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.