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Did The Union Budget 2018 Lack A Punch For The Scientific Community?

Did The Union Budget 2018 Lack A Punch For The Scientific Community?

At a time when Artificial Intelligence (AI) has become a part of everyday political discourse as well – AI, and robotics found its way in the Union Budget 2018 with Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announcing a national program under Niti Aayog that would direct research efforts in new-age technologies. Here’s another news – in order to create a new category of jobs, Jaitley earmarked an initial ₹100 crore for cyber physical systems (CPS) under the Department of Science & Technology.

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“Cyber and physical systems have great potential to transform not only innovation ecosystem but also our economies. To invest in research, training and skilling in robotics, artificial intelligence, digital manufacturing, big data analysis, quantum communication and IoT, Department of Science & Technology will launch a mission on cyber physical systems to support establishment of centres of excellence. I have doubled the allocation on Digital India program to ₹3,073 crore in 2018-19,” said Jaitley.

Let’s encapsulate the slew of announcements made in Union Budget 2018:

Scientific community in India is not happy with research funding: Even before the Union budget was tabled, more than 2,000 scientists and educators had submitted a petition to PM Narendra Modi, urging the government to increase financial support to science and technology to 3 per cent, education to 10 per cent of the country’s GDP. However, the recent cash support falls well below the 3 per cent demand and hovers around the 0.8 per cent mark of GDP.

According to a statement from Soumitro Banerjee, general secretary of the advocacy group Breakthrough Science Society: “The scientific community of India feels let down by the budget presented today, as none of the real necessities has been addressed. There have been only marginal increases in the outlays on science, technology and education.”

On the upside, Department of Space got a sizable funding: The Department of Space, that is preparing for a second Moon mission got a sizable funding for its space-related projects. The Department of Space received ₹38,936.97 crore in the Budget and has been tasked to achieve certain targets – deliver three earth observation, two communication satellites by the next fiscal year.

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Was the Union Budget lacklustre for Science?

Was the budget a game-changer for the scientific community? Let’s have a look:

  • First up, $480 million were allocated towards Digital India initiative to strengthen the AI, robotics, IoT capabilities. The government’s plan to train people on cutting-edge technologies will lead to a better skilled workforce.
  • Second, Niti Aayog, the government’s think tank has been directed to set up a national program to further research and development in next-generation technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence and others are the technologies of the future. This is great news, as it underscores the Government’s vision to invest in new-age technologies.
  • To intensify a culture of research amongst students and to improve India’s research output, in the Union Budget 2018, an announcement was made about the Prime Minister’s Research Fellows program for 1,000 undergraduate engineering students to enable them to pursue doctorates from leading IITs and IISc.

AIM Counterview

  • Even though adequate steps have been taken to adopt cutting edge technologies and deepen India’s capabilities as a digital nation, there is still a lot of work to be done to further the country in global AI race.
  • In terms of research, India lags behind superpowers like China, US, Russia and even Japan. A recent economic survey showed that India had filed 45,658 patents in 2015 as opposed to 1,101,864 patents filed by China. Meanwhile, US had filed 589,410 patents followed by Japan with 318,721 patents.
  • Then comes in news about Niti Aayog planning the launch of National Data and Analytics Portal to facilitate training and dataset sharing between different organizations for AI-related applications. Sounds great but would arranging data for research in AI have a ground-breaking impact on creation of jobs in AI, machine learning and big data areas. While this scheme would definitely put India on the global map, it’s hard to imagine the impact it would have on the economy or creation of jobs.
  • Reportedly, there is absolutely no mention of quantum computing which has gained ground in countries like China, USA while India has a long way to go in breaking ground in next-gen technology.  
  • Even though the Government is mulling setting up Centre of Excellence in fields such as AI, big data, reports indicate that areas such as nanotechnology saw a reduced funding.
  • However, the recent step to set up an 18-member AI Task Force with an agenda to mainstream AI in our economic, political and legal areas can take India towards an AI-led economy.
  • Meanwhile, more details have to emerge from the NITI Aayog led AI program and hopefully a collaboration with the private sector would yield good results.

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