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Scientists are hitting the street because they feel the climate of scientific enquiry in India is at threat of being compromised by political and religious interference. Photo: Bloomberg
Scientists are hitting the street because they feel the climate of scientific enquiry in India is at threat of being compromised by political and religious interference. Photo: Bloomberg

Promoting scientific temper in India

Scientists are concerned that instead of ring-fencing the scientific community, the government has allowed intrusions that threaten to distract from areas of research that need urgent attention of researchers

Two striking events took place in close sequence across India this month that pointed to a single modernizing direction: the need for the nation and its leaders to infuse in its mammoth population of 1.3 billion a scientific temper and rational thinking.

Both the events were peaceful protest marches. The first was a protest by scientists, researchers and university students who wanted to focus on two demands: the need to confront growing obscurantist and anti-science thinking in India and, secondly, to invest more into science and technology and its teaching. According to organizers Breakthrough Science Society, the event was held in 40 major cities and attracted 1,000 scientists, up to 8,000 research scholars and an astonishing 40,000 students.

The second march was by rationalists and anti-superstition activists. They were demanding the arrest and prosecution of the killers of three intellectuals—all rationalists—who were gunned down between 2013 and 2015 by suspected members of a Hindu right-wing group for, among other things, supporting anti-superstition legislation in Maharashtra.

The relationship between the two is plain to see: religious obscurantism is antithetical to the desired spirit of science. Although confronted by the 18th century social reformer, Raja Ram Mohun Roy, and, in the 20th century, by Dalit leader Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, obscurantism and superstition have persisted in society.

“In India, even some scientists are superstitious," said Rajani K.S., a spokesperson for Breakthrough Science Society, a non-profit whose inaugural All-India Science Conference was attended by star scientists such as the late Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) chairman U.R. Rao and received a message of support from Prof. C.N.R. Rao, head of the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India.

Although believers do not necessarily equate faith with either obscurantism or superstition, it is worth noting that according to a 2014 survey by researchers at Rice University, US, only 6% of Indian scientists identified themselves as non-religious, compared with 65% of their British counterparts. In addition, while only 12% of scientists in the UK attend religious services on a regular basis—once a month or more—32% of scientists in India do.

Scientists are hitting the street because they feel the climate of scientific enquiry in India is at threat of being compromised by political and religious interference by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and associated groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

The signs came early. In 2014, the very year he was elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi told doctors at Reliance Foundation Hospital in Mumbai, “We all read about Karna in the Mahabharata. If we think a little more, we realize that the Mahabharata says Karna was not born from his mother’s womb. This means that genetic science was present at that time. That is why Karna could be born outside his mother’s womb."

“We worship Lord Ganesha. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery."

At the same time, 70 years of research by Indian scientists—often working on tight budgets—has seen India accomplish enviable missions, including in space technology, telecommunications and the spectacular Green Revolution that saw the nation achieve self-sufficiency in food production after enduring centuries of famine.

Indian probes have been sent off at a fraction of what space agencies in developed countries end up spending on theirs. And in February this year, Isro launched 104 satellites riding on a single rocket, creating a world record. Most were pay-per-launch satellites from the US (96), the Netherlands (1), Switzerland (1), Israel (1), Kazakhstan (1) and the United Arab Emirates (1).

A comprehensive two-volume series on Indian science, called Innovative India, edited by L.K. Sharma and Seema Sharma, lists the following fields as among the Indian success stories of technology development and pure science: astronomical work or proton decay studies or developments related to catalysts, leather technologies, bamboo tissue culture, J-receptors, medical and surgical techniques, artificial limbs, blood bags and heart valve, titanium technology, maraging steels, cubic zirconia, beryllium machining plant, sonars, lasers, biogas, solar photovoltaics, pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals, agrochemicals, and milk food from buffalo milk.

Scientists are now concerned that instead of ring-fencing the Indian scientific community, the government has allowed intrusions that threaten to distract from areas of research that need the urgent attention of researchers, including in fields directly related to Indian economic development.

For instance, the elite Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, has been told by the ministry of science and technology to conduct “verifiable scientific research to establish the benefits"—reportedly, medicinal and other—derived from Panchagavya, a concoction of cow dung, cow urine, cow milk, curd and clarified butter (ghee) that is used in some traditional Hindu rituals.

“Increasingly, we are seeing an intrusion of theology into science," said L.K. Sharma. There is an obvious link with the level of scientific awareness in wider society. Breakthrough Science Society wants government spending on science in research to increase to 3% of gross domestic produce (GDP) from a mere 0.85% now. It wants the proportion of spend on general education to rise to 10% of GDP. It is around 3% at present, whereas some 40 countries spend more than 6%.

How then to build scientific temper in India? For answers, I turned to a prominent physicist who returned to India a decade ago from the US. Although big science (space probes, cosmic ray physics, etc.,) has served India well, the nation must also look at areas that are less eyeball-grabbing, such as water resources, agriculture and the environment, he said, requesting anonymity because he is not allowed to talk to the press.

“When I first came back to India, science and scientists seemed to have a position of pride in society. That seems to have gone now," he said. “In the West, scientists and academics have a large role in society. In the US, the government can ask the National Academy of Sciences for a report on matters of national or international importance, and the results are serious pieces of academic work that drive national policy. Therefore, the outcomes are good."

“This is how it should be in India. We should be able to anticipate problem areas, devise course correction. Instead, everything is left to the ministries to determine what we scientists ought to do. Personally, I have no problems in getting the funding because I’m associated with a premier institution, but that is not the case up and down the country. No one has the big picture."

“At the end of day, society has to study and decide, ‘is this good or bad science?’ That’s how society develops. This is not happening in India and I guess that’s where my chief disappointment lies."

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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