Nature India | Indigenus

A joke of science

I am just back from the Indian Science Congress dedicated this time to the young scientists of this country. Sadly, the average age of most speakers at this significant 96th edition of the congress was above 50. “Where are the young scientists, I would like to know,” asked a visibly disturbed Bikas Sinha, director of the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics in Kolkata, who was speaking at a session on India’s contribution to the Large Hadron Collider experiment in CERN, Geneva. Sadly again, there weren’t many such hands-on papers or presenters at the congress. Sinha said most topics presented at the congress were a ‘joke’ since even burning issues like ‘climate change’ were being handled ‘so lightly’. “Anyone can google that information and present it. What’s the big deal about coming to a congress of scientists to make generic presentations?”

The venue – North Eastern Hill University in picturesque Shillong, the scotland of the East – turned out to be a good crowd puller because of reasons remotely connected to science. Delegates were accompanied by their families, and in some cases extended families, and were spotted more at Elephant Falls and the Shillong Peak than the plenary sessions. The organisation of the grand event, attended by close to 4000 people (non-scientists included) was far from professional, though the geographic location of NEHU (3 and a half hours away uphill from the nearest airport) did not help matters much. Pre-paid cellular telephones or internet data cards didn’t work at the venue and that wasn’t something attendees were warned about. “This is a colossal waste of public money,” the Vice-Chancellor of Nagaland University K. Kannan, who understands the geographical disadvantages of the north-east, said about his impression of the congress.

Much has been written about the failure of the congress to attract sensible presentations or young scientists but organisers Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA) seem to be living in a world of their own. The Congress really needs to reinvent itself. Last year, there were talks of creating a parallel annual meet of top scientists from across disciplines in New Delhi. However, no announcement to this effect was made at the conference.

It would be good to know from participants and observers their view of the congress and ideas to improve it before ISCA plans a grand centenary four years hence.

Comments

  1. Report this comment

    Jay said:

    Indian “science” congress is a joke since many years. It’s also a common practice for Indian faculties working abroad to visit India and their families/relatives in the name of attending conferences whose overall effectiveness is nearly zero. Indian science congress truly represents the current status of Indian science and research.

    It will be prudent to mention here that scientists are not from a different planet. They are the product of the same society, come from the same pool of people that supply other professionals like police, politicians, lawyers, doctors, teachers, businessmen, industrialists etc. We get the quality of scientists in accordance with the quality of other professionals in India. In some professions, inherent dishonesty and ability to hide facts are great assets but that is not the case in science and research.

    I feel that the present condition of higher education and research in India are the outcome of the overall situation of our society/country. Whatever policies you put forward, if the people in-charge of making and implementing those policies are not genuine and honest, we can never have the intended result. I do not believe that we can change a grown-up and make him/her more honest or accountable — be it a scientist or artist or anyone else.

    The exercise should start much before young talents reach teenage. Our current education system selectively discards talented students with inquisitiveness and a dream to do something challenging, something better for the society. We are overwhelmingly dominated by private tuition and coaching-enabled, mugging-up grade technicians (not technocrats or scientists in the real sense) who are great in routine jobs or imitating others but not capable of doing original research. Whatever money we invest in our so-called higher education and research, we do not have any novel knowledge, technology, product or service (despite having world class physical infrastructure, huge budgets and some “elite” institutes).

    I strongly believe that we must reform our primary school and secondary education to get better quality scientists (or any other professional). It’s a long term process but the only only one that can give us sustainable results. In the meantime, we can only try to put some ad-hoc type policies to minimize the damage.

  2. Report this comment

    N Rangarajan said:

    What has been posted is true for most scientific conferences around the country. The slack attitude of delegates notwithstanding, students are also kept out of such occasions (In retrospect, however, I don’t think that’s too bad and idea!). All mismanagement can be overlooked if the science that is discussed is cutting-edge and purposeful. Till then we can meet up and drink to glory – all on taxpayers’ account.

  3. Report this comment

    Indian said:

    One thing our ‘senior’ scientists should understand is that science is not a profession but an art. An artist, irrespective of his age, should be respected and given his due. Apart from few scientists of established institutes like IISc or TIFR, others from traditional universities are like old politicians. They are more interested in freebies and politics rather than science.

    Our politicians and old scientists can never change.

  4. Report this comment

    Tapan said:

    Our old-big scientists should understand that most of them have not contributed anything to science and have failed to bring fame to our country in the field of science. India is shining because of young talents and Indian industrialists. These old scientists control the fund granting and recruitment in most institutes. They have mostly funded and recruited their own students in most cases. Now see the condition of our science research and publications, so pathetic!

    I do not think, they will change and loosen their grip at all unless they are driven out of it.

