India’s academic R&D budget


According to Abi’s estimates, at about US$ 450 million per year, the “academic R&D support for the entire country of India is about the same as (or, even smaller than) the R&D expenditure in a (largish) US state university”. The abysmally low aggregate expenditure on R&D may well be cited as the reason to explain the “abysmally small number of scientific publications”.

The more bucks for more bang argument is true to a certain degree, and modern research requires high upfront investment. Yet the question that needs to be asked is not whether the government can allocate more funds for R&D (it probably can’t), but rather what is it doing to incent the private sector to invest in R&D work?

Staying on the topic of R&D, The Economist has a feature article on the rise and fall of corporate R&D in the United States.

14 thoughts on “India’s academic R&D budget”

  1. In one of Naipaul’s 3 books on India, he talks about the government spending lots of money on reasearch to make the bullock cart more efficient rather investing in making tractors cheaper. I think the book is “India : A wounded civilization”. That is the state of research in India. A major chunk of that $6bn is going to produce unusable worthless garbage.

  2. And therein lies the truth: it is not the government’s job to either spend on bullock cart research or on cheaper tractor research. That is the job of the private sector. The job of the government is to ensure that the private sector is left alone to find the ways to make a better bullock cart or to make a cheaper tractor or whatever.

  3. Err, may I (gently) point out an error in your post? My estimate of US $ 6 billion is for *all* R&D in India: universities and public and private sector research labs.

    For academic R&D in universities, my estimate is about US $ 450 million. This figure is less than what a largish US state university spends on research and development. For example, UCLA’s R&D budget was 785 million dollars in 2005. And UCLA is at No. 4 among all US universities in terms of their R&D expenditure.

  4. Abi,

    Thanks. I stand corrected. Have corrected accordingly.

    (Note: The first version of this post said that the academic R&D in India was US$ 6 billion, and hence, Abi’s statement of it being comparable with a single US university was generally but not exactly correct. Sorry)

  5. When you say – “largish US state university spends” – you mean mainly money from the government, through grant agencies like the NIH/NSF etc. Even for private universities, majority of R&D money in the US universities are actually tax-payers money (with some support from private agencies and endowments).

    Anyhow, I beg to differ that private sector by itself can promote healthy research, especially research in basic sciences. Even in the hey-days of Bells Labs and PARC, corporate research was limited to a few companies with deep pockets. And corporations are beholden to their profit-margins and shareholders (nothing wrong in that) and therefore, fundamental research will usually be the last priority. OTOH, NIH in the US, while not perfect, has demonstrated how government can invest in successful basic research leading to development of treatments and biotechnology products in the real world. It is worthy to note that under the NIH grants system, investigators are highly encouraged to patent discoveries and actually earn money through their work. The system is not 100% efficient, and it did require an eventual corporate involvement (Craig Venter) to accelerate the genome project, but the doubling of NIH budget in the late 90s did produce a great boost for the biomedical research in the US .

    [To some extent, researchers in the US already complain that not enough attention is paid to basic scientific questions. While applying for biomedical grants, you almost have to show some kind of connection (however tenuous) to future clinical applications.]

    That said, there are couple of major problems with government sponsored R&D in India, beyond the usual ‘professors and graduate students are not paid enough’ arguments.

    Firstly, there is little accountability of the tax-payer’s money used for research. In the US, if you do not produce palpable results with the grant in five year time-frames (determined by metrics such as publications, peer-appreciation, conference presentations, patents etc), you lose the support. Does not matter if you are an young investigator starting out or someone who has been in the field for over 30 years – the ‘publish or perish’ mantra is strongly enforced. Funding is taken much more for granted in India, especially once you have established yourself – all it takes is your name to obtain more money.

    Secondly, it is not just lack of money , but proper distribution. Certain institutes, laboratories and even researchers use political connections to usurp a lion’s share of the funding. Speaking from personal experience, I have observed dust gathering on biomedical instruments that are supposed to be “National Facilities” with the principal investigator diverting funds for its upkeep to their own research, or even worse, appropriating the money.
    Proper distribution of money based purely on merit will go a long way in establishing a strong research environment in Indian institutes.

