New Delhi: The 100th session of the annual Indian Science Congress, which will be held in New Delhi from 3-7 January, hasn’t occasioned much celebratory cheer among most scientists. For them, the event is largely irrelevant to the needs of contemporary science.
In a break from tradition because this is its centennial year, President Pranab Mukherjee will open the Congress, which has traditionally been the first public event of the year addressed by the Prime Minister. Critics say that’s likely to be the only noteworthy aspect of the Congress.
“Few practising scientists of note consider the Congress as an important event,” P. Balaram, director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, wrote in last month’s edition of Current Science, which he edits. “Pomp and ceremony take precedence over substance. Over the years, the Congress has been reduced to an occasion where the inaugural session appears to be the raison d’être for the meeting.”
Current Science was launched following deliberations at the Indian Science Congress of 1932.
“The Indian Science Congress is widely attended, except by professional scientists for whom it is primarily meant,” said Dinesh Abrol, a senior scientist at the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies. “It’s more like a mela where students and college teachers go and present a few papers, to bolster their CVs.”
A hundred years ago, however, the Congress was a far more prestigious event. Conceived and modelled on the British Association for the Advancement of Science, it was explicitly meant for scientists to present topical research, glean funds and serve as a forum for science to reach out to the broader public.
The Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA) owes its origins to two British chemists—J.L. Simonsen and P.S. MacMahon.
According to the website of the Indian National Science Academy, “One hundred and five scientists from different parts of India and abroad attended and the papers numbering 35 were divided into six sections—botany, chemistry, ethnography, geology, physics, zoology under six sectional presidents.”
In the early years of the Congress, the presence of theoretical physicists such as C.V. Raman, Meghnad Saha, the statistician P.C. Mahalanobis and engineer M. Visvesvaraya were critical to envisioning science as intrinsic to the future development of India, according to science historians.
“Those early lectures by these scientists were masterpieces of science and scholarship and offer fascinating insight into the plans and vision of these scientists for a future India,” said Shiv Visvanathan, a sociologist and executive director at the OP Jindal Global University. “Over the years, it became an effete organization where scientists looked forward to arranging marriages.”
Before 1904, Indian universities only conducted examinations and didn’t include scientific research as part of their academic responsibilities.
By 1914, when the first students equipped with PhDs in science were ready for research careers, it was necessary to have an organization geared to the needs of Indian scientists.
“The Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science in Kolkata (and organizer of the first Congress) was such an organization. It evoked a nationalistic spirit and was among the first bodies truly independent of the British,” said Dhruv Raina, a historian of science at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.
While he too describes the Congress as a fair, he contends that it plays a key social function—introducing young PhDs or junior scientists to the ways and workings of international science and is a forum for India’s science bodies to lobby for funds and grants.
“To those from small science colleges in mofussil towns and young scientists in villages, attending the Congress is often their first introduction to a foreign scientist or a possible opening as a post-doctoral researcher in a University,” said Raina. “Since 1914, it’s been a great networking opportunity. Melas also have their uses.”