In 2017, Vaishnavi Ananthanarayanan was leading a cell biology laboratory at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru. In the course of her research work, Ananthanarayanan realised that the technology she needed for a particular experiment wasn’t available in India. “Someone from my team needed to travel to Germany to carry out some Correlative Light Electron Microscopy, a cutting edge technique that I felt was required for some work we were doing at that point in time,” she said.
On paper, Ananthanarayanan had the money to do this work – she had secured a grant for the research project from the Government of India’s Department of Biotechnology, or DBT. But the funding hadn’t arrived yet. She waited for several months, to no avail. Eventually, she had to abandon the plan. “I couldn’t do the CLEM experiment because I did not get the funding in time,” she said.
A few years later, the University of New South Wales in Australia approached Ananthanarayanan with an offer to lead a lab there. She accepted, and started her new job in November 2020.
Once she was there, the pace of her work changed dramatically, and she was able to pick up her abandoned experiment – the university itself had facilities to carry out CLEM work. “I joined in November 2020, and by March 2021, I had hired a postdoctoral researcher and we carried out the technique here,” she noted. “And by April 2021, the data from this particular experiment was already in our manuscript, in pre-print.”
This episode was a stark reminder to Ananthanarayanan of how deeply the problem of funding delays affects Indian scientists, and Indian science itself.
“You end up deciding to do something which may not be at the cutting edge, but something safer, something that’s bound to get you a journal article or the next grant,” she said. “You cannot do excellent research without the basic assurance that the money that was promised to you is given to you on time.”
While Ananthanarayanan is among the lucky scientists who have managed to secure a position abroad, in institutions where processes run smoother, most Indian researchers remain in the country, grappling with these delays, trying to excel in their work even as they are starved for resources.
Ananthanarayanan was also in the relatively secure position of a lab head, or principal investigator, referred to as a PI – salaries for scientists at her level typically arrive on time. Lower down the ladder are PhD students, who aren’t similarly protected. These students rely on fellowships to support them through gruelling years of their life. Among the biggest providers of these fellowships are government agencies like the University Grants Commission, or UGC, and the Council Of Scientific and Industrial Research, or CSIR. CSIR alone has over 8,000 junior and senior research fellows across the country.
They are also the most notorious when it comes to delays in fellowship disbursal. “When I hear of big science and technology mission programmes being launched in India, I wonder – who is going to do all this?” said Sarah Iqbal, an independent science engagement consultant. “PIs are not running experiments, they are just coming up with ideas. It is really the postdocs and the PhD students who are the chief scientific workforce. If we are not taking care of them, what are we really trying to achieve here?”
Delays exacerbate the enormous challenges that researchers already face in securing funds for their work. According to a 2020 report from the Department of Science and Technology (DST), the majority of research in India relies on public funding. Yet, India spends a miniscule 0.7% of its GDP on research, which, according to data from the World Bank, is lower than most other developed and developing countries in the world. Most of this is allocated for defence, atomic energy and space-related research – according to the 2020 report, these sectors spent more than 61% of the Central government’s research and development funds that year.
This means that there is very little leftover for departments and agencies such as DST, DBT, CSIR, Indian Council of Medical Research and Indian Council of Agricultural Research.
Consequently, funding remains elusive for most Indian researchers. Those who do manage to procure funding are usually so grateful for it, that they routinely tolerate severe irregularities in the disbursal process.
In September 2021, I designed a questionnaire aimed at revealing the impact that delays in funding disbursal were having on researchers in the country. It received 32 responses from researchers working in various capacities across institutions in the country, all of whom had been affected by delays. The respondents included researchers working on a range of topics, from the management of tobacco-related oral cancer, one of the most common types of cancer in the country, to genome engineering, a field that the Department of Biotechnology has been promoting heavily.
Fourteen of the 32 respondents were principal investigators. The rest were graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and research fellows. For researchers, lags in funding delay everything from the purchase of reagents and equipment, to travel and payment of salaries to staff. Each of these can seriously set back a research project.
