Why not increase ISRO’s budget?

This post is in response to a question on Reddit about why the Indian government won’t increase ISRO’s space budget.

There’s a good analogy in India’s research budget. As a share of the GDP, the national expenditure on R&D has fallen significantly since 1996, to the current value of around 0.65%. The world’s other ‘science superpowers’ – including the US, China, Germany, and South Korea – spend at least 2% of their GDP on R&D. Many experts have also said publicly that earmarking this fraction of the GDP for R&D may be a prerequisite for India’s desire to become an economically developed national by 2047. But this is one half of the story. The other half is that the Ministry of Science & Technology has consistently underspent the amount the Ministry of Finance has been allocating it.

One established reason for underspending is that there are too few avenues for uptake, meaning the ministry needs to setup those opportunities as well. In 2018, the then principal scientific advisor to the government, K. VijayRaghavan, had articulated something similar in an interview – two days ahead of India’s ‘March for Science’, an event that philosopher Sundar Sarukkai had criticised earlier for pushing the notion that more funding for science (participants wanted the government to spend 3% of the GDP on R&D) could halt the spread of pseudoscientific ideas in society.

It’s the same with ISRO. While there’s a reasonable case to be made to increase spending on space-related activities, we also need the right industries and research opportunities to exist and which demand that money. It’s possible to contend that this is really a chicken-and-egg problem and that by increasing spending, institutions and activities can, say, become more efficient and allow members of the extant workforce to ‘look’ for new opportunities to begin with. But the cycle needs to be broken somewhere, and as things stand, it’s not unreasonable for funds to be released as and when the right opportunities arise.

ISRO’s lack of effective PR or media outreach offers a good illustration: many observers and commentators have pointed at NASA’s higher budget (in absolute numbers) and then at its admirable outreach policies and programme as if to say the two are related. However, throwing more money at ISRO and asking it to set up an outreach unit will still only produce a less-than-mediocre effort because we’ll be attempting to improve outreach without enhancing the culture in which the need for such outreach is rooted.

A similar argument goes for claims about ISRO employees being ‘underpaid’: who decides their salaries and why are they what they are? I doubt the salaries haven’t been increased for want of funds – speaking to a recurring motif in India’s research administration. Setting aside the concerns about underspending and utilisation efficiency, India’s spending on R&D is low not because the government doesn’t have the money. It certainly does, and in the last decade alone has repeatedly allocated very large sums for certain technologically intensive enterprises (and puff projects to inflate the ruling party’s reputation) when they present the right, even if short-sighted, appeal.

As publicly funded R&D institutions go, ISRO is among the most efficiently organised and run in India, even if it isn’t perfect. This backdrop merits examining the cases to increase its capital expenses (for missions, etc.) and revenue expenses (for salaries, etc.) separately. In this post I’m skipping the latter.

The practice of funding mission proposals on a case-by-case basis rather than hiking overall allocation makes more sense because such a thing would force ISRO, and the Department of Space (DoS) ecosystem more broadly, into a culture of pitching ideas to the government and awaiting deliberation and approval. In fact, currently, the DoS is overseen by the prime minister and missions have to be approved by the Union Cabinet, which is also an iffy setup. If this individual and/or their party puts politics before country, we are liable to have politically advantageous missions funded even when they lack proportionate scientific and/or societal value.

Instead, there needs to be an expert committee in between ISRO and the Cabinet whose members vote on proposals before forwarding the winning ones to the Cabinet. This committee needs to be beyond the DoS’s remit as well as be empowered to resist political capture. Such a setup is the way to go now that ISRO is starting on very expensive and sophisticated missions like human spaceflight, space stations, reusable launch vehicles, and lunar sample-return.

(* In a previous version of this post, I also suspected the Indian and the US governments have allocated comparable fractions of their GDP for their respective space departments. I subsequently stood corrected.)