Indian Science Congress sans drama from 2020?

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Nageswara Rao

The Indian Science Congress Association has finally decided to bring some respectability to the Congress by deciding to do precisely what the Nobel Laureate Prof. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan had suggested in an email to me. With the government funding the Congress in a substantial way and patronising it with its presence, was the Association compelled to clean up its act?

Reacting to the preposterous remarks made by the Andhra University vice-chancellor Prof. G. Nageswara Rao and Dr. Kannan Krishnan at the just concluded 106th Indian Science Congress in Jalandhar, Nobel Laureate Prof. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan said in an email: “The talks need to be vetted by serious committees with the appropriate expertise. If despite the careful vetting, someone begins to spout nonsense, they should be ejected by the chair of the session.” Waking up from deep slumber, the Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA) has finally decided to do precisely what Prof. Ramakrishnan has suggested and bring some respectability to the Congress.

In a resolution, the Association has decided to obtain in advance the abstracts of the lectures of all speakers, including those speaking at the Children’s Science Congress. “We will not vet but screen the abstracts and not allow any unscientific or pseudoscience to be presented. We will also have a person from the Association at every session and remove the speakers from the dais if they go beyond the purview of the submitted abstract,” says Prof. Premendu P. Mathur, General Secretary (Scientific Activities), ISCA.

Setting the stage

While the standard of the Congress has been on a steady decline for the past several years, since 2015 the Congress has been marked by outrageous statements made by speakers in a vain attempt to glorify India’s ancient scientific achievements through imaginary theories. The stage was set in October 2014 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself when he famously cited the examples of Karna and Ganesha to wrongly claim that cosmetic surgery and reproductive genetics existed in India thousand of years ago.

Union Minister of Science & Technology Dr. Harsh Vardhan had claimed at the Congress last year that the late cosmologist Stephen Hawking once said the Vedas had a theory superior to that of Albert Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2. And Union Minister of State for Human Resource Development Satyapal Singh’s claim last year in Aurangabad that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution of man was “scientifically wrong” was one more attempt to dent the credibility of well established science theories. So it might be more than coincidence that Prof. Rao felt emboldened to say among other things that Kauravas were born due to stem cell and test tube technologies and India also possessed knowledge about guided missiles thousands of years ago. On his part, Dr. Krishnan rejected Einstein’s theory of relativity, Newton’s theory of gravity and Hawking’s theories on black holes.

The Association has to take a few bold decisions to transform the Congress where serious science is discussed. Prof. Ramakrishnan who called the Congress a “circus” suggests that the meeting needs to be “made smaller and depoliticised”. The most needed one is to do away with the inauguration altogether. “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”, Prof. Balaram wrote in an Editorial in 2012. “I still hold the same view. Stop the inauguration and it will automatically downgrade public interest and we can make the meeting much more scientific,” he says. “In my memory, Indian Science Congress was never considered as a serious meeting.”

Government’s stand

In a blog, Prof. VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Adviser tries to justify the inauguration of the Congress by Prime Minister. He says: “This is the only major annual national science event the Prime Minister of India attends, and perhaps no other Head of Government attends such a function each year.” Should we then reassess why no serious scientific meetings such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science invites politicians to share the same platform, leave alone turn the entire focus of the meeting to a single event — the inauguration? And by saying that the Science Minister, other ministers, science secretaries and government officials are invited to speak, he unwittingly admits how the focus of the Congress gets distracted.

Prof. VijayRaghavan goes on to say that the government has an “important presence” in the Congress despite the Congress not being a government event. He rightly says that it is the Indian Science Congress Association and not the government which selects the speakers, and the association has no filter on what scientists say and the government has no role in the matter either.

But can the government really distance itself from the shortcomings of the Congress? “The government is funding the Congress in a substantial way and patronises it with its presence. So it should take responsibility of the content,” Prof. Balaram says. “The Association and DST should seriously evaluate the future of the Congress as it brings bad publicity to science in India.” Was the resolution that was passed in double quick time by the Association to ensure that future meetings of the Congress are devoid of such controversies a direct result of government pressure?

Holding the position of a university vice-chancellor comes with enormous responsibility. His judgement is crucial for the efficient running of the university. If such a person lacks judgement and is found uttering nonsense should he be receiving just complaints from those present at the meeting and individual scientists, as Prof. VijayRaghavan puts it? “If a person makes such ridiculous statements, especially to students, he is not fit to be a vice-chancellor. He should lose his job,” says Prof. Jayant Murthy from the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bengaluru.

Scientific equivalent of Kumbh Mela

In a tweet, Prof. VijayRaghavan summarised the poor patronage by serious researchers. “From some years ago, most who were asked didn’t respond. Most who did, did not go. Most who went never went again. All have strong views. We need to engage, it should be our congress too. Become a member. Vote. Join the Council. Change for better,” he tweeted. With the Congress being a “scientific equivalent of Kumbh Mela” as Prof. Balaram says, no senior scientist wished to be associated with it in any way. It was a chicken and egg situation. But with the Association making clear its intentions to clean up its act, one can really hope that Science Congress starting 2020 will more about science and therefore uneventful for the media which is looking for “fodder”. A few years of serious business is all that might be needed to attract senior scientists to the annual event.

Published in The Hindu on January 9, 2019

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