The Indian Science Congress turns 100 tomorrow. Quite fittingly the 100th session of this event returns to Kolkata, the city where it originated from, and the city which once was the centre of all things intellectual and cultural.
As is customary, the Prime Minister will address the gathering, where pomp and ceremony have taken precedence over substance. Current Science editor and IISc director P Balaram recently wrote a sharp editorial on this. In all likelihood, the Congress this year will be different. One, because it is the 100th session; two, the President of India will inaugurate the session; three, the presiding PM is the General President of the Congress and is going to announce the new Science, Technology & Innovation Policy. This policy is an update over the 2003 S&T policy, which itself was a leap from the past (1958) when it was merely called the Scientific Policy Resolution.
The shift in nomenclature is significant. It indicates how the scientific enterprise itself has changed over the years, getting closely interwoven with the economic and social fabric of the society. As veteran geneticist Craig Venter says, as a species we are more than ever dependent on science for everything.
The stated theme for the Congress is: Science for Shaping the Future of India. While a large number of scientists themselves are not kicked about the Congress, what is worth watching this year is the discussion or the PM’s elaboration of how the new policy will be implemented. For far too long has the discipline of science been divorced from its legitimate partner; that is, application or its translation of knowledge into practical use. MIT founder William Barton Rogers once said, “The world-enforced distinction between the practical and the scientific worker is utterly futile, and the whole experience of modern times has demonstrated its utter worthlessness.”
In India, we have tolerated this futility at the huge cost of development.
The direct funding for S&T– let alone all the other departments like space, defense, atomic energy, biotechnology, agriculture, etc, — in the annual budget has increased significantly. In 2012-13, while the Dept of S & T and Dept of Scientific and Industrial Research budgets grew by 28.7 and 34.8 % respectively, while that of the Dept of Atomic Energy grew 13.8%.
The budgets will increase further even if a fraction of what the PM announced at 2012 Science Congress, of spending 2% of GDP on R&D by 2017, is implemented.
In that case, big cash needs big reforms in institutional management, fund disbursement, and above all, fresh thinking. If ISC has to become a place of policy announcement, then better make it relevant to everybody. Such an omnibus meeting is certainly not relevant today when most active researchers go to their respective subject conferences. (Let’s keep the Academies aside for now, though they are anemic too.) There’s just too much mediocrity being paraded everywhere. Ayn Rand says it most succinctly why we should worry about it: “Mediocrity doesn’t mean average intelligence, it means an average intelligence that resents and envies its betters.”
“The ISC does not serve too much of an academic purpose in my opinion,” says Ronojoy Adhikari, a mathematician at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai. “I have not heard any of my colleagues being invited to it, or even bothering to attend it. It is certainly not a preferred forum for scientists to exchange their research findings. I think we should have more engagement from working scientists, so that the Congress is more inclusive.”
Sometime last year, in the context of ISC, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he wanted young minds to come to science and participate in integrated rural development. A lot needs to change for that but let me offer some suggestions:
1. Keep open house discussions on big science projects/themes: If at all the Congress is to be the place to make policy announcements, then make it also the place where its rationale is discussed. Almost every policy today is inseparable from technicalities – energy, healthcare, education, defense, communication, etc. Choose big subjects, get the most relevant and renowned people in the field to present the most updated data and discussion. For instance, take one space mission or a new technical area (say, the cryogenic stages of GSLV which have gone through ups and downs or, why ISRO needs cross fertilization with the industry), get the people working on it to discuss the challenges and scope of these programs. Similarly, it could be about nuclear power (After protests in all corners of the country, the least nuclear scientists can do is have town hall meetings on these subjects), shale gas exploration or new solar energy strategy.
2. Feed science/tech into evidence-based policy making: Science is supposed to advice public policy. But is that advice based on evidence today? Perhaps sometimes, but not always. Let me cite an example. The Toronto-based epidemiologist, Prabhat Jha has been long running this research called Million Death Study and using data from the first 250,000 deaths, his team has showed that 1 million people are dying in India from smoking related diseases. It forced the govt to step up the gas on using warning labels on tobacco products. It also showed 100,000 people were dying from AIDS, nearly a quarter of the number that UN was advocating. Resources have been (or are being) reallocated as HIV treatment is expensive. Similarly, snakebite deaths amount to 50,000, the total number for worldwide cases according to the WHO, forcing government and primary health care centres to focus on stocking venom and other necessary medicines.
3. Open up govt data with immediate effect: There’s a worldwide trend to make govt data available online in open formats and licenses that allow people to use it freely. India too made its beginning. But even a few months after the beta launch of the India data portal, it looks almost devoid of any useful data. While a long list of suggestions from users is already up there, it’d be worth anybody’s while if all ministries and public institutions worked in a coordinated manner to make their data available. Opportunities are particularly big for entrepreneurs in healthcare, energy, urban planning, and other natural resources. As Vijay Chandru, founder-chairman of bio-informatics company Strand Life Sciences says, it is the “Y2K moment” for companies in India.
4. No separate Academy for young scientists and engineers: The PM last year said a proposal has been mooted for a separate Academy for the young. To my mind, that would create wider divides. Instead, give 40 percent seats in the existing Academies to scientists/engineers under 40. Besides removing some deadwood, it’d infuse energy in the remaining members who also need to change with time, especially now when nobody retires; people move from one role to another.
5. If ISC cannot reinvent or reform itself, it should shut shop, just end: It serves no academic or practical purpose. And like all legacies, is hijacked by governmental science.
On Jan 3, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, who was then a member of the Interim Government and was to become the PM eight months later, had said: “Governments normally are very slow and the only thing that moves them is some immediate outcry which affects their future indirectly. Therefore, I should discourage among the scientists a reliance always on what Government may or may not do.” Was Nehru prescient or intuitive?
When I asked Balaram whether he is optimistic about the fate of scientific enterprise in India or pessimistic, his response was neutral: “Matters take care of themselves over time, that’s how it happens in biology…”