  5. Report this comment

    Vathan said:

    Big scientists, with exceptions, are not big in terms of research but in terms of their influence. They are sprouting like weeds. This would prevail until the system of faculty selection to premier institution is changed. Attitude of researchers has to be cultivated to progress in one area and not in their political progress in the institution. Their appraisal and existence in the institute should depend on output, I personally feel, at least after the selection they should be on contract for 5 years and their progress monitored in terms of research contribution. This would rule out certain incapable so called “re-searcher”.

    Also, I strongly feel that selection in these sectors should be merit-based and transparent. Bringing transparency in the selection methodology and fixing higher standards are essential. If no suitable candidates are available then it’s better to leave the position vacant.

    Of course, publication standards have reached the abyss. The number of journals are sprouting, many have become a source of income for publishers without any moral ethics.

  6. Report this comment

    Raj said:

    It’s true that our conferences are junk. They just provide some money to some and some fun to others. Our recruitment is highly corrupt, except in few institutes. Universities do only politics and institutes, who get maximum funding, also do mostly politics. Not many talented persons come to science and even if some reasonably good fellow ends up in science, our system makes it sure that (s)he is converted to garbage. Most labs are directionless and aimless. India urgently needs a long term and a short term policy to improve conditions of research. IT alone can not help the country. In IT sector also innovations are not Indian. It’s time for serious thinking and more importantly IMPLEMENTATION.

  7. Report this comment

    ratnesh said:

    Completely agree that India science has become a joke. Thank god that there are still a few scientists left doing research. Otherwise, they are mostly either involved in politics or in attending conferences. They don’t even allow PhD students to write a paper as a first author! There are hundred of labs under the umbrella of CSIR, DST, DAEE, DRDO, and what are the results? Nothing. I have many friends working as scientists for DRDO, CSIR and can’t believe the stories they tell. Full of corruption, regionalism, and casteism. There is politics everywhere — a Bengali will take only Bengali students, Tamils have their own politics, north Indians have their affiliations.

    Ratnesh

  8. Report this comment

    Ajit Kumar said:

    Indian science is moving towards a blockade. The rate at which private and government education systems are moving towards making money in the name of self finance, it is going to create a crater in our scienctific society. Improper funding to basic educational institutes — universities/colleges is resulting in poor lot of science graduates. There are several universities having no real teachers/mentors and only old professors, whose main aim is to protect their post-retirement life, either by getting into the private education system or by getting funds for their projects. Serious or unbiased appointments have almost stopped for teaching or research. It is really a matter of shame for we Indians to know about these apex bodies misutilizing funds and enjoying with their families. Let us hope for the best and be ready to see the worst.

  9. Report this comment

    Bharath said:

    Not only science congress, many of the awards like Bhatnagar, young scientist, too. If you look at the list of Bhatnagar and young scientist winners and the selection committe, you can easily make out the direct correlation between the awardee and their mentor in the selection team.

    Another factor is that all these awards mostly (90% and above) go to IITs , CSIR and IISc labs . Does it mean that there is no single desrving candidate in the rest of university system? Surprising.

  10. Report this comment

    Suneel said:

    The problem with science in India is not lack of innovative ideas but people who don’t encourage them. As someone pointed out, the so called big wigs in DBT and DST dawdle most of the time and occasionally crave that the projects being written to them are not innovative. The funding system in India needs accountability and transparency. It’s well known that DST and other organisations are fairly liberal in granting funds to premier institutes like IITs and CSIR and accountability in granting those funds never exists. look at the state of research in IITs and what they have done to research — hardly anything. I must say that the reputation of IITs and CSIR institutes is only due to quality of students being admitted (top 1% of students who write the qualifying exam) and because of their research activities.

  11. Report this comment

    Jay said:

    Most research institutes and universities are teaching establishments at best. The quantum of original research in any high profile institute (IITs, IISc and others) is pathetic. The lesser we talk about the universities, the better. We haven’t developed a drug in India since 1921 after the discovery by Dr Upendra Bramhachari (for Kala-azar) despite the hype about Indian pharma industry. Not a single transgenic crop plant variety has yet been developed for use by farmers despite the huge public funding for many agricultural and plant biology research institutes (all the transgenic crop variety available in Indian market are from foreign multinational companies like Monsanto). All our institutes just export raw manpower to manpower-starved developed countries and feel proud about that. Majority of Indian parents can spend all their savings to send their kids abroad and in the process wrongly glorify those elite institutes like IITs. Our science congress is just the reflection of what is going on in Indian science (or rather lack of that).

  12. Report this comment

    Sharad Sivastava said:

    We always blame our system, policy makers, sometimes youngsters and even organisers for mismanagement. But how seriously are we concerned about all these? Has anyone pointed this issue in a public gathering? Have we ever thought of assisting the organisers in such situations?

