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[Hyderabad] India’s priorities in science and technology place too much emphasis on atomic energy, space and defence research, and are in need of “major restructuring”, according to one of the country’s leading science policy analysts.

Ashok Parthasarathi, chairman of the Centre for Studies in Science Policy at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, has also criticised the “blanket of secrecy” surrounding, for example, research funded by the Department of Atomic Energy. He argues that this contributes to the budgetary distortions by preventing public or scientific debates on the department’s research projects.

With almost two-thirds of the budget for research and development (R&D) going on these three sectors, Parthasarathi says that there has been a “serious neglect” of R&D in other vital areas.

“How can science and technology play a role in national development when the annual budget for health, communicable diseases, nutrition and family welfare all put together is only 3.5 billion rupees [US$71 million], while we spend Rs.25 billion on defence research and Rs.8 billion on atomic energy R&D?” he asks in an article in the latest issue of the journal Current Science, published by the Indian Academy of Sciences.

Parthasarathi, who served early in his career as secretary to the Departments of Electronics and Non-Conventional Energy Sources, was also formerly personal assistant on science and technology to the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He was the lead figure in preparations for India’s first science and technology plan, produced in 1973.

In a scathing attack on the way in which the current government is dividing up its research funds, Parthasarathi questions the wisdom of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) investing Rs.30 billion on a fast breeder reactor project, a technology that has been abandoned by all countries except Japan, and Rs.2 billion on a thermonuclear fusion reactor.

In response, Rajagopalan Chidambaram, former chairman of DAE, argues that India must pursue the breeder route “to draw the maximum power from [its] limited reserves of uranium”. He justifies investment in the fusion reactor by saying that although India cannot invest billions of dollars in the technology, “we should be in the game.”

But Parthasarathi cites as an example of the secrecy surrounding the DAE’s research programmes the fact that while the department received Rs.30 billion to build a single fast reactor, a separate programme to construct a 100 MW combined cycle thermal power plant at a cost of Rs.6 billion “has no budgetary support from government”, while total R&D investment in the entire renewable energy sector is about Rs.150 million.

In a telephone interview, Parthasarathi said that India’s priorities for science and technology would continue to be distorted unless the country’s Planning Commission “fundamentally overhauls its plan budget formulating process.”

Rather than distributing research budgets on the basis of the demands projected by each of the 30-odd scientific agencies, the Commission should take “an integrated view of all sectors,” he said.

He also proposed reducing the budgets of DAE, space and defence departments by closing down unproductive projects — for example a Rs.10 billion project in the atomic energy department on food irradiation — and transferring scientific staff to universities and industry.

© SciDev.Net 2002

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