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Spending without a research grant

We all get to hear stories about how research grants are spent or wasted. Recently I came to know about another channel of flow. Every research institute buys instruments from research grants, but also outside research grants. This comes from the institute’s `research budget’, which is usually finagled out of the total budget by the Director. This usually means that there is no money for other things,  whether it is a students’ hostel, or library subscription.

In some places, or perhaps some cases, the allocation of money to buy instruments (or computers) from the institute’s budget follows a procedure similar to a grant application in which a detailed budget has to be made by the principal investigator (PI) and the research proposal has to be defended in front of a committee. Usually this committee is not as strict as the grant committees of the national agencies, but still, there has to be a defence.

A few days ago, I saw some figures for one of the smaller research institutes in the city. In the last five years, this institute has spent about Rs. 100,000,000, mostly in foreign exchange, to buy instruments on its own. Yes, that is 10 crores. On average 2 crores a year. This is without taking into account the instruments bought from sponsored grants, but that figure is not comparable. In other words, granting agencies did not agree to give similar grants to this institute for buying instruments. And I was told that in many cases, these instruments were paid for by the centre because the granting agencies refused to.

The annual maintenance of all these instruments is more than a crore. The support expenses, due to power, air conditioning, and consumables, is probably of the same order. Which is less than what it would cost to promote all the scientists there to the highest pay grade. But that procedure requires application, CV, letters of recommendation, and an interview committee. Why should similar amounts of money be spent without any checks?

Someone suggested that it is because cut money is involved in the purchases. I do not wish to believe him, but I do not have a satisfactory answer either.

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