Nobel Laureate Prof. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who attended the Indian Science Congress held in Mumbai in 2015 and called it a “circus” as very little science was discussed, is annoyed at the outrageous statements made by a few speakers at the Congress held in Jalandhar this year. In an email interview, he talks about the steps needed to restore respectability to the Congress.
Responding to a question from an Indian journalist, you had commented saying the Indian Science Congress was a “circus”. What was terribly wrong with the Congress that made you say that?
The Indian Science Congress is too large and unwieldy, and the result is a slightly chaotic atmosphere. It is far too big for younger unknown scientists, let alone students and research fellows, to get to know senior scientists or even each other. One thing I particularly disliked was that they fly top international scientists business class and put them up in 5-star hotels with a car and chauffeur at great expense, but then shepherd them away in VIP tents where their interactions with young scientists are limited. The large size also means the quality of the talks is extremely uneven. This is not even counting those few talks that are simply outrageous, pseudoscientific nonsense.
Do you think the idea of the Congress catering to a wide audience (school students to scientists) is the basic problem?
In principle it is not a bad idea to have a broad meeting. However, its size needs to be restricted and interactions across disciplines and generations maximised.
Are you aware of any national science meeting that is inaugurated by a politician or where the main focus is on this event, like what we see at the Indian Science Congress?
This may well be unique to India and could actually be a good thing if used well because it signals a support for science from the highest levels. Currently there is too much politics among the organisers and scientists, and a lot of jockeying for “who gets to sit on the dais when the PM speaks”. It is also not clear that there is sufficient two-way conversation between the Prime Minister and the scientific community or whether something actually emerges from the Prime Minister’s visit that affects the course of science.
Do you see a sharp decline in the level of discourse since 2015 as pseudoscience gets discussed at the Congress?
I have not done a comparison. However, why doesn’t the Prime Minister or other high officials speak out against this? India has three rather than one academy of science, and it is a disgrace that none of them immediately responded firmly to this sort of outrageous nonsense. They are a tiny minority of the talks, but they should never make it on the agenda of the meeting in the first place. Moreover, they get amplified by the press and harm India’s scientific reputation.
Will you ever attend another Indian Science Congress? What made you attend the Congress in the first place? Where you unaware of the way the Congress is held and the quality of presentations being made?
I was told it was something of a “mela” and serious Indian scientific colleagues simply don’t attend. However, they had invited my fellow Laureate, the late Tom Steitz, and me to give lectures and I thought it would be nice to come with Tom and introduce him to some science in India. This was a bad mistake in hindsight — it made Tom not want to come to India again and he declined to come to a perfectly good meeting in Bangalore the subsequent year.
Despite its bad reputation, we still see a few Nobel Laureates attending the Congress each year. What is the reason?
In my recent book, Gene Machine, which I will talk about at various literary festivals in India this month, I have described a disease called post-Nobelitis, in which Nobel Laureates, often long past their prime, spend their lives going from meeting to meeting, basking in the adulation. Instead of Nobel Laureates and other senior figures, may be they should invite active international researchers in their prime, including more women.
If there a few things that can be changed to make the Indian Science Congress become respectable, what would you say are the most important ones?
The meeting needs to become smaller in order to be better organised. I think eminent scientists who come should be required to stay the whole time, and give at least two-three talks, including one to the Children’s Science Congress, which I found to be the best part of the Science Congress. The meeting needs to be smaller and depoliticised. They should abolish people sitting on the platform for the Prime Minister’s speech — this dais nonsense is a particularly Indian disease. 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.