With loud demands for more governmental funding and less taxation ringing in their ears, Finance Ministers sitting down to prepare the budget tend to have little time and attention for the needs of science. From time to time, budget speeches do a tip-of-the-hat in the direction of science. In his latest budget speech, P. Chidambaram has given special grants to two agricultural universities and promised the appointment of an expert committee to study the impact of climate change on India. What is sadly lacking in this budget, as in many earlier ones, is a sustained commitment to accelerating the pace of scientific research, which is essential for enhancing India's competitive edge in the years ahead. It is a matter of concern that there has been a steady decline from 2001 in the amount of the money the country spends on science and technology as a proportion of national GDP; today the relevant figure is less than one per cent. The science and technology policy prepared by the National Democratic Alliance government and released by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003 declared that the country would be spending two per cent of its GDP on scientific endeavours by this year. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh too has emphasised the importance of reaching the two per cent spending target. Unfortunately, that level of spending is to be reached only five years hence.
Even when money is promised in the budget for science, the funding is sometimes inexplicably slashed by the Finance Ministry. In 2005, for instance, the Union Government launched a major new initiative to promote research in the fast-developing frontier area of nanomaterials with a funding of Rs.1,000 crore over five years. The Department of Science and Technology, however, found to its mortification that the entire funding of Rs.200 crore allocated for the first year (2005-2006) was cancelled by the Finance Ministry in the revised budget. The Rs.180 crore set apart for the initiative in the 2006-2007 budget was also not given. In the latest budget, Rs.150 crore has been promised for the initiative but is it going to be a hat-trick of phantom allocations? Even more urgent is the need to revamp science education in the country, especially the science departments in colleges and universities, so that there is an adequate flow of young men and women able and willing to do science. India must be able to "operate on the frontier of scientific and technological knowledge," said the Prime Minister at the Indian Science Congress earlier this year. So far as science is concerned, the UPA Government needs, among other things, to put its money where its mouth is.