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Science circus – Frontline

IF you browse through the abstracts of hundreds of papers presented at different subject-wise sections of practically every past session of the annual mela called the Indian Science Congress (ISC), whose 106th session concluded in Jalandhar in early January, you are bound to come across a few—on occasions even a substantial number of—cranky papers, including what would be called pseudoscience, such as magneto therapy, parapsychology, perpetual machines and modern flat-earth propositions. This may be shocking but perhaps not surprising. Considering the large number of papers that are submitted every year, a few probably can slip through the scrutiny, assuming that there is one.

But it is these that are picked up by the media for highlighting because the level of acceptable science at the ISC sessions is so low that there is nothing otherwise of significance that emerges from the various deliberations at the congress to write about. The ISC sessions have always been low on science unlike other such major scientific jamborees in other parts of the world where, even if there are papers that should not have found a place there, the general level of science is reasonable enough that these get ignored as oddities.

What happened at the 102nd session in Mumbai in 2015 and recently at the Jalandhar session were a different kettle of fish altogether; they were dominated by an ideologically driven and politically motivated brand of pseudoscience riding on the Hindutva agenda unleashed by the BJP-led government and its different Sangh Parivar affiliate bodies in their all-out bid to saffronise education and rewrite history. At the Mumbai session, a newly crafted symposium on “Ancient Indian Science through Sanskrit”, a title that betrayed its underlying objective, featured a paper on “ancient” Vaimanika Shastra (Ancient Indian Aviation Technology). In 1974, a study by researchers of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) had debunked this so-called “ancient” text as fake and found that it was of recent origin. The study had also demolished the claims that Indians possessed advanced aviation technology as far back as 7000 BC and that the aircraft described in Vaimanika Shastra were aerodynamically unfeasible. And yet a paper on this topic was regarded as worthy of presentation at the ISC.

Other similar papers at this symposium were “Engineering Applications of Ancient Indian Botany”, “Neuroscience of Yoga”, “Advances in surgery in India”, and “Scientific Principles of Ancient Indian Architecture and Civil Engineering”. Contrary to what the Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA) to the Union government, K. VijayRaghavan, has said in his blog, reacting to the pseudoscientific talks at the Jalandhar session—that the government does not interfere in the choice of topics and speakers—it is hard to imagine that the Mumbai symposium would have been organised without any urging and backing by the political dispensation at the Centre.

Modi waves

G. Nageswara Rao, Vice Chancellor of Andhra University and an inorganic chemist, and Kannan Krishnan, who claims to be an energy systems specialist, made some outrageous statements at the “Meet the Scientist” event of the Children’s Science Congress section at the Jalandhar session. The former told the gathering that the 100 Kaurava princes of the Mahabharata could have been born only as test-tube babies and that stem cell technology existed in ancient times. He also claimed that Ravana, the mythical king of Lanka, had 24 types of aircraft besides the Puspaka Vimana mentioned in Ramayana. Krishnan claimed that Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein were wrong and that gravitational waves should be renamed (Narendra) Modi waves. The fact that they were invited speakers at the session means that the two were specifically chosen to address and influence the young, impressionable minds. This smacks of an ulterior motive and a hidden agenda that rode on the Hindutva politics of the government in power at the Centre.

Such pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo has been in evidence in the past four years of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rule right down the political class in power from the highest executive—recall Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement on the eve of the Mumbai Science Congress about the birth of Karna (of Mahabharata fame) and the elephant head of Ganesha as evidence of ancient knowledge of genetics and plastic surgery. At the 2018 Science Congress, the Minister of Science and Technology stated that the Vedas might have a theory superior to Einstein’s celebrated E=mc formula. Clearly, pseudoscience presented at Science Congress sessions in recent times has derived its strength and support from the statements by the current political dispensation.

To put an end to the spouting of such nonsense at the ISC, VijayRaghavan exhorted the scientific community to speak up. But pseudoscience wrapped in divisive communal Hindutva agenda needs to be countered not just by the scientific community but by the academia in general. Indeed, a large number of academics did voice their opinion through a written protest against the controversial events at the Mumbai Science Congress. But that obviously did not have any impact on the ISC, whose session this year provided a platform for similar pseudoscientific claims.

Outcry against pseudoscience

In the wake of the events at the Jalandhar Congress, 37 academics have reportedly written an open letter. But as long as the Sangh Parivar rules the country, outcry in the manner of the current protest is unlikely to have any effect at the Science Congresses of the future although it has been reported that the Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA), the professional body under the Department of Science and Technology (DST) that organises the annual ritual, has apparently now resolved to obtain in advance the abstracts of the lectures of all speakers, including those speaking at the Children’s Science Congress. “We will not vet but screen the abstracts, and not allow pseudoscience to be presented. We will also have a person from the Association at every session and remove the speakers from the dais if they go beyond the purview of the submitted abstract,” Premendu P. Mathur of the ISCA has been quoted as saying. It remains to be seen if this will become effective.

