Monday, March 05, 2007

Financial support for scientific research in Indian universities


My post on expenditure on R&D in India has produced some interesting reactions (one of which I have noted in an update on that post). Before addressing them, let me restate that post's key points:

  • At US $ 6 billion, our overall R&D budget itself is quite small. For example, it is smaller than the R&D budget of a Microsoft or a General Motors.
  • The Indian universities' share of this budget is just 450 million dollars! This figure is dwarfed by the R&D budget of a largish US state university such as UCLA (which spent about $785 million in the year 2005).

First, Subrahmanya points out another interesting comparison: "During 2007-08, the Higher Education Funding Council for England spends 1,413 million pounds ear-marked just for research in their universities. That is about Rs. 12,125 crores!"

Next, Confused suggests (in a comment) that a dollar-to-dollar comparison may not be appropriate since the purchasing power of a dollar in India goes about five times farther than it does in the US. In other words the Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) factor for the Indian rupee is about five.

All I can say is that the PPP factor may be five (or even more) for many things, but it's probably close to one for R&D related expenditure. This is so because major pieces of equipment (such as an electron microscope or an NMR facility) cost the same in India as elsewhere. In fact, if you add the additional burden of customs dury (for imported equipment) and of the need to invest in elaborate uninterrupted power supply units, the cost of equipment is actually greater in India!

Much the same argument applies to expenses that go into running a lab: high purity chemicals, reagents, etc. They too cost the same in India as elsewhere. The ubiquitous "productivity-enhancing tools" that one finds in all labs -- PCs! -- also cost the same here as elsewhere.

In fact, the only thing that costs less -- far less -- here in India is the person doing the research: faculty, students or temporary staff! Of these, faculty and graduate students are already paid by the institutions where they work; the others -- temporary staff hired with project grants -- form a small part of the total project cost.

Finally, Nitin Pai's reaction is a little different:

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?

By "private sector ... invest[ment] in R&D work", it's possible that Nitin is talking only about corporate R&D and not the academic kind. If so, I really have no response. However, if he is talking about private sector support for academic R&D, I do want to respond to it.

First, I don't really care where the money comes from, as long as universities get more of it than what they are getting now! So, you have got ideas about incentivising private sector firms to fund academic R&D? Bring'em on!

However, even with incentives, I don't believe corporate support for academic R&D will ever become large enough to be considered significant. Indian companies spend very little on R&D and even less on basic science. While multinationals can -- and do -- fund academic research, their share too is unlikely to be large. And remember, their focus in their own labs is more and more on applied research and development; so it's unreasonable to expect them to fund basic science research in universities.

The world over, basic science is strongly dependent on government funding, and if anything, this dependence is getting stronger (even the Economist acknowledges this trend). Supporting basic -- fundamental or pre-competitive -- research requires a long-term view -- payoffs can be tens of years away! It is unrealistic to expect companies to be interested in such research -- whatever be their incentives.

Also, there are good reasons for supporting government funding of basic research. When companies make a basic science discovery, they hoard their newly acquired knowledge, or patent it to create roadblocks for others who might work with and extend that new knowledge. When governments (and philanthropic organizations) fund research, it gets into the public domain (and the demand for open access will only accelerate this trend) and spurs innovation. I see government funding of academic research as a positive thing.

In any case, for the foreseeable future, government will continue to be a major source funding for scientific research. If we want India to be seen as a big player in world-class scientific research, we'd better be willing to spend more money on it.

11 Comments:

  1. janak chandarana said...

    K. Ramamritham,
    Computer Science Research in India

    http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/iel1/2/12848/00587546.pdf?isNumber=12848&prod=IEEE+JNL&arnumber=587546&arSt=40&ared=47&arAuthor=Ramamritham%2C+K.%3B%22

  2. Venkat said...

    Hi Abi,

    First of all, thanks for the excellent series on the budget and R&D funding. Thanks also to bring other writings in this to notice.

    Abi, I believe India has to go a long way in harnessing private sector funding (read it as participation) in academic R&D. A long way to go actually means there are several easier things to implement which will provide tangible results within a short time.

    I head a laboratory which is expected to be self-sufficient in 7 years (we are in the third year). That means, in seven years, we will be without any university support (except, of course, for infrastructure, which is already committed). If we succeed in generating more money we hire and expand and if we fail, we lay off (we did lay off 4 out of 7 scientists last April, just after 2 years of inception and changed our model to having transient - horses for the courses- post doc as against more permanent scientists). This is a bold experiment by University of Toronto - bold even by the Canadian yardsticks. I hope to write about some of the canadian funding models (for the benefit of our friends here). I work with small, medium and giant companies. No money is small for us. Often times, a small company comes with $2,000 cash and that is sufficient enough to trigger provincial and federal schemes to amplify and make my budget somewhere between $10K-$14K.

    I hesitate writing this as it may require a fair amount of time on my part and I do not know who will read it all in the end.

  3. Kiran said...

    Abi

    I dont claim to be an expert on the facts, but I believe that corporate R&D in India is happening. The move is being led by foreign companies in some areas and Indian companies in others, though we are nowhere near the US or Japan. (Did someone mention China?)

    However the main problem, and one that is not even being addressed, is the issue of R&D in basic science (where we are even seeing a shortfall of students). It is my impression that the nature of this research is such that it will always have to be funded by Govt grants. Corporate R&D will always be results-oriented.

    But then look at it this way - when post-WW2 Japan rode to the top of the electronics world it was largely on the back of basic science breakthroughs coming out of US labs. Today, they too are investing in basic science.