    While making recomendations for such gatherings, why don’t we include a special point to invite young speakers to such planery/special lectures, why do we always think of inviting ony the seniors or well known personalities?

    Youngsters who come to attend such events also expect to hear about the current trends. Keeping youngsters mostly in the poster sessions does give them the liberty to move around (I may be differing with the common opinion) but this is how it is in any poster session. No delegate sits through the whole session or day for visitors.

  13. Report this comment

    zasx said:

    The scientific conferences in India are like marriage parties. No one is concerned about the actual purpose. Some just come to have fun, good food, good hotel stay or good places to visit. Others make their political connections, either new ones or to do things to please existing ones. All this is very well done through conferences. If someone gives a senior half an hour for a presentation, in return he gets favour from the committee in which that senior is. So, there’s no point in giving a chance to students, there is no immediate political gain. Many PhD supervisors never give first author credit to students even in conference abstracts. How can one expect them to give credit to students in journal publications. All this personal greed percolates deeper and then relatives, casteism, community, religion, states, region etc. come into play. I agree with the person who wrote here that it’s no wonder that when IITs etc select top students they excel abroad.

  14. Report this comment

    csir-speck said:

    May I start by thanking the author and all the commenters for the insightful discussion. Just wondering about two things:

    1. Do the Indian science policy maker biggies not know all this? If no, they should resign asap, and if yes, what would it take for them to change! (Someone has taught them too, they excelled and today are on the top, then how come they have no moral liability for the generations to come?)

    2. Why is accountability in India is so hard? Rest of the world also does science and has good administration too. We just had a flat 50% and 60% hike in the salaries of PhD students and scientists, respectively, but where is the hike in output? Can we ever have a science policy rather than a salary policy!

    Addendum : Just came across a blogger’s page about changing CSIR. I found a couple of suggestions reasonable. May be interesting for fellow readers.

  15. Report this comment

    Indian said:

    I know one of the CSIR labs in the south that regularly organises an international conference. During the process it invites a host of people from other labs (mostly from aborad and few from within India) to talk on their chosen subject but nobody from the host institute gets any “invitation” (except the top person). I guess its the same story with most of the institutions in India. Somewhere down the line, we forgot to develop second line leadership that can fit in smoothly. This situation is same in all the institutions in india as well as in politics.

  16. Report this comment

    Manasi said:

    I fully agree with the comments, especially in the field of biotechnology. Every year the government is spending huge amount of money for research for the last 10 years but still no significant solution has come up to fight drought/flood situations and also many other disasters.

    There are many young researchers in small towns and colleges who have brilliant ideas but no funds to execute them.

    The grants given by DST and DBT like women scientist schemes and fast track fellowships go only to researchers attached to government/reputed institutes like CSIR labs. So, now it is of prime importance that these funds are awarded to a researcher (instead of an institution) who may not be attached to these institutions.

  17. Report this comment

    Mehul said:

    Im a Masters passout from IISc and know the way things work there.The motivation to do true research, contribute to nation is not so common.The reality really bit me, as I had expected good things.Yes, there’s no accountability and its just like a govt. job to come and go.

    Also the opportunities in our country are not dismal but the salaries are really below par. For example if you join as a lecturer in some regional engineering college, you will get paid more than some institutes like BARC, IGCAR despite being a Masters in a specialised area. Also the processes are too lengthy and useless, the worth and enthusiasm of those who want to genuinely do something don’t get the chance.

    I want to genuinely do some research and contribute to my nation, but can’t find a proper channel.

  18. Report this comment

    Delhiwala said:

    This is in reply to those who wonder like Sharad in his comment to this post:

    “We always blame our system, policy makers, sometimes youngsters and even organisers for mismanagement. But how seriously are we concerned about all these? Has anyone pointed this issue in a public gathering? Have we ever thought of assisting the organisers in such situations?”

    People who try to oppose mismanagement or ask disturbing questions to higher authorities are nicely “taken care of”. If you ask tough but relevant scientific questions to a ‘pre-selected candidate’ for a faculty position or to an influential faculty delivering a talk, you are doomed. Scientific careers of those students are ruined before they can start.

    I was in a famous Indian institute in Delhi. We were never allowed to talk to the ‘external reviewers’ who came from abroad to evaluate research progress of the institute. These high-profile reviewers only talked to few selected people inside closed doors after a lavish party and then went away. Winter ‘seminar festivals’ were always a welcome relief for the students and faculties as they came with nice food and sometimes wine along with some other gifts. Who would like to spoil the festive mood by asking silly and disturbing questions? At least not the ‘practical and intelligent’ guys. In that same institute, there were people who used to get post-doc fellowships without having a PhD with their ‘proper connections’. Fund diversion was rampant.

    After witnessing all this at a very early stage in one’s career, no one dares to open his/her mouth even in private conversations, leave alone in public gatherings.