Editorial: Research funding imperatives

Published in The Hindu on February 19, 2009

The European Union’s Science, Technology and Competitiveness report of 2008-09 has said the EU, with the overall spending on research currently at 1.84 per cent of the GDP, is a long way from the goal it has set for itself — 3 per cent by 2010. What is particularly disconcerting is that, of the three countries that account for nearly 60 per cent of the EU’s gross domestic expenditure on R&D, only Germany registered a rise in allocation for research, and that too a marginal rise. The other two, France and the United Kingdom, recorded a drop. The United States’ research spending also declined over the period 2000-06 from 2.74 per cent to 2.61 per cent, with public funding by various nodal agencies remaining more or less the same. All this is set to change, with President Barack Obama’s commitment to higher investment in science and technology, the first signs of which are available in the $787 billion fiscal stimulus package; it has earmarked $15 billion for research and science infrastructure. The National Institutes of Health’s annual budget has been stuck at $29 billion for some years now and the figure is likely to double over the next ten years.

The EU report shows the funding of research by business has also dwindled. It has dropped from 1.05 per cent of the GDP in 2000 to one per cent in 2006, whereas in the U.S. the decline is by 0.21 percentage point. The current global economic downturn is bound to accentuate this trend casting a responsibility on governments to make good the resource shortfall by providing more funds. Maybe, the U.S. and the EU are not heavily dependent, as Japan is, on funding by business for scientific research. But the fact is that, if research intensity is to be maintained at current levels, governments have to pump in huge sums of money and also ensure that a good part of it went for supporting basic research, a line that relies solely on such funds for sustenance. In this context, somewhat ominous is an idea that David King, a former Chief Science Adviser to the British government, canvassed recently in a BBC television interview. He wanted scientific minds to be redirected towards tackling climate change and such other problems of the 21st century even at the cost of research in areas like particle physics and space exploration. If Dr. King’s proposition indeed reflects the government’s thinking, it will mean choking the flow of funds to basic research. On the U.S. front also, one hopes the assistance of $150 billion Mr. Obama promised, during his campaign, for alternative energies does not result in basic research getting short shrift.

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