Every now and then, amid the often-desultory landscape of political and business news, the world of science springs a pleasant surprise. Earlier this year, scientists inched closer to finding a cure for AIDS after a third patient was made HIV-free following a procedure involving stem cell transplants. More controversially, last year a Chinese researcher announced the birth of the first ever babies with edited genes. And a mosquito-less world (for better or worse, we don’t know) is also apparently within the grasp of researchers. April 10 marked one more watershed moment in the world of science, or its universe if you like: After years of watching Dr Who dance around the edges of a black hole in the eponymous television series, we were shown the first actual images of a black hole captured by astronomers, courtesy of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), an array of eight ground-based radio telescopes. The first direct visual evidence of a supermassive black hole and its shadow came from the centre of Messier 87, a massive galaxy in the nearby Virgo galaxy cluster. It resides 55 million light years from Earth and has a mass 6.5 billion times that of the Sun. For most of us, it means that a black hole is no longer just a theoretical construct.
The blazing black and orange “ring of fire" image took only seconds to zip around the world, after being unveiled at a press conference in the US. But behind it lay decades of research by a team of 200 international scientists, unwavering support and hundreds of millions of dollars in funding by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the US government agency that supports fundamental research and education in all non-medical fields of science and engineering. The image benefited from a string of NSF projects going back to 1955, much of the effort aimed at capturing visual data from the far yonder. Other funders include the European Research Council and partner agencies in East Asia.
The black hole images transmit an urgent message to India, a country endowed with a rich pool of scientific talent—that high-level research is neither cheap nor quick, and applications are not all that science is good for. North America, Europe and East Asia have another distinct advantage: In none of these regions will you find policymakers doubting the fundamentals of science. In this season of politics, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party manifesto promises a “new Science Mission for development of cutting edge technologies" focused on Artificial Intelligence and robotics. The Congress manifesto promises to work with industry to raise expenditure on science and technology to 2% of gross domestic product, and fill all current vacancies in the posts of researchers and scientists within 12 months. As others offer us a glimpse of celestial events from millions of light years away, India grapples with an enervating contradiction between its scientific accomplishments (unique among developing countries and often made on shoe-string budgets) and a climate of mistrust of science and rationalism—part of what the Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan calls a “worldwide phenomenon of irrationality". In India, scientists and researchers say basic science research funding is drying up amid a focus on “big, eye-catching" science. Perhaps the needs of a developing nation necessarily mean a focus on applied science, but it shouldn’t be at the cost of theoretical research.