“We have to worry about every experiment not from a technical standpoint, but from a budgetary one,” said one principal investigator who responded to the survey.
The respondents also listed several concrete examples of how their research suffered setbacks because of these delays. A scientist working at an NGO said that they didn’t “have funds to cover operational costs”, another at a university “couldn’t purchase critical consumables”, yet another PI said that “by the time the funding arrives, the technology we want to develop would be outdated”. One scientist had to let go of their experimental goals and shift to “analyses and writing” instead.
Members of the scientific community have also begun using social media to air their grievances. A tweet, in 2021, by a PhD scholar named Rajanikanth C, received considerable attention. “9 months!!! That’s how long I have been working without being paid!!!,” Rajanikath wrote in November that year. The tweet eventually got over 400 shares and retweets.
Rajanikanth, who goes by “Darwin’s Grandson”, or “The Evolution Guy” in his online avatars, started his PhD at the University of Mysore in 2016. He joined as part of a DBT-funded project and later secured a CSIR fellowship as well. There were already delays in receiving his fellowship from DBT, but once CSIR came into the picture, his miseries were compounded. He told Scroll.in that it took over a year to just activate the fellowship, and that even after that there were consistent delays, many due to miscommunications and misunderstandings between CSIR and the university.
Rajanikanth is among those PhD students who rely on these fellowships to support their families. He explained that most of his fellowship would go towards healthcare for his ailing father. “But I cannot give them any money any more,” he said. “There is pressure from them to stop studying and start helping the family instead.”
The experiences of scientists present a stark contrast to the government’s lofty plans for Indian science.
In a meeting in April with the newly appointed Principal Scientific Advisor, or PSA, Ajay K Sood, the Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Science and Technology and Earth Sciences Jitendra Singh laid out some of these plans. According to a press release, he said that the government aimed to put India “among top 5 in terms of quality of research outcome”, have “30% participation of women in science”, take the country “within top 3 global leaders in STI” and “achieve Atma Nirbharta in technology”, all by 2030.
A few days later, the PSA, in an interview with the Indian Express, shared a similarly audacious vision for Indian science. Sood brought up the government’s Rs 76,000-crore programme on semiconductor technology, and challenged India’s billionaires to have ambitions of creating companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX. “Why shouldn’t we dream of that?” he asked.
Scientists fear that such grandiose ambitions will come to naught if the government doesn’t follow through by ensuring that those who have to fulfil these visions receive the funding and resources they are assured, when they are assured of them. “If the Government of India truly wants to make research more rewarding and a good return on investment, it should remove such obstacles,” said Shahid Jameel, a virologist and former head of an independent funding agency. “The research environment is currently chaotic at best.”
Delays in disbursing funds can set scientists back in a number of ways.
Some, for instance, may be forced to change their spending plans. Shahid Jameel described a common situation in which many scientists in India find themselves: “If a disbursement happens in January and you have to spend it all by March 31, you don’t necessarily buy what you need,” he said. “You buy what you can stock up, i.e. non-perishables – plasticware, media, long shelf life chemicals, etc. But you often lose out on things you really want – enzymes, other fine perishable reagents, etc. So, while you got the money, you couldn’t buy what would help you critically answer the research question.”
Delays and setbacks also affect scientists’ ability to collaborate with others in the field, and to publish their work. One of the respondents to the questionnaire wrote of working on an international project where “the delay cut down the interactions we would have otherwise had”. Another wrote that delays “affected my timelines for getting a publication in international journals”.
Most of the principal investigators who responded were from one of the institutes of national importance, or INIs – a special status granted to a select few higher education institutions in the country, such as the IITs and IISERs. These are places of prestige that are supposed to enjoy more autonomy and better funding from the government, but even they are evidently not being spared from funding agencies’ sloppy disbursal habits.
