A forum for pseudo-sciencehttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/a-forum-for-pseudo-science-congress-5536665/

A forum for pseudo-science

The Science Congress has lost its way. There is a strong case for abolishing it altogether

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Prime Minister, Narendra Modi at Indian Science Conference (ISC) 2019. (Source: narendramodi.in)

The Science Congress is an expensive annual tamasha funded by the Government of India. Since it is in the name of science, it escapes close scrutiny. The high point of every Congress is the inaugural session presided over by the prime minister. Duty bound, the bigwigs of government also attend but leave as soon as the chief guest does.

A large number of research papers are read at the Congress, most of them sub-standard. Even if a small fraction of them were capable of being enlarged into a full-fledged peer-reviewed research publication, India would be a major player in the field of modern science. Higher-ranking institutions, as a rule, hold the Science Congress in contempt and dissuade their researchers from attending.

Things were not always so. India was the first country outside the Western world to take to modern science; the world’s first non-White modern scientists are Indian. In the early years, Indian science was fairly competitive and the Science Congress was set up a century ago as a community forum on the lines of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The memoir of an American delegate for the January 1947 Congress, noted botanist Albert Blakeslee, provided some insights into where Indian science stood on the eve of Independence.

He noted that Indian participants were well informed on the latest developments in their field and asked searching questions. Very perceptively, he recorded that a person’s official position was considered more important than the work he was doing. Not surprisingly, young researchers felt that “pull” played a role in selecting candidates for foreign scholarships. But at least rigorous scientific training was seen as essential for the new generation of scientists.

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As world science dramatically grew after World War II, India started lagging behind. In recent decades, as our desire to service the Western economy has increased, respect and support for science have gone down. It is important to do good science, but it is more important not to do bad science. Mediocre and low-level research feels emboldened when the government makes official forums available for its dissemination. As any gardener knows, removing weeds is a prerequisite for growing flowers.

In the past couple of years, an extremely disturbing trend has set in. The Science Congress is increasingly being used as a forum to propound and propagate absurd notions about sacred ancient Indian literature. When the trend has been set by the prime minister, science minister and chief ministers, lesser people can only compete among themselves to see who can stoop lower. At this Congress and elsewhere, the birth of a hundred sons and a solitary daughter of Gandhari have been presented as proof of the prevalence of stem cell research. The Mahabharata talks of a piece of iron as the foetus and the employment of water and ghee as the means of splitting it. Surely, modern research requires more complex materials than that.

Irresponsible utterances at hitherto respected forums not only insult modern science but ancient Indian authors and poets as well. When a crackpot declares from a government-supported modern scientific forum that Newton’s and Einstein’s theories are wrong, India becomes an object of international derision.

Regular Indian modern science is not sufficiently productive and fast-paced to be able to provide new results every 12 months. A strong case exists for abolishing the Science Congress altogether, especially when discipline-specific learned bodies are in existence. If the Science Congress is to be continued for old times’ sake, it should not be held annually but every three or four years.

Globalisation has provided India with a pretext to abdicate its responsibility in the vital area of education. For some reason not made public, and a departure from general practice, the task of organising this year’s Science Congress was entrusted to a private university in Punjab. The sole aim of private universities is to make money; this they can do only by offering professional courses. This year’s host has a school for fashion design but none for basic sciences. Hosting an event inaugurated by the PM and attended by Nobel laureates will enhance the host university’s profile and further encourage students to move away from basic sciences.

The nation must develop collective wisdom and realise that in the present age, science is the only instrument for ensuring economic growth, improving quality of life, and bringing about social change. Cultivation of science demands respect for its methodology and strict avoidance of pseudo-science.

The shallowness of the Science Congress culture can be seen from the fact that the entire country goes gaga over the presence of a handful of Western Nobel laureates who come as part of a diplomatic exercise. It may not be out of place to recall an incident from 20 years ago (to which I was privy). The Science Congress president told the Chinese ambassador, with obvious pride, that as many as six Nobel laureates would be attending the forthcoming event. The ambassador turned his head towards the Indian scientist, and said in an even tone: Do you have that many Nobel laureates in your country? This was his way of saying: Produce your own Nobel laureates; do not exult as an event manager.

The inauguration of this year’s Science Congress has coincided with the successful landing of a Chinese robotic rover on the dark side of the moon that had never been seen before. The rover is named Chang’e, after the Moon goddess of Chinese mythology. This is China’s way of linking its ancient heritage with its present-day prowess. The highlight of the Science Congress has been a paper read by a university vice-chancellor ridiculously claiming that various types of aircraft were known in the Ramayana.

(The writer is former director of National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies (CSIR), New Delhi)