Spending plans that would give a huge boost to India's science spending and backs the country's participation in several international science projects have brought researchers some unexpected festive cheer.
India's Twelfth Five Year Plan proposes earmarking 1,204 billion rupees (US$24 billion) for research and development (R&D) in six key scientific departments between April 2012 and March 2017 — more than two-and-half times their actual spend over the previous five years. While the plan does not commit the government to making the big proposed increases, it has buoyed the hopes of the nation's scientists after a disappointing science budget earlier this year.
The plan, published on 27 December, backs Indian investment in the Square Kilometre Array, the world's most powerful radio telescope, being built in Australia and South Africa; and the Thirty Meter Telescope, a proposed optical telescope that may be built on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. A Neutrino Observatory based in India and a next-generation synchrotron are among the domestic facilities that are mentioned as funding priorities over the next five years. It also includes the goal of increasing the number of PhDs the country produces from 8,900 to 12,500 each year and raising the number of full-time researchers from 154,000 to 250,000. Publications by Indian researchers should account for 5% of the world's total by 2017, up from 3% today, improving India's global ranking from 9th to better than 6th.
The Department of Space, which gets the largest share of the proposed R&D budget, is to undertake 58 missions during the five years including a mission to Mars in November 2013, followed by a second mission to the Moon. India's biggest science agency, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, plans to set up five new institutes in areas including systems biology, bio-mimetic materials and solar energy. Meanwhile, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) is set a target of helping to create 25 nanotechnology start-up companies and encouraged to push forward with plans to make India one of the top five nations in the world for supercomputing by building a peta-scale computer.
The Department of Biotechnology should press ahead with building five new research centres while the Ministry of Earth Sciences should establish a National Centre for Seismology and pursue plans to drill an 8-kilometre deep bore hole in western India for seismological studies. There is also cash for the Department of Atomic Energy to build two research reactors in its two new campuses in Hyderabad and Vishakapatnam.
Overall, the 1,204 billion rupees for R&D is nearly double the 750 billion rupees allotted in the eleventh plan — though the actual spend over the five years covered by the last plan came in at 475 billion rupees.
C.N.R. Rao, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's science adviser, welcomed the proposed boost to R&D spending but warned that, if it materializes, researchers might struggle to spend the money. "Sometimes I worry whether we have enough good people to use the research funds," he toldNature.
Some senior researchers are also sceptical of the new plan's aim to stimulate science spending by Indian businesses. India spends 0.9% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on R&D and that is pegged to rise to 2% by the end of the twelfth plan, with the private sector's contribution rising from just 0.2% to 1% of GDP. The government hopes to rope businesses into spending more on science through public-private partnerships. Around 10–15 per cent of the R&D investment in the plan has been earmarked for such partnerships.
"I doubt if we could reach 1% of GDP on R&D by corporate sector," says Lingadahalli Shashidhara, a biologist at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Pune. The culture of businesses funding research in public research organisations is alien to India, Shashidhara says.
But he adds that none of the targets in the twelfth plan are completely out of reach. " I am very optimistic about Indian science," he says.