the issue with the bureaucracy, it was curtly told that there was no Cabinet approval for the grant. When it was pointed out that the Minister had announced it in his speech, the amount was promptly restored in the revised estimates of October 2004. Similar is the story of how the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) had to move the highest powers to get the Rs.100 crores announced by the Finance Minister (to make it Harvard-like) in his 2005 budget speech finally sanctioned. It is interesting that, well after having made the announcement in style, the Minister visited the IISc recently to convince himself that the IISc would be able to spend it.
It is instructive to look at the details of the entries in the table with large unspent fractions from the annual Appropriation Accounts of the government. The volume for 2005-06 is yet to be published. But details of the previous years do give an idea of the common reasons for the inability of Ministries/departments to spend as budgeted under major expenditure heads. Very often the budgeted amount is not fully utilised because of cuts imposed in the Plan outlay by the Finance Ministry or delays in approval by the EFC of the Ministry.
There was an unspent fraction of over 60 per cent by the MNES in 2004-05. The Ministry could not spend as much as nearly Rs.140 crores earmarked for village electrification programmes because of non-approval of the Rural Electrification Project by the Cabinet. The unspent amount also includes nearly Rs.70 crores "re-appropriated for utilisation on projects/schemes for the benefit of the northeastern region and Sikkim". This is a reason that makes a frequent appearance under various heads in the Appropriation Accounts. Apparently, some seven or eight years ago a general directive was issued by the government to earmark a certain significant amount for projects in the northeastern region. However, because of a lack of project proposals in the area of S&T from the northeastern region or because of a lack of appropriate infrastructure or laboratories there to initiate suitable projects, these appropriations do not get utilised.
This seems to be particularly true of the appropriations of the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the MNES. Perhaps the non-utilisation, to the extent of 50 per cent in 2005-06, is again for similar reasons. But the MNES also seems to have a serious problem of not receiving adequate project proposals, including research in renewable energy sources, particularly solar energy including photovoltaics, perhaps because of a general lack of research interest shown by the national laboratories in these areas. But what is interesting in respect of the MNES is that despite a consistent record of gross underspending over the last decade, it continues to get high budgetary allocations, only to be surrendered as unspent amounts or savings.
This is not to say that there are no instances of bad planning or management in S&T projects under the various Ministries. This can, and should, be addressed and solutions found within the individual Ministry's machinery in association with the scientific community. Even more serious is the all-round lack of quality manpower and project proposals to consume fully the allocations for R&D, which is a long-term problem and needs to be attacked at a different level by aggressively upgrading universities and promoting quality research in them. But the inability to spend for these reasons accounts for much smaller fractions as against large sums surrendered because of lack of timely Cabinet approval or because of EFC and other bureaucratic delays in project approval and financial sanction for large expenditure heads. Despite the oft-heard promise by the Prime Minister to de-bureaucratise the S&T system, little has happened on ground. A committee appointed by the Prime Minister, which Finance Minister P. Chidambaram headed, considered the 12 specific recommendations made by the SAC-C in 2002. The present government has accepted only one as against three by the previous regime, and even that one has yet to be implemented. Significantly, the SAC-C recommendations included flexibility in budget operation, avoiding automatic extension of economy orders and directives across the board without consulting the Principal Scientific Adviser, and autonomy in the creation of posts for major projects/missions once approved by the Cabinet.
It is interesting to note that the Constitutional Review Committee, notwithstanding the controversies surrounding it, had recommended in its 2002 report that a funding pattern for investment of about 2 per cent of the GNP exclusively for scientific and technological R&D needed to be examined. But what is more significant and pertinent from the perspective of the discussion above is its recommendation of the creation of an apex body called the National Science and Technology Commission "as an umbrella organisation for policy making, planning, promoting and funding of higher scientific and technological research" with the Prime Minister as its head.
The recommendation that the Prime Minister should be the head is obviously to circumvent the various deeply entrenched bureaucratic hurdles in the effective administration of S&T in the country. Significantly, this recommendation has found its way into the approach paper for S&T in the Eleventh Plan.
It has called for "evolving an empowered National Science and Technology Commission responsible for all matters relating to S&T (administrative, financial and scientific), including scientific audit and performance measurement of scientists and scientific institutions". Whether such a commission structure is the answer to the bureaucratic hassles faced by the science Ministries is moot, but the situation is serious enough to warrant immediate attention at the highest political level. Hopefully, the President's concern will result in an appropriate response from the Prime Minister's Office.