  4. Sunil said...

    excellent summaries, Abi.

    I agree with most of what's said here, so won't add anything new. We need more students going into basic research, and we need more money and resources......

  5. gaddeswarup said...

    Venkat:
    I do find your ideas interesting. As Kiran above says self-funding (even after seed money for a number of years) may not be possible in all subjects. Please let me know any place where I can find more detailed articles by you. I only know English and Telugu; some of your writings seem to be in Tamil. Regards,
    swarup

  6. Venkat said...

    Gaddeswarup,

    I do have an English blog as well:

    http://domesticatedonion.net/eng

    Though I write more frequently (and more seriously) in Tamil. I will write in detail on one of these days (may be the coming weekend).

  7. Nitin said...

    Abi,

    Thanks for initiating an analysis on this subject.

    I fully agree with you that the researcher does not care where the funds come from as long as they do (without too many strings, perhaps)

    You make a further argument:
    However, even with incentives, I don't believe corporate support for academic R&D will ever become large enough to be considered significant.Quite obviously, this rests on what we mean by "large enough", "significant" and who it is that makes the "consideration".

    As Atanu Dey wrote in a comment on my blog, some types of research can be considered public goods. Private sector is unlikely to be interested in conducting this on its own. So there is a case for government to finance such projects, perhaps exclusively.

    Yet such a case of a purely public good financed purely by government funds is surely an extreme case on a continuum. Mere prudence suggests governments must explore ways and means to involve other sources of funding to reduce fiscal burden, improve efficiency or simply enlarge the research budget. My argument is related to this aspect. In my opinion, and as your estimates show, India has not even scratched the surface how far it can bring in private money into the game.

    Looking at the fiscal position (and considering this government's prediliction for mammoth social spending commitments) greater private investment in R&D (inclusive of academic R&D) is an imperative if we are to move beyond the "abysmal".

  8. Abi said...

    Venkat: Thanks for sharing your views. I am not arguing here against private sector money flowing into academic R&D. I saw it in action first hand at Carnegie Mellon twenty years ago, and I see some of it here in India too (GM, Boeing are funding R&D projects in several Indian institutions, including IISc). Your experience with consortium funding seems interesting. I hope you will write about it sometime (soon!).

    Kiran: I'm not disputing that corporate R&D is happening. My post is about private (corporate) sector support for academic R&D. The interesting point you raise about Japan is similar to that made by some people (such as Swaminathan Aiyar). In this view, there will be more money after our economy grows and after our enhanced technology base demands more science input. In other words, the chain of causation is economy -> technology -> science. This view may well be right.

    JC, Sunil, Swarup: Thanks for your comments.

    Nitin: Don't be coy! I will let you (or anyone you nominate!) decide what is 'significant' or 'considerable'. Do you think you (or your nominee) will see a time when private sector funding of basic R&D ever becomes 'significant'?

    Having said that, I must reiterate the point I made in my post: private sector money flowing into R&D -- including academic R&D -- is always welcome. And, I am heartened to see a lot of R&D centres (of MNCs as well as Indian companies) doing well in India.

  9. KK said...

    Not particularly related to this post. Just a general question -

    When Budgets are prepared, usually estimates and justifications are asked for in the previous year. That means that the persons who project their demands must have a good notion of what else they are going to execute the next fiscal, and how.

    A few considerations actually determine what actually happens - one, spending is accelerated ( sometimes blindly ) towards the end of the fiscal to avoid surrender of unutilised funds; two, in the absence of any clearly defined accomplishable objectives, figures for the next year are usually just the figures for the current, inflated by a percentage ranging from 10% ( conservative ) to 50% ( hoping as hell ) just so that the technocrats can show that they ARE doing something ( never mind what ); three, estimates are also constrained by the actual ability of said R&D Heads to actually progress research work on multiple threads/projects simultaneously; four, audits of such R&D works are done by people who have no clue of what fits the category of money well-spent; five, embarrasing questions are never asked and good bonhomie prevails in the interests of all concerned.

    The point that I wish to make is that if someone is capable of making serious work happen as well as tangible / usable results, there is no dearth of funding. Usually, you find that such people also make good team leaders and expenditure managers. They are also capable of getting the funding that they require and they do.

    It is a different matter that such people are far and few in the academic environs of this country.

    Instead of demanding additional funding / comparing our dismal statistics with the US, would it not be a better idea to provide tenure and responsibility to those who are capable of driving effective research?

    I am not an academic, much less an R&D man. However there is some tangential experience of DRDO ... and a spouse in a lab at an IIT.
    ;)

  10. Anonymous said...

    My tangetial comment - where is all this money going to ....starting new campuses, more faculty, more teaching ? They are all required but I hope in these spending plans there are earmarks for hard-core infrastructural support for experimental research.

    Check out US department of Energy's
    national labs doing basic and strategic research...

    http://www.science.doe.gov/bes/BESfacilities.htm

    http://www.science.doe.gov/National_Laboratories/print-Map%20of%20National%20Labs-v7.pdf

    Where do we stand with reg. to scientific infrastructure in comparison ?

    If we don't develop experimental infrastructure then we will be left us only designers for the world

    http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/India_chips_in_to_make_the_world_richer/articleshow/1068038.cms

  11. Alex said...

    Abi,

    True. What we need to see is increased investment in basic science research.

    But again, i think we need research in the social sciences too. In most articles arguing for investment in research, i see that social science research gets neglected.