Speaking of science

Controversies about Indian Science Congress point to a deeper problem in science administration.

By: Express News Service | Updated: January 11, 2016 4:38 am

Yet another session of the Indian Science Congress (ISC) drew to a close marked by public hilarity and exasperation among scientists. The ISC Association was established in 1914 to promote science and the scientific temper by connecting scientists, administrators, policymakers, communicators and the people. The nationalistic celebration of antique Indian science was not a serious objective. However, the high point of the 102nd ISC in Mumbai last year was a controversy over a spurious text claiming aeronautical and space-faring capabilities in early India. This year’s congress at Mysore University has attracted attention for a presentation positing that Shiva was an ecological pioneer. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society, has dismissed the event as a “circus” remote from the pursuit of science and resolved never to attend again.

There is a puzzling dichotomy between the bizarre behaviour on display at the ISC and India’s scientific prowess. The space programme has been amazingly energetic, for instance, delivering landmarks in lunar and planetary research on minimal budgets. Some branches of science plod along, though, as if they were caught in some Sargasso Sea of inadequacy. It was the mandate of the ISC, an early attempt at cross-disciplinary academics, to draw multiple threads of science and mathematics together. The world bristles with venues for presenting specialist papers to peers, and this is not one of them. At the ISC, it is more important for specialists to collaborate across specialisations to evolve a general direction for Indian science, and to communicate it to the media and the public. Recently, it has evolved a focus on women, children, pedagogy and science communication, but much more needs to be done to connect the congress more directly with the nation and the people.

The ISC falls under the department of science and technology and if it seems to be under the weather, it also reflects confusion and discomfort in the scientific community over government policy. Last summer, Minister for Science and Technology Harsh Vardhan declared that within two years, all labs under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research would attempt to become self-financing, and would focus on research for national missions like Swachh Bharat and Skill India. Cost-benefit analyses and the social benefits of research would matter. Such a policy would immediately value applied science over fundamental research, from which everything springs, and which has traditionally been funded by governments in scientifically capable countries. What is the cost-benefit analysis of the Higgs boson? What is the social benefit of ribosomal research, for which Ramakrishnan won a Nobel? To clarify its mind, the government only needs to ask itself the very simplest questions.