Scientific distemper

Scientific distemper

Government’s rhetoric on science has shown limited understanding of its nature and purpose

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Good science needs the long haul. Periodic progress reports can be required of school students, not scientists.

On Wednesday, scientists, students, educators and science enthusiasts marched in 25 Indian cities, demanding better propagation of the scientific temper — a fundamental duty listed in Article 51A(h) of the Constitution — and substantive funding for science and education. However, the government may not pay heed. By all accounts, while it values science for development and the national interest, it does not acknowledge adequately that research requires an open atmosphere untrammelled by political objectives.

The roots of discontent in the scientific community go back to two significant events in 2015. One was the prime minister’s inaugural speech at the Tirupati Science Congress, in which he positioned science and technology as handmaidens of immediate developmental needs, and recommended that corporate social responsibility funds should be channelled towards scientific research. The other was the declaration following a chintan shivir organised in Dehradun, which essentially stated that labs should be development-oriented, partly self-funding and profit-making by 2017. The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research was asked to raise half of its funds and laboratories were to report routinely about how their research advanced the economic and social goals of the NDA government.

Both these articulations exposed a problematic understanding of how science works, what it can deliver, and when. Good science needs the long haul. Periodic progress reports can be required of school students, not scientists. Fruits like Chandrayaan that Isro is reaping now have grown from seeds sown decades ago, when rocket cones were transported to the Thumba launch pad on bicycle carriers. Besides, the pressure to raise funds and to partner with industry would favour applied science, which industry can commercialise. This would be at the expense of fundamental research, which is the wellspring of all science. Materials research has fairly immediate outcomes, but it should not be promoted at the expense of astronomy, only because the output of stargazing is unquantifiable in the short term. Similarly, while the government is free to investigate the properties of dung and the benefits of yoga, it should not be at the expense of the funding of genetics or cosmic ray research. Besides, autonomous bodies like CSIR must now bear 70 per cent of the burden of the Seventh Pay Commission, and the impact may affect research budgets. More than before, scientists have reason to fear that the direction of their work may be set by external forces, and that the disinterested pursuit of science will become an even more difficult quest.