India’s public R&D and the fight against COVID-19

India’s public R&D and innovation ecosystem has been in the spotlight of late as it complements other government measures and the efforts of the private sector to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Scientists at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) have been focused on developing ventilators, sanitisers, masks and  other personal protective equipment1, while more recently the Union Health Minister announced that India would start producing indigenously developed RT-PCR test kits by end May 2020.2 The Department of Biotechnology is leading various initiatives to support and coordinate research efforts with respect to diagnostics, proposals for vaccines and plasma therapy, and even the genome sequencing of SARS-CoV-2.3

As can be seen in Table 1 below, the investment in public R&D in India can be divided into strategic research undertaken by government departments like the DRDO, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Department of Space (DoS) and other scientific research undertaken through departments and institutions like the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR), the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), the Department of Science and Technology (DST), the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). The departments and institutions mentioned above account for over 80 percent of central government spending on R&D, with the bulk being undertaken by DRDO, DoS and DAE. In recent years, India’s space research programme has won praise globally for the Mars Orbiter Mission as well as for Chandrayaan-2,  the recently attempted lunar exploration mission.

While the current pandemic has now resulted in greater emphasis being placed on investments in healthcare R&D by the government, the table below highlights how this has not always been the case. If one considers the combined spending of DBT and ICMR as a share of national R&D – this was just 4.4 percent of central government R&D spending as per data from 2014-15. Even if one allows for an increase in spending by ICMR and DBT in recent years and if we were to consider the contributions of other public laboratories and departments in the fight against COVID-19, India’s spending on healthcare R&D as a share of total government spending on R&D would still be significantly lower compared to some of the advanced economies like the US and the UK where this share is around 25 percent4. Given the demand for healthcare in India, it would be prudent to grow public research in this sector significantly.

The mission mode approach in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in collaborations between public research institutions and the private sector to scale up production of ventilators personal protective equipment, testing kits etc. The private sector too has been engaged in research to find technology based solutions to combat the virus. A sustained and focused effort to grow healthcare research in India with a focus on medical devices and diagnostic equipment, even once we are past the current crisis, could see India becoming the world’s provider of high quality low cost medical devices.

Table 1: Expenditure on R&D by major scientific agencies/ departments under the Central Government

Govt. AgencyExpenditure in 2009-10 (Rs Crores)As % of Central Govt Expenditure on R&D in 2009-10As % of National R&D in 2009-10Expenditure in 2014-15 (Rs Crores)As % of Central Govt Expenditure on R&D in 2014-15As % of National R&D in 2014-15
Strategic/Sensitive Research
Department of Atomic Energy3858.212.27.34075.179.54.8
Department of Space4163.013.17.85818.3713.56.8
Total A16496.652.131.123151.553.727.1
Other Key Scientific Departments
Total B8844.627.916.711882.227.613.9
Grand Total (Total A + Total B)25341.280.047.835033.881.341.1
Source: DST, CTIER



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