  6. Hi all,

    I’m quoting some excerpts from The Economist that will be relevant to what Atanu & BongoPondit are debating:

    The fusion of research and development is meant to solve the central shortcoming of (Vannevar) Bush’s plan: how to turn ideas into commercial innovations. Great ideas may moulder without a way to develop them. In America the link between industry and government-funded research was reinforced in the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act. This expected recipients of federal funding to patent their innovations as an incentive for them to leave the laboratory. So, for example, when Google listed its shares in 2004, Stanford University received around $200m worth since research by Google’s co-founders on search algorithms had been partly financed by the National Science Foundation. Moreover, the rise of venture capital has smoothed the progress of new ideas into products.

    ndustry’s abandonment of the split between R&D comes as computer scientists complain about a decline in basic research or its distortion by commercial influence. The National Science Foundation and DARPA (the Pentagon’s research arm), two of the grant-giving institutions inspired directly by Bush’s vision, have been chided for turning away from basic research in favour of later-stage work, with an emphasis on homeland security—just as industry has done. At the same time, America’s venerated national laboratories are coming under partial industry control.

    Some in industry regret the melding of R&D into one activity and the demise of the big corporate laboratory.

    Some private institutions have sought to enter the field of “basic science with a business plan”, so to speak. But their success remains to be seen.

    Perhaps all this would have made Bush weep. “Industry is generally inhibited by preconceived goals, by its own clearly defined standards, and by the constant pressure of commercial necessity,” he wrote in 1945. “Basic research is performed without thought of practical ends.”

    But the message from mammon is different. [Economist]

  7. I was also going to respond to your view about corporate R&D, but finally decided to combine it with my responses to some of the other comments in a post in my blog.

    Here’s the gist: for basic, fundamental or pre-competitive research, government funding will continue to be the main source of oxygen. There are good reasons for it; and also, there are good reasons to welcome and celebrate such public support. To the extent that universities are the home for such research, I don’t see India emerging as a science ‘superpower’ unless funding for academic research going way, way up from the current, ‘abysmal’ levels.

  8. Just to quickly clarify my point in comment #2 above. I distinguish between basic research on the one hand and development of technology on the other. Better bullock carts and tractors falls in the latter category and the government has no business to be in it or even funding it. That is something that the private sector can and does do well. It is easy to see why: the incentives for commercial profits exist and therefore private sector investment is a given. Basic research however is a public good and therefore markets will fail to adequately fund it. To correct for this failure, the public support is needed for basic research. How the public funds are used also matters of course. You could have government agencies directed by bureaucrats answering to political masters taking home the public funds allocated for basic research; or you could have public funds allocated to universities — public and private — to support basic research.

  9. US Defense department spends a huge amount in R&D – including UCLA. I wonder what the split is – defense vs other departments. I think US NIH spends about $4bil. I remember last year’s Indian budget had increased R&D budget by 100 or so crores and there were protest articles in the media. I think defense budget this year also has little R&D spending increase. We are missing (if we haven’t already) the boat on next wave of technology, and potentially lot of jobs that go with it, such as nanotech in tech and genome in medicine. But I am sure we’ll provide the back end IT backbone for these new companies in US/Europe and probably China.

    I remember from my Chem Eng days – most profs and the few PhD students spent, what ever little time they spent on research, on replicating existing research. I also remember a few years back, the head of CISR was promoting this crank guy who could wave his magic wand and create petrol out of water and magical leaves (apparently the head of CISR never heard of thermodynamics) and the press was all jingoistic about it (India’s answer to petrol crisis). Such is the state of our research.

    As far as private research, it’s by and large not going to happen any time soon because we are still catching up in terms of tech, in pretty much all industries, and because it’s always cheaper to buy and sell tech, especially in service industry (half the economy), than to invent it from scratch – both are conducive for importing (buying) tech off-the-shelf – just look our defense industry. So unless government jumpstarts R&D with singular focus, R&D will be piece meal in India and what ever R&D is done in the country will accrue to non-Indian companies. And the Chinese are beating us in this game too.

  10. I just remembered that I had a band pass post on INI Signal on Chinese R&D spending – ranks two in the world with about $136 bil in total spending in 2006 per OECD estimates, behind US but ahead of Japan.

    Ironically, this OECD study came out when our own PhD economist PM and apparent education minister were manipulating protesting children to cram reservations down their throats. Talk about priorities.

  11. Bongo, I was off by more than two decades 🙂 Thanks for correcting. I thought the number was in the ball-park – apparently not and I should have known better! Their defense dept is probably close to $75, incl. black projects.

    In any case, the discussion about R&D in India and the rest of the world is like the classic first world vs third world economies of past. We are, despite Tom Friedman’s (and the like) warning of Indians taking over US jobs and all the Indian high-tech companies hype about millions of engineers and scientists, largely irrelevant when it comes to R&D debate. And it’s, like a lot of things in India, self-inflicted.

Comments are closed.