With Ministers like These, Every Day Must Be Science Day

Vasudevan Mukunth

February 28 is not Indias first Science Day in 2018. In fact, its the fourth.

The first Science Day was on January 20, when Satyapal Singh, minister of state for Human Resource Development (HRD), said Charles Darwin was wrong and scientists from around the country rose up in measured frustration against his statement, had three science academies issue a statement and, most of all, elicit an admonition from HRD minister Prakash Javadekar against Singh. The second Science Day was budget day, February 1, when Arun Jaitleys dismal offerings for fundamental research sparked a conversation of both hope and despair among scientists in labs around the country. The third Science Day was when the MHRD announced the Prime Ministers Research Fellowship without, it would seem, any consultation with stakeholders, the result being some scientistsdubbing it an unmitigated disasterpoised to demoralise the bulk of Indias best young research minds. On the fourth Science Day, two of the countrys science academies, the Indian National Science Academy and the Indian Academy of Sciences, have together organised an event in Delhi today with its chief guest being none other than Satyapal Singh. It seems the original plan had been to conduct the event at the Rashtrapati Bhawan convention centre with the countrys president in attendance along with a few ministers, giving a talk to scientists, 300 schoolchildren, etc. As one scientist told me, Science Day has to be celebrated with scientists, not politicians, so the absence of the majority of those invited shouldnt play foul to what can still be a useful occasion for school-goers to connect with veterans of research. One of the organisers mentioned that today is also International Rare Disease Day, and the gathering will be used to discuss rare diseases as well.

Actually, February 28 is the 59th Science Day this year, since its the 59th day since the start of the year. This is because every day is Science Day. In fact, it was Science Day on February 26 when a scientistannouncedthe improvised version of a card game, developed since 2015, on Twitter to help its players understand information exchange during mate choice. Its Science Day every Monday because theres a newLife of Sciencearticle out. Its Science Day every morning when science writers and journalists think about what they are going to write about that day.

February 28 has traditionally been used to commemorate the discovery of the Raman effect by C.V. Raman, Indias sole Nobel laureate in the sciences; this way, the day has quietly become the foundation for a state-sponsored valorization of a single prize awarded by a bunch of Swedish academics. India has seen many scientists of the calibre of Raman but many of them are not as well-remembered because they didnt win international particularly Western recognition (considerthe story of Meghnad Saha).

This is the same West that many of our ministers are also fond of deriding. The truth is that its complicated. We know the West will favour the West, infrequently because of irrational prejudices and frequentlybecause of systematic defectsthat repeatedly and increasingly penalise India and most of Asia, Africa and Latin America for the way it treats national scientific enterprise. Others are to blame, sure, but were to blame the most.Part of the problem is our top-down approach to administering scientific research and education, a symptom of which is celebrating science on a single day and relegating to it a nook behind the minds backburners on all other days.

The myth of the lone genius

Additionally, it must be noted that the Raman effect was not discovered on a single day, nor was it discovered by the endeavours of one person alone. Sure, Raman may have been looking through the data, piecing the numbers together and elucidating the presence of an effect he was the first in the scientific literature to make sense of (though eventhis is disputed). For India at the moment, its more important to examine the things that fell in place for his discovery to become possible. This isnt a prompt to draw up a roster of the people who helped (such as Lokasundari Ammal and K.S. Krishnan) but rather an occasion to reflect on such intangibles as theoretical foundations, inspiration, social support, the academic environment in which Raman conducted his experiment, the political environment that ensured he had the money, the opportunities he had to correspond with international scientists and journals, etc. In short, the discovery of the Raman Effect is aproductof multiple factors, not a single moment in the history of science.

But no it would seem Science Day is a day to think about the science. This is unfair; we have scientists who know how to conduct their research. Lets use the day and all days to make such research more possible, meaningful, enjoyable and equitable, please?

The government has had opportunities to remedy the situation every year but it fails to bite. This is a nonpartisan judgment: the UPA I and II regimes that preceded the prevailing reign of the BJP might seem more benign in contrast but that means nothing to a postdoc scholar whose stipend hasnt been paid in months, nothing to a community the total public expenditure on whom is the highest today at a shocking 0.69% of GDP, and nothing to an enterprise whose usefulness is being gauged solely in terms of what it has to offer to the shape-shifting, self-serving agenda of national interest.

Away from the funding front, we also have opportunities every year in the form of instituting better fellowships, smoothening the process of applying for and receiving research grants on time, fostering more consultations between industry, government and academia, etc. On a broader level, the private sector has cut ahead in areas where the corporatisation of science has become desirable because the bureaucratisation of science has become detestable. A common example is drug research and discovery.

Heres an uncommon one: awards. The Infosys Prizes are better organised than are the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prizes. Theres an email blast that goes out to journalists when the winners of the former are announced; the press is invited to sit in during the award ceremony; then a PR team kicks in, pushing interviews with the prizes winners among journalists from prominent media outlets. On the other hand, the Bhatnagar prize has been awarded for 60 years to over 500 scientists but nothing of the sort Infosys undertakes has ever happened. In fact, on the sole occasion there has been fanfare surrounding a prize, it wasawarded to Appa Rao Podilethe VC of the University of Hyderabad, a plagiarist as well as a man accused of specifically disprivileging lower caste students on campus by the organisers of the 2017 Science Congress.

Hell, we have everyday opportunities in the form of getting ministers to celebrate legitimate scientific achievements instead of abdicating ones responsibility towards lakhs of scientists andcrawling backinto the now-barren womb of ancient India,puranasand whatnot.

Science day every day

Its evident by now that its not the availability of opportunities but the will to seize them. Further yet, its not that the will doesnt exist but that the intent doesnt. Were not faced with a group of ministers bungling their jobs but a group that knows exactly what its doing: angle for what they say is the national interest, and force everything else to tag along. By cornering our reasons to celebrate science into the confines of a single workday, were at risk of abetting what our ministers are doing: abdicating responsibilities towards science on other days.

This includes attending schools, colleges and universities; interacting with schoolchildren and college students; sitting down with apex investigators to hear their concerns out; instituting independent science evaluation and funding bodies; giving talks about the importance of scientific research. In all, engaging with the countrys multifarious research establishment towards reducing the separation between administrator and practitioner and engendering will be a more consultative approach to decision-making in the national interest.

Science is an everyday endeavour; celebrate it, scrutinise it, share it,demand iton every day of the year. Just the same way marking Earth Hour is doing nothing to help Earth if youre not going to have environmentally conscious daily routines, you might as well not mark Science Day if youre going to mark it on just one day.


Courtesy: The Wire