Lackluster Budget Leaves Indian Scientists Little to Cheer

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Pallava Bagla
2013-03-01 14:30
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NEW DELHI—Indian scientists face major belt-tightening in the coming year. On 28 February, the Indian government sent to Parliament for approval about an $8 billion budget for science and technology in 2013, ending several years of substantial increases for S&T. The flat budget, reflecting the government's desire to reduce an almost $85 billion deficit, will equate to spending reductions with inflation running at about 5%. "Subcritical funding of science may not help the country in the long run," says physicist Krishan Lal, president of the Indian National Science Academy here.

Among the few highlights in the budget proposal is a new $50 million fund for projects aiming to lift people out of poverty. "We do not pay enough attention to science and technology for the common man," said India's finance minister P. Chidambaram when rolling out the budget this week. The National Innovation Council will manage the new fund; the kinds of projects it will support have not been revealed. But the fund's size will surely limit its impact, Lal says. "While the intent is correct, for a country of 1.2 billion people this is only a drop in the ocean."

Despite coping with a flat budget, agencies say they will proceed with planned major initiatives. India's maiden mission to Mars, for instance, will receive $41 million to keep it on track for an October launch. The unmanned spacecraft will look for signs of methane in the martian atmosphere; the organic compound could hint at the existence of microbial life on the Red Planet. The Indian Space Research Organisation will also launch the nation's first military satellite, for naval communications. And the Department of Atomic Energy this year intends to complete a 500-megawatt Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor in Kalpakkam, a test bed for the use of plutonium in nuclear power generation. Grants to individual researchers are likely to bear the brunt of cuts necessary to offset big science spending, observers say. Parliament must pass the budget before the start of the next fiscal year on 1 April.

*Correction, 6 March:On 28 February, the Indian government sent to Parliament for approval about an $8 billion budget for science and technology in 2013, not a $12 billion budget as originally reported.

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