One principal investigator from an INI illustrated how funding delays can lead to wastage of time and resources. For their work, they use certain stem cells that need to be thawed and propagated for experiments. “If we had funding, we can complete all the experiments after thawing them just once,” the scientist wrote. “But if the fund flow is not consistent, then we have to halt the work midstage and repeat the thawing & propagating for downstream experiments. That involves spending a few thousand rupees again and again. It’s beyond our scope to make the funding agencies understand this narrative.”
Scientific work is time sensitive for other reasons too. For one, if India seeks to be a global leader in science, it is crucial that the country’s scientists’ work at a pace that is comparable to that of their counterparts elsewhere. Indeed, the first of four points listed under the guiding vision of the fifth national “Science, Technology and Innovation Policy” document, currently at the draft stage, is: “to achieve technological self-reliance and position India among the top three scientific superpowers in the decade to come.”
“Many people across the world are working on similar things. So you want to get to an exciting idea as soon as possible,” Ananthanarayanan said. “Discovery-based science is dependent on who does it first. In a world where scooping matters, you don’t want to be held ransom by delays in funding disbursal.”
Some fields of science, such as ecology, also suffer additionally because they are perceived to be less dependent on expensive equipment and technology. As a result, institutions don’t as readily extend them emergency financial support when funds from agencies are delayed. “I have to deal with people’s imagination of my research,” said Vinita Gowda, a Bhopal-based botanist.
Gowda was thrilled when her ambitious tropical ecology project received a nod for funding last year. But more than a year down the line, there is no sign of the funds arriving, and Gowda’s morale is dwindling. “We wanted to collect a decade-long dataset on plant-pollinator interactions, and connect this to sustainable agriculture. With changing climates, this kind of study is extremely essential for small scale farmers,” she said.
Raman Sukumar, veteran ecologist at the Centre for Ecological Sciences in the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, noted that ecology had a specific set of requirements that agencies did not understand. “You have to be on the ground all year,” he said. “Physicists and biologists may be able to shift schedules if funds or chemicals aren’t there, but ecologists can’t let up on data collection even for a short period.”
Ecologists study “cycles of nature”, Sukumar explained, and cannot afford to miss any phases of research collection. “I can’t publish a paper and say that I didn’t collect data on this season because I didn’t have the funds,” he said. “Those doing field ecology must be provided with timely funds if research is to go on, and we are to compete with others.”
Gowda rued the level of “research gymnastics” she and her collaborators are having to perform just to keep alive any hope of their tropical ecology project bearing fruit. “We are forced to syphon money from other grants, do very basic research and lower the bar because the money has not been released,” she said. “Now others have started this project. We have more competitors, and we have to cite their work, even if it is substandard,” she added, dismayed.
Gowda explained that the project was supposed to generate “a national repository, a decade-long dataset where we generate 2,000 samples a month.” Because of the delays, she added, “we only have 200 samples so far. I have the skillset, collaborator, student, but we can’t start anything. It’s like a ghost project. It’s all in my head but in actuality, we have nothing.”
It’s not just a matter of a few dashed dreams. “India has signed several international treaties and conventions, with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, for example,” Sukumar said. “When we go to international forums, the data we present should be robust. There should be enough data to support our stands on issues like forest restoration and wildlife protection. Instead, we have fragmentary, poor quality data.”
Without robust data, and as long as the country is forced to depend on data from Western scientists, he believes that India’s efforts to conserve its biodiversity cannot be realised. “We need to develop our own data and generate global datasets,” he said. “If not, we end up looking weak.”
In response to the problem of funding agencies’ delays, some institutes in India step in to provide financial support to researchers. This comes in various forms. Some institutes, for instance, offer intramural funding (the term for support from within an institution) to broadly support a project. Others offer bridge funding, which refers to an advance to help tide over delays, which is typically returned when the original funding is disbursed. Yet others offer specific support in the form of funds to cover personnel salaries and student stipends, which may or may not be returned later to the institution.
