Basic Research Questions: What, Where and Why?

It seems Indian political and bureaucratic system for funding research has forgotten to ask these three simple questions that any investigative work must try to answer. India, despite success in fields like space engineering, lacks proper innovation and basic research institutes. There are many issues with R&D industry in India, but we will probe the dearth of funding. Most of R&D is based on reverse engineering the products and we have to depend on other countries even for our defense systems. It probably doesn’t come as a big surprise that basic research has more fundamental problems. Even after Govt. of India has envisioned to make India a global scientific power by 2022, total funding for R&D remains stagnant and institutes pursuing basic research are receiving cuts.  With just 0.8% of its GDP, India has lowest allocation to R&D in BRICS nations and far less compared to any developed country. Let’s try to see what other developed and developing countries are doing and ponder the applicability in Indian system.

With just 0.8% of its GDP, India has lowest allocation to R&D in BRICS nations and far less compared to any developed country.

Funding for R&D in percentage of GDP in various countries is shown in figure below. If we talk about basic research, China spends just 4.7% of total in that, while USA does closer to 18% and Japan does closer to 13% which might seem like a low number if you realize the wide variety of subjects that come under basic research. More shocking fact is that government funding for basic sciences is on a decline, at least in developed countries. In US, in 2015, government contributed just 44% of total funding in basic research, rest came mostly from industries. This kind of relationship between corporate sector and university researchers has been most fertile in biological and medical sciences where the possible returns have high economic value. Other techniques which China and Japan have played with are giving tax incentives for Industries which support universities like above and developing science parks near universities, although with less success.

R&D expenditure (percentage of GDP) vs years. Funding seems stagnated for all except China. Image source – European Commission

Another major and rising source of funding in basic sciences is philanthropist funding. Kavli Institutes, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Schmidt Ocean Institute etc are multi million and even billion dollars investments made by billionaires for an extremely diverse array of subjects (and these are god sent for people working in fields like astrophysics and high energy physics which lacks proper support in other types of funding). And within half decade, these philanthropists will give close to half a trillion dollars to R&D industry. Apart from this, crowd funding websites are also getting popular. While these are usually exempt from 50-60% overhead that is there in grants received at an university, money raised through them is still lot less compared to above mentioned sources to start any big project. There exist approximately 30-40 major crowdfunding websites for funding all kinds of science projects.

And within half decade, these philanthropists will give close to half a trillion dollars to R&D industry.

An average researcher spends more than 12 weeks in a year writing grant proposals. That has to change if we want to get more productive work from them. China and Korea has started working in that direction by starting Chinese 985 and Korean Brain 21 which is a group of universities or students and researchers in selected fields to have guaranteed funding for doing their work mostly unhampered.

As a lot of scientists feel, basic research and fundamental sciences are motivated by thoughts that are grander than humans and their betterment. Those thoughts present themselves in form of curiosity, and it imparts a certain invaluable “value” to  the society (cultural as well as materialistic in long run). Any society that doesn’t nurture this thought in a reasonable number of citizens, won’t be able to out-stand itself. Today, in the era of modern democracy, any researcher has to convince multiple people in government body about the necessity of such an endeavor which most of times doesn’t work. With increasing number of scientists and ushering into the digital world, we hope the awareness about research increases in public and politicians alike.


image source: xkcd comics



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