Narendra Modi was sworn in as India’s prime minister for the third time on 9 June after his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was forced to form a coalition government with two other political parties. The election result has many scientists worried that creeping authoritarianism under Modi will mean long-standing problems in research, such as meagre and delayed funding, political interference in appointments and corruption, will not be addressed.

Narendra Modi

Source: © Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images

Narendra Modi was returned to power in a coalition after losing his majority

The BJP manifesto included a number of nods to science including a plan to turn India into a leading space power, get the new Anusandhan National Research Foundation (ANRF) funding agency up and running, position India as a global leader in AI and strengthen programmes investigating graphene. In contrast, the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, did not devote any space to science and technology, but did include mention of the environment, climate change and disaster management in its manifesto.

Despite India’s achievements in science and technology, policy watchers view its near-stagnant investment in research and development (0.65% of GDP) in recent decades with concern. By contrast, China spends 2.43%, the US 3.46% and South Korea 4.93% of their GDP on R&D. Even the ANRF set up last year – with a budget of Rs500 billion (£4.7 billion) over five years – will receive only 28% of its funding from the government, with the remainder meant to come from the private sector.

Ajay Sood, principal scientific adviser to the Indian government, agrees that there is an urgent need to increase science funding if India is to compete with China, South Korea or the US. ‘If you look at other economies, much more funding there comes from the private sector as compared to the government sector. Out of 0.65% of India’s GDP for science, almost 0.45% comes from the central government whereas the remaining 0.2% comes from the private sector.’ Both government and private funding needs to go up, he says. ‘Once that is done, then at least we can reach 1% of GDP quite soon.’

Despite the private sector’s minor contribution to Indian science in the past, Sood says he remains hopeful that it will contribute a substantial chunk to the ANRF. ‘We will do whatever is required to make it happen.’ Their interests in coming together with government funding needs to be kept in mind, he adds. Financial support in research matters a lot and needs to be enhanced, he says.

‘Low investment in science is a cause for concern and needs to be addressed,’ says Arun Kumar Grover, former vice chancellor of Panjab University. Grover adds that bureaucracy means that grant money often reaches researchers or institutions towards the end of the financial year, leaving little time for them to use it. The result is that many researchers cannot spend their grants in time and the money is lost.

Another problem is that fellowships often arrive late causing enormous hardships. ‘We need out of the box solutions to such problems – some of which we have demonstrated,’ says Grover. He advocates the release of grants to researchers or institutions via a bank guarantee as soon as the grant is approved. While the bank would charge some interest till the money from the government arrives, the work would not stop, grants would not lapse and creative ways could be found to deal with the interest, he says.

Modi’s domineering style of governance over the past decade has also affected almost all aspects of life in India, including higher education and research. Consequently, the Sweden-based V-Dem Institute dubbed India an ‘electoral autocracy since 2018’.

‘I agree that with the democratic slide down, freedom of thought and the ability to air dissenting contrarian views have been hit and this could affect healthy development of science in India,’ says Aniket Sule, a physicist at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, a national centre of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. ‘There is also a growing tendency to appoint pliant directors or administrators who try to stifle dissenting views.’

There are hints that a frank reappraisal of science’s prospects is happening in some parts of India’s scientific community. ‘Science academies have recently organised detailed in-depth discussions on the future course of action under Modi 3.0 and many contentious issues are supposed to be addressed in the near future,’ says Grover. How much money the newly elected government allocates for science remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, India’s science ministries have begun working on a 100-day action plan to bolster manifesto promises.