Sutharsan Govindarajan, a biologist at SRM University, a private university in Andhra Pradesh, said that all PhD students at the institution are provided a stipend of Rs 20,000 per month, which is disbursed without any delay on the first of every month. They are also given highly subsidised housing and food, he added. Scroll.in confirmed this with students. For PhD students who came with external funding – such as UGC, DST or CSIR fellowships – and were facing delays, the standard practice at the university, according to Govindarajan, was for the PI to write a request letter to the university administration, asking them to cover the student’s stipend temporarily. Govindarajan said that typically these requests were favourably received.
More often, it is informal modes of support that keep researchers afloat.
One beleaguered PI who participated in the questionnaire benefited from a helpful dean, who contributed some funds to host the collaborator of an ongoing project. Another managed by borrowing from a colleague and spending from her own pocket.
Many PhD students are from relatively privileged backgrounds, and manage with financial support from their families. This can work to the disadvantage of others – Rajanikanth noted that his peers came from more well-off families, and so were shielded from the impact of the funding delays. As a result of this, they refused to join him in voicing concerns about the problem. He also received no support from the university – partly, he said because CSIR does not route funds through the institution. “Since CSIR transfers the funds directly to the fellow’s bank account, the university doesn’t care enough to support us during the months of delay,” he said.
In the case of another CSIR fellow, who did not want to be named, funding delays dealt a double whammy to them while they were already grappling under an abusive PI. “There was so much paperwork being demanded,” they said. “And during the time I needed my professor’s signature, the bullying peaked. I used to hesitate to approach them as they would ask me ‘why are you taking salary when you are not doing anything?’”
India’s future scientists, particularly those who don’t come from privilege, suffer immense stress and demoralisation as a result of such treatment, and from having to rely on the support of family and friends for an indefinite number of years. “Passion in science must be such a luxury!! A person coming from a marginalized section of the society can never afford it,” Rajanikanth said in one of his viral tweets about his ordeal.
Rajanikanth has now almost completed his PhD and is set to move abroad for postdoctoral work. Remarkably, despite his long, lonely and often fruitless battles with the Indian science system, he still sees a future in science for himself in the country. “I want to come back as a faculty member at my state university itself,” he said. “I want to change things here. I also want to start a school in my village near Mysore for underprivileged kids. I can’t wait to start working on that.”
Every so often, usually after a harrowing personal account comes to light, or an unsavoury media article is published, agency heads send a signal that they are aware of the problem and show some intention to fix it. On May 13, 2021, in a reply to one such personal account on Twitter, CSIR tweeted that they were “acutely aware & sensitive to the issue & new leadership has been put into place who is working overtime during the difficult circumstances of the pandemic to bring comprehensive time bound resolution”.
This was two months after chemist Anjan Ray took over as the head of the Human Resource Development Group, or HRDG, the division that oversees CSIR’s fellowship and grant operations. Ray had made some refreshingly strong statements after taking up the post, seeming to indicate that a much needed shake-up was imminent. He tweeted, for instance, through the official channel, “As Head of CSIR-HRDG, I reiterate that #thebuckstopshere. If you wish to pin the blame of HRDG’s failure on someone, it should be me. No one else.” Though Ray didn’t specifically mention the funding delays problem, given the responsibilities of his post, and the deluge of complaints about the delays, the scientific community had no doubt that he was referring to it.
This could have been construed as reassuring, but those who had been affected for many years knew that this was not the first time such promises had been made. Theoretical neuroscientist Venkat Ramaswamy was prompted to compile some of these broken promises by CSIR into a Twitter thread. The thread shows that in October 2019, the then Director General of CSIR, Shekhar Mande had committed to bringing the number of delayed fellowships “close to zero” by the following April.
Not only did this not happen, numbers that Mande himself tweeted in June 2020 suggested that the extent of delay had actually increased manifold.
Specifically, on June 7, 2020, Mande tweeted that of around 8,000 JRF and SRF fellows, more than 90% funds had received all the money that was due to them up to January, and more than half had received the money they were due up to March. He did not specifically address the fact that even the latter fellows had not received payments they were due from March to June, but blamed the delays on “problems in wrong IFSC/account numbers/incomplete upgrading papers/non receipt of papers from host Inst/Univ”.