Also, why speak out only against pseudoscience at the ISC? Why not against the growth of pseudoscience in general in the country, pseudoscientific acts of the state in particular, including introduction of University Grants Commission(UGC)-approved astrology courses in universities, creation of a Ministry for homoeopathy, criminal investigations based on narcoanalysis and polygraphs or approving a mission for investigations on panchagavya (cow excreta)? As the PSA, VijayRaghavan should be doing so. Incidentally, VijayRaghavan was a member of the National Steering Committee for the Panchagavya mission when he was Secretary of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT).

Also, in all probability, as a working scientist or as the Director of the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), VijayRaghavan, like most of India’s mainstream scientists, would not have considered the Science Congress to be important enough to be bothered about and speak out against pseudoscience at its sessions. It is only after occupying the chair of a senior scientocrat, first as the DBT Secretary and now as the PSA, that it becomes necessary for him (and other scientocrats) to be associated with the Science Congress because every session is inaugurated by the Prime Minister (following the tradition set in 1947 by India’s first Prime Minister) with the Science & Technology Minister and the Secretaries of the various scientific Ministries in tow.

It may be even argued that it is not science but the presence of the Prime Minister at the annual congregation year after year, and the media spotlight on the event because of that, which provides the raison d’etre for the Science Congress. Indeed, to ensure good media coverage, the DST takes a group of journalists, at its expense, to report the event. From this perspective, the Science Congress sessions are indeed political events. Many have opined that if the concept of the Prime Minister attending the Science Congress is scrapped, the quality of the congress may improve and mainstream scientists may begin to take the session more seriously.

Policy statement

It is true that there was a period when Prime Ministers such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi were concerned about science in the country and seriously engaged with the scientific community. The Scientific Policy Resolution (SPR) of 1958, the constitution of the National Committee on Science and Technology (NCST) in 1970 under C. Subramaniam, and the Technology Policy Statement (TPS) in 1983, which came as a consequence of the NCST and its deliberations, were landmark initiatives by the political class of the time. So, a Science Congress providing a platform to make important policy statements on the S&T front made political sense. The last significant policy statement that came from the podium of the Science Congress was perhaps the Technology Policy Statement by Indira Gandhi at the 1983 Congress at Tirupati.

But, of late, the absence of vision and policy articulation on S&T at the highest executive level has turned this tradition of the presence of the Prime Minister into a mere ritual, with the scientocracy trying hard every year to manufacture announcements to be made by the Prime Minister that have the pretence of policy statements. The repetitive announcements of S&T policy statement, with minor tinkering and alterations each time—the last one was in 2013—is evidence of that. Since 2014, of course, serious engagement of the political class with the scientific community, the highest executive in particular, has hit the nadir, and there has been no significant policy initiative of note on the research and development front by the government even as there are reports of cuts in research funding from different quarters.

It is important to look at the current dynamics of the ISC to understand from where it draws its sustenance in terms of the sheer numbers that it attracts every year if it is not science and mainstream scientists. Besides the annual grant from the government to the tune of about Rs.2 crore, the ISCA raises funds through membership fees of its huge body of members and financial support from other bodies. A look at the list of (life and annual) members of the ISCA shows that most of the well-known names in Indian mainstream science (who invariably are from major R&D institutions, government laboratories and big Central universities) do not figure in it. For example, none of the presidents of the three scientific academies of the country is a member of the ISCA. The directors of top research institutions are not members of the Association. Interestingly, Ashutosh Sharma, a materials scientist and the present Secretary of the DST, the apex body for the ISCA, does not seem to be a member of the Association. Neither is VijayRaghavan, who wants the scientific community to speak up.

Meaningless mela

Nobel laureate Venky Ramakrishnan had called the ISC a “circus”, and it is indeed one. “Mammoth Meaningless Mela” is what this correspondent had called it nearly three and a half decades ago, and the Science Congress would seem to have not greatly improved since then in terms of the quality of science deliberated at its sessions. There are reasons for that. In general, serious working scientists consider it a waste of time to attend the Congress and not worth their while to be bothered about it or become an ISCA member when that professional body is not associated with serious science and is hardly run as a professional outfit. Scientists and research supervisers at well-known research institutions or R&D laboratories of the country do not tell their research students to present their work at the Science Congress. To add to this is the organisational chaos at this mega event that fits Ramakrishnan’s description of it as a “circus”. VijayRaghavan, however, believes that the Congress has improved significantly on this front. But that alone is not sufficient to redeem it.

