Budget 2019: NRF a good idea, but ‘basic science focus’ shouldn’t come at the cost of tech and social sciences

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Updated: July 8, 2019 2:08:51 PM

Union Budget 2019: The pittance that India gives to R&D is reflected in the fact that there were only 15 researchers in India per 100,000 population compared to 111 in China, 423 in the US and 825 in Israel in FY17.

Union Budget 2019, budget 2019, Union Budget 2019 india, nirmala sitharaman, Modi 2.0, union budget of india 2019, union budget of india, union budget, union budget 2019 date, finance miniser nirmala sitharaman, research, research study, research budget, national research india, national research fundingBudget 2019-20: The government will do well to stick to the NRF vision outlined in the National Education Policy (NEP).

Budget 2019 India: The Budget proposal to consolidate the various research funding currently under ministries under a National Research Foundation (NRF) should seem a good idea. Indeed, for a R&D-deficient nation like India—R&D expenditure has dropped from 0.84% of GDP in 2008 to 0.69% over the last few years, compared to the US’s 2.8%, China’s 2.1%, Israel’s 4.3% and South Korea’s 4.2%—any bid to avoid “duplication of effort and expenditure”, as FM Nirmala Sitharaman pointed out in her Budget speech, will only be a gain for R&D.

The pittance that India gives to R&D is reflected in the fact that there were only 15 researchers in India per 100,000 population compared to 111 in China, 423 in the US and 825 in Israel in FY17. No wonder, thus, while China made over 13 lakh patent application with just 10% of this being filed by non-resident Chinese researchers, India made a mere 45,057, of which >70% were by non-resident Indians.

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While there is reason to cheer the NRF, the government needs to make clear what it means by its announcement that the NRF will have a focus on “national priorities” and “basic science”. There is, no doubt, a case for a step up in funding of basic science (physics, chemistry, biology) research, but does the government mean to say that this will come at the cost of, say, technological research or social sciences/humanities or arts research?

Also, “national priorities” need to be clearly defined, lest, with the mandate it has received, the ruling party or its ideological fount conflate their research priorities with the national priorities.

On both concerns, the government will do well to stick to the NRF vision outlined in the National Education Policy (NEP). NEP, which says the NRF must fund research across the academic landscape, talks about the need to foster interdisciplinary research.

Read| Budget 2019: Nirmala Sitharaman’s focus was on long-run developmental goals, not short-run political gains

Even when research must contend with challenges such as access to drinking water, healthcare, energy, pollution and infrastructure, the NEP sagely notes that it will need approaches backed by technology and “in a deep understanding of the social sciences and humanities”. It makes clear that while the NRF may periodically identify areas of research important to the country and prioritise funding to these, “all proposals” have to be considered.

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