The science community did not take kindly to this.
“I am really sorry if this is being touted as an achievement?” said one of the many angry replies to the tweet. “Salaries being delayed by 5 months that too in this COVID pandemic, and no one is calling you out on it? This is disturbing and callous!!!”
(Mande, who superannuated in April this year, declined to be interviewed, saying that he did not work for CSIR anymore.)
In response to TheWire.in’s coverage of the issue, CSIR had said on June 29, 2020, that they would ensure that over the next 15 days, 90% fellows would receive the fellowship amounts they were due for the period up to April 2020.
When none of these promises had borne fruit, scientists felt there was no reason to believe that Anjan Ray’s strong statements in May 2021 would be any different. If the responses to the questionnaire I ran in September 2021 were any indication, the issues still persisted then. The resultant feature on the impact of funding delays was published in January 2022 on TheLifeofScience.com – subsequently, a government official contacted me to say that the science agencies had taken note of the problem, and would be taking steps to tackle it as early as the following week.
The only significant change that was made in the coming weeks was that Anjan Ray was replaced as the head of CSIR-HRDG by Geetha Vani Rayasam. Rayasam, the current head of HRDG did not respond to emails I sent, enquiring about plans to resolve the problem.
Shocked by the extent of troubles faced by researchers, Milind Watve, a science teacher and independent researcher, decided to file Right to Information applications to get some answers from funding agencies. “Since I have left academics, I no more have any funding or students,” he wrote in a Facebook post in October 2021. “As I have left the cover of Institutions and Academies, I suspect I am the right person to fight this. Because I have nothing to gain or lose from it, I think I will be able to set the system right.” In the post, he announced that he had filed RTI applications to DST, DBT and CSIR. In the applications, Watve asked each of the agencies to provide details on ongoing delays in disbursing funding to sanctioned research grants, as well as fellowships and scholarships. He also asked the agencies if they were paying interest to research organisations and researchers on funds that had been delayed. If they were, he sought to know how much was being paid; if they were not, he demanded to know why.
About a month later, Watve began receiving replies to his request. CSIR claimed it was not possible to provide the information he was asking for, partly because “the information sought is voluminous and a lot of compilation is to be done which will disproportionately divert the resources of the public authority”. They further invited Watve to their premises to physically check the registers himself.
Watve wasn’t completely disheartened by this response – he saw it as an indirect admission by CSIR that the problem did exist.
The reply from DST, on the other hand, did not even have that. “They sent back separate responses from different divisions of DST, which all said in slightly different words that there has been no delay ever from DST,” he told Scroll.in. After Watve shared this response on Facebook, several researchers responded contradicting this claim by DST.
About the third RTI, to DBT, Watve said, “They just did not respond.”
Rajesh Gokhale, the current head of CSIR and DBT, told Scroll.in that “delays were happening,” and that “these were a cumulative effect of many issues”.
Gokhale said that when it came to fellowships, agencies were proposing to the ministry that funds be transferred through institutions, so that administrative responsibilities could be shared. This, he suggested, could help reduce delays. “I hope that all will be resolved in one-and-a-half to three months from now,” he said.
As for grants, Gokhale said, “A lot of financial management systems are changing.” He explained that currently, scientists and scientific organisations typically needed to submit considerable documentation, including utilisation certificates and statements of expenditure, to claim funds at each stage. Under a new proposed model, these requirements might be eased, he said, which could speed up the disbursal of funds. For now, the department is “not able to release anyone’s project funds till this system is set in place”, he said. He added that in between one and one-and-a-half months, “30% of people should start getting their funds”.
The DST responded to emailed queries from Scroll.in, stating that, “The underlying issues are being addressed at the highest priority”, and that disbursal of grants for projects “is on track as long as financial documents furnished by investigators are as per norms.”