It is true that many leading lights of Indian science have been the general presidents, and sometimes sectional presidents, at the Congresses even in recent years. They must have been identified by the ISCA to give some superficial respectability to the Congress and its sessions. But to be elected to these posts the Regulations of the Association require the individual to be a member just as Manmohan Singh, the former Prime Minister, had to become for being the General President of the Centenary Science Congress in 2013 in Kolkata. So, such willing high-level scientists are persuaded to become life members of the ISCA by paying a small sum of Rs.2,000 (current rate).

So you find names of some prominent scientists, who were general presidents and sectional presidents in the past on the life members’ list, who probably after the event forget the Congress for the rest of their lives. Also, interestingly, there are well-known scientists who were general presidents in the past and whose names do not figure on the life members’ list of the Association. So, in all probability, they would have become annual members for that particular year by paying just Rs.200 for being elected general president and then forgot about the Science Congress and the affairs of the ISCA.

If there is no serious science at the sessions, why do high-profile scientists accept their election to the post of general president? It is because either they are politically inclined or, having already become scientocrats (such as Secretaries of Science Ministries), have been close to the political class by being involved in science administration at the highest level. The event gives them the opportunity to wear the distinguishing robe and share the dais with the Prime Minister and other top people in the political class. To add respectability to the Congress they would be heading, they invite some well-known scientists in their circle to deliver lectures or become plenary speakers or organise special symposia or side events under the umbrella of the Congress.

Then who constitute the huge majority of the ISCA’s over 30,000 members (Wikipedia data) who throng the annual mela? It is the vast sea of mediocrity that pervades our State and other small universities and nondescript colleges and institutions across the country, their science faculty, research scholars and doctoral and post-graduate students.

Assault on quality

The quality of science at the Science Congresses is obviously a function of the quality of science practised by this overwhelming majority of what constitutes the Indian scientific community. It is a reflection of the quality of academics and scientific research at the universities, the level of which has been in constant decline for the past five decades or so notwithstanding the recent oft-repeated pious statements about improving university standards, including Prime Minister Modi’s statement in his inaugural address in Jalandhar, and other such statements at these inaugural addresses and elsewhere, on increasing R&D investment to 2 per cent of the gross domestic product. On the other hand, there is increasing evidence to suggest that the assault on the quality of higher education, particularly in the universities, has been systematic and severe in recent years, including the appointment of hand-picked vice chancellors who are close to the Sangh Parivar or are seen to be pliant to the current dispensation at the Centre. The presence, at the behest of the general president of the ISC, of a handful of front-line scientists of the country or a few Nobel laureates cannot change the overwhelming character of the Congress itself.

For the large number of mediocre scientists and researchers, the Science Congress is the only forum that is available where they can present their work. That presentation adds a line to their curriculum vitae and that increases their promotional chances at the local institutional level as presentation at conferences is one of the criteria adopted for performance evaluation. It is also an opportunity for them to travel with their families to a new place every year as a fun trip.

Also, small universities and institutions vie with one another to host the Science Congress if they have reasonable infrastructure to do so. Since the event will be attended by the Prime Minister, these institutions benefit by way of facelift to the infrastructure of the institute/campus at the Centre’s expense. In recent years, with universities (both Central and State) not having sufficient resources to host the Congress, private universities have jumped on to the bandwagon. Lovely Professional University in Jalandhar hosted this year’s Congress. The Prime Minister’s visit to the campus adds to their brand value in the education marketplace, which for them is a highly profitable investment.

The germ of the problem with the Science Congress, therefore, is the continuing erosion of science education and research in Indian universities, which have been crying for a thorough systemic overhaul for decades but to no avail. The ISCA and the annual Science Congress sessions can perpetuate themselves as long as the above self-sustaining and self-fulfilling logic remains operative. They exist as part of a parallel universe within the Indian scientific system with which the interactions of the mainstream scientific community are more like minor perturbations.

If an annual mega scientific event such as the Science Congress is important for the practice of rational and quality science and research in the country and if mainstream science and scientists of the country must participate in such annual events, this self-sustaining logic chain of the Congress must be broken. Will the scientific community stand up and speak up against the presence of the Prime Minister and the political class at these annual sessions, which has become totally irrelevant for pursuing good science education and research in the country? Can the ISCA and its sessions be completely restructured so that more attention is paid to science than to cosmetics coloured by politics? If the scientific community wishes to see a real change in these annual jamborees, these tough decisions have to be taken and acted upon.

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