“Few practising scientists of note consider the [Indian Science] Congress an important event. Pomp and ceremony take precedence over substance,” P. Balaram, former Director of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, wrote in a December 10, 2012, editorial in the journal Current Science.
The inclusion of a section on “Ancient sciences through Sanskrit” at this year’s Congress in Mumbai that had papers presented by non-experts reveals the diminishing quality of the annual national science event.
The science congress was started in 1914 with the best of intentions. The idea of promoting science through the congress began in earnest after Independence, continuing till 1967, but the efforts have since lost focus.
Recalling the reason for this, Professor Balaram said: “After 1967, politics became uncertain and universities became the centre for political activities.” In the process, science took a back seat and deterioration in quality started reflecting in the papers that were presented at the Congress.
But U.R. Rao, former Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and general president of the Congress held in Patiala in 1996, questions even the pre-1967 sheen. “The quality of papers presented was not great from the beginning,” Professor Rao told me.
The mid-1970s saw many scientific meetings restricted to disciplines coming up and scientists working in the respective fields saw more value in attending such meetings, another reason for the declining standards of papers at the annual event.
The broader issue lies with the fundamental structure of the body that conducts the event — the Indian Science Congress Association, based in Kolkata. “It is not a great all-India body. The meeting has unfortunately been converted into one representative of all that Indian science has to offer,” Professor Balaram noted. Only the members of the association and scientists who present papers can attend the Congress.
“Over the years the Congress has been reduced to an occasion where the inaugural session appears to be the raison d’etre for the meeting,” the editorial notes. Tradition dictates that the opening address is presented not by an eminent scientist but by the Prime Minister, who uses the platform to make some science-related announcements or reaffirm the government’s commitment to “support science.”
This is the only country in the world where a national scientific meeting is customarily inaugurated by a Prime Minister. It has become yet another annual ritual. “Somehow the structure of the Indian Congress has been that way. It’s a pity. Whether to continue or discontinue this tradition has been discussed many times. But it’s not easy to change it,” Professor Rao said.
The 100th Indian Science Congress held in 2013 in Kolkata saw the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh not only inaugurating the event but also serving as its general president. “It was unusual.”
Since politicians and scientists make for strange bedfellows at scientific meetings, the involvement of politicians in the Congress has led to a further erosion in the quality. Many senior scientists from premier institutions have come to equate the six-day national science event as a political affair unworthy of attending. This has had its own ripple effect. Since most senior scientists stay clear of the Congress, serious researchers see no incentive in attending it as there is little opportunity to discuss their research with their peers. Even students and research scholars from reputable scientific institutions do not take part in the Congress. The majority of the attendees are those from universities.
“The quality of papers presented is poor,” P.M. Bhargava, founder director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, (CCMB), Hyderabad, told me. This is unlike the high-quality presentations made at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting where many papers are in the process of being submitted to journals.
“The quality of papers can be vastly improved but the number of people attending the congress will be smaller,” Professor Rao said. Raising the bar, it is felt, would greatly impact the number of students who can participate. This is seen as defeating the congress’s very objective of catering to the needs of both students and experts. But what purpose is served when papers presented are not of good quality and when serious scientists stay away?
While Dr. Bhargava strongly feels that the Indian Congress is a sheer waste of public resources as it is “impossible to change” the quality of papers presented, Professor Rao is confident that improving the quality is possible but largely depends on the general president and sectional presidents. D. Narayana Rao, who will be the general president of the 2017 Indian Science Congress to be held in SRM University, Chennai has some ambitious plans for attracting the best students and scientists from the premier institutions. The current Director (Research) of SRM University, Chennai, said he was willing to work hard to ensure this and was aware that getting senior scientists will attract students to the conference. But the Herculean task before him would be to first undo the damage done during this year’s conference.