Though delays in funding remain widespread, some institutions and funding agencies are trying to soften the blow for scientists and PhD students. Among these is India Alliance, which describes itself as an independent public charity “that funds research in health and biomedical sciences in India”. It was set up in 2008 and is funded by the Indian government’s DBT and the United Kingdom’s Wellcome Trust. According to its 2019-’20 annual report, it has so far supported over 500 individuals, teams and institutions with grants and fellowships amounting to over Rs 1,275 crore.
Two respondents to the questionnaire and multiple researchers I interviewed mentioned that it was timely grants or fellowships from India Alliance that enabled them to continue their work despite the unreliability of other sources of funding.
Shahid Jameel, who served as CEO of India Alliance for over seven years, credited MK Bhan, the secretary of the DBT when India Alliance was founded, and Anuradha Lohia, its first CEO, with setting up an organisation in which the government was involved but that nevertheless functioned autonomously. “What these people had developed, and I could sustain, was a deep engagement at the level of governance, but a hands-off approach when it came to operations,” Jameel said.
Jameel explained that within India Alliance, communication was key to smooth funding disbursal. He said the organisation, which routed funds through institutions, “let researchers, and most importantly their institutional finance offices, know at the time the grant was awarded that we will need statements by a defined date” – referring to statements of expenditure. This helped ensure that the institutions would disburse funds on time to the scientists. India Alliance also conducts workshops to educate institute offices on how to fill out expense sheets correctly to minimise errors and back-and-forth communication. “Internally, our grants and finance teams were aligned,” said Jameel. “They had joint weekly meetings to resolve any pending disbursal matters, and communicated these clearly back to the beneficiaries.”
According to Sarah Iqbal, who formerly led communications and public engagement at India Alliance, the organisation quickly realised that no matter how determined the funding agency was to disburse funds on time, delays could occur if the receiving institution did not have sound processes in place.
To address this problem, some organisations, India Alliance among them, have begun to work towards incorporating the role of research managers into scientific institutions. These are professionals who are responsible for supporting researchers in a variety of ways, including coordinating their grant applications, overseeing processes that projects follow, and managing budgets. In recent years, many countries have recognised that research managers are essential for a healthy scientific ecosystem, but the role remains underappreciated in India.
In 2018, India Alliance set up a venture called the India Research Management Initiative, through which the organisation awards grants and fellowships aimed at helping institutions set up or enhance research management services. As another step towards the same end, they also introduced a provision in one of their research grants for scientists, whereby a part of the budget could be allocated towards hiring a research manager.
“We noticed that institutions that had research officers were a lot more efficient. And this was also good for us – we could have smoother interactions and interface with institutions,” said Iqbal.
“The bottomline,” said Jameel, “was a clear directive from the top that IA is a research funder that services researchers. We are there for researchers, it’s not the other way around. We will do everything to help them.”
But agencies like India Alliance deal with a relatively small number of applications, fellows and grantees. In comparison, streamlining financial processes in massive and historic set-ups such as CSIR and DST is a far greater challenge. “IA manages a very, very tiny pot of research funding,” Iqbal said. “As you scale up, complications and complexities increase, so I think some things you can adapt to a bigger organisation, and some things you may not.”
Jameel doesn’t believe scale is an acceptable excuse for the persistence of the problem. “I am sorry, it is not an insurmountable task,” he said. “All agency heads are political appointees at some level. They should be able to use that leverage with the government.”
The Principal Scientific Advisor’s office responded to emailed queries from Scroll.in about steps taken to tackle the problem, stating, “We have held a series of meetings with CSIR to streamline it and the matter is being resolved at their level. CSIR is making all efforts in resolving this at the earliest.”
Jameel suggested that the Principal Scientific Advisor should play a more prominent role in tackling this problem. “What is the purpose of the PSA Office?” he said. “Is it to talk about big blue sky projects” – referring to projects that don’t have immediate real-world applications – “or seek a structural alignment that makes research more accountable and less wasteful? Perhaps both.” But, he cautioned, “big things usually fail if little things are out of order.”