Bangalore: Science is all about empirical inquiry and objective results, but Indian scientists don’t appear to be divorced from their culture and ethos. The largest ever nationwide survey of Indian scientists shows that they are as comfortable with seeking the blessings of the resident God at Tirumala before a rocket launch as they are with embracing stem cell research.
The study, “Worldviews and Opinions of Scientists in India”, which was released at the United Nations in New York on Thursday, has been conducted by the Institute of the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) of Trinity College in Connecticut, US, and assisted by the Centre for Inquiry India. It sampled 1,100 participants from 130 universities and research institutes in the country between July 2007 and January 2008.
Among other findings, the study shows that only 8% of Indian scientists express ethical reservations about genetic engineering and stem cell research, and 90% agree with the teaching of traditional Ayurvedic medicine in university courses. A large section, 56%, considers mixed economy as the preferred economic model, whereas 21% favour free market and 9% back socialism. Also, 6% think the village-based system is better while 8% are unsure.
“It’s a very good idea to do sociological studies,” of scientists, says Pushpa M. Bhargava, retired founder-director of the country’s premier research institute, the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, and a member of the National Security Advisory Council.
Scientists around the world should have uniform views as they work with the same material, but the fact is that socially, scientists are “badly divided”, says Bhargava, also former vice-chairman of the National Knowledge Commission, which he resigned from in May 2007. “In the West, all good scientists are, politically, to the left of the centre; and in their religion, (they are) total non-believers but in India, it’s the reverse; scientists who track evolution, actually believe in creation,” he says. Bhargava thinks sociological studies such as this will throw light on why this disparity exists.
The survey found that many scientists (44% of the sample) were willing to criticize and confront religious practices if they contradicted accepted scientific theories, but that a sizeable minority (23%) were opposed to this. And 33% agree with occasional confrontation.
“I’ve honestly felt that scientists in India are split personalities; they may oppose in public but pray to Ganesha (the Hindu God of beginnings) before starting the day,” he argues. He thinks this is also about the ethos of the country where a large section of the population believes in a ‘superior power’. “Don’t we start a symposium with a prayer?”
We do, and perhaps for the same reason, on a question of “efficacy of traditional therapies and technologies”, 49% of the scientists surveyed said they believed “prayer was efficacious”. As for invoking blessings before a space flight, it’d have come as a surprise to the pioneers of India’s space programs — Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan, K. Kasturirangan and others who’ve been known to be non-believers, says Bhargava.
Some of the findings have surprised the investigators too. The fact that Indian scientists do not differentiate much between doing research on cows (a holy animal for most Hindus) and pigs is most surprising to Barry Kosmin, the lead researcher from ISSSC. So is the fact that half the respondents believe in the efficacy of homeopathy and prayer. With 26% Indian scientists having definite belief in God, Kosmin says, they contrast sharply with their American counterparts as only 10% of scientists in the US hold such beliefs.
Is there a lack of scientific temper among Indian scientists in a country where scientists themselves bemoan the low levels of scientific literacy? Yes, says Bhargava, who believes the three Indian academies of science have never taken a stand on any social issue, and that they should engage more with the society. Incidentally, Bhargava gave up membership of all three academies on these grounds in 1994.
The Indian survey is the first in a series by ISSSC which aims to explore the opinions of science professionals in various non-Western countries. Studies in Japan, China, Russia, Israel and Turkey are underway.