Following the “March for Science” in 600 cities across the world on 22 April 2017, Indian scientists gave a call for “India March for Science” on the 9 August 2017. On that day, more than 15,000 scientists, science teachers, research scholars, students, and science-loving people came out on the streets of 43 cities and towns of India.
Scientists within India did not join the global protest. Did they miss the boat? Yes, say Vineeta Bal and Aurnab Ghose from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune. Along with Satyajit Rath from the Agharkar Research Institute, Pune, they joined hundreds of scientists in the ‘India March for Science’ held, albeit belatedly, across the country. Here’s the trio’s guest post on the unique challenges facing India’s science that made the protests timely.
[The views expressed are personal].
There is a need to focus attention on the current trajectory of scientific pursuits in India – we need rationality and scientific temper in our society, and for that, we need the scientists of today and tomorrow.
The process of rational thinking needs to be inculcated early in life by encouraging young children to ask questions, by providing avenues for finding logical answers, by discouraging blind faith and acts associated with the perpetuation of blind faith. In many of these contexts, formal education can help. Hence there is a clear need to develop curricula which encourage curiosity and experiment-driven learning and discourage faith-driven irrational approaches and unquestioning attitude to learning.
One of the major demands during our ‘India March for Science’ was to increase the budget on education and spend it on developing young minds to think rationally and critically. While the exact proportion of GDP that should be spent on education can be debated, there is no doubt that in India there is a clear need to increase governmental spending on education at all levels.
Another demand during the event was that spending on research in science should be increased. For the last many decades, every successive government has promised to increase allocation for science research for various departments. Departments affiliated to defence research have seen substantial increases in certain years but civilian science research departments have not been as consistently fortunate.
While it is true that in recent years the funds allocated during the budget speech by the Finance Minister of the country appears higher than the previous year and hence can be used to counter the scientists’ arguments that there is no budgetary increase, the larger reality is far less promising. Funding is unpredictable, with even inflation not allowed for in some years, it is seldom available on time, and it is terribly patchily distributed. The Director General of CSIR (the largest network of laboratories in the country) has admitted near bankruptcy, stipends of research personnel are being withheld or delayed; there is thus little doubt that the funding for civilian scientific research in India is sub-optimal.
Science research is a continuous, often long-term, process. It can’t start and stop arbitrarily. Hence there has to be an equivalence between the sustainability of efforts and sustainability of the associated funding. Also, just like in science education, rationality should be the mainstay of any science research. For this to be practised, development of reasonable models based on available data, refinement and testing of these models and evidence-based modification or rejection of the models should be the basis of scientific efforts and policy.
Funding for research where the outcome appears to be already defined is undesirable – a case in point is the Scientific Validation and Research on Panchgavya (SVAROP) project. The research aims to prove the usefulness of panchgavya, a concoction of five cow products (dung, urine, milk, curd and ghee) used in traditional Indian rituals. The Indian Science Congress, a major annual scientific meeting in the country, has also been used as a platform to promote pseudoscience. Such efforts undermine the basic tenets of science where research questions are asked with a hypothesis in mind and the knowledge gained is likely to support or refute the hypothesis. Instead, these regressive efforts foster superstition in society by pretending that pseudoscience is ‘science’.
The Indian march
At least 15000 people participated in the Indian march in several cities. About 700 people participated in the Pune march. Besides demonstrating solidarity with the global ‘March for Science’, the Indian students, teachers and researchers stressed on inculcating rational thinking in the society. The relevance of rationality in society was highlighted by the explicit and public reference to the work done over many decades in Maharashtra by the rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, an intellectual who was murdered for his stance against superstition.
August 9 was chosen for its historic significance as the day of the launch of the Quit India movement against erstwhile British rulers, with an implicit corollary of self-empowerment in making societal decisions. It is World Indigenous Peoples’ Day, underlining the most underprivileged sections of society in need of the empowering potential of science. It’s also Nagasaki Day, which reminds us that science disconnected with society can be used for horrific ends. Together, these reminders make the urgent point underlined by the march for science, that science must be recommitted and reconnected to society, and that society must rediscover the progressive potential of science and value it appropriately as an open-minded, fearless enquiry into causes.
We marched despite direct orders prohibiting some scientists from participating in the ‘March for Science’ and many refraining from joining due to perceived threats to their jobs and possible harassment. The practitioners of science who hit the streets were demanding freedom of speech to express their concerns, freedom for dissent and discussion, assurance of steady supply of funds for pursuing scientific research, provision of more funds for education for all.
In a democratic country such as India, these are basic demands to make. If a country’s scientific community need to take to the streets for such basics, there is serious need for introspection.
Physicist Soumitro Banerjee from the Indian Institute of Science Education & Research Kolkata, who joined the march in India’s capital Delhi, talks about the policy changes that scientists want to see in the wake of the march.
I marched for science in New Delhi because the funding support for scientific research in India is sorely inadequate, having remained stagnant in the range 0.8%-0.9% of India’s GDP for far too long. Other countries with similar aspirations have provided financial support for science exceeding 3% of GDP. It is not difficult to imagine the crisis facing most Indian scientific institutions because of paucity of funds.
The education system that supplies the scientific manpower is also in bad shape. The public school system, where a majority of Indian children get their education, is deplorable. Many schools are without proper buildings, toilets, and playgrounds, have overcrowded classrooms, face acute shortage of teachers and are without laboratory facilities. As a result, a vast majority of children are deprived of the opportunity of being a part of the scientific manpower of this country.
The college and university system is also reeling under acute shortage of infrastructure, teaching and non-teaching staff, and funds for research.
The situation is crying out for urgent redressal, and the march demanded allocation of 3% of GDP for R&D and 10% of GDP for education.
A bigger area of concern is that in recent times attempts to spread unscientific beliefs and superstition are on the rise. Sometimes, unscientific ideas lacking in evidence are being propagated as science, patronised by persons in high positions. Untested personal beliefs of educational administrators and textbook writers are infiltrating the education system, and mythology is being taught as history.
This is vitiating the cultural atmosphere of the country. There is an article in the Indian Constitution (Article 51A) that demands every Indian citizen to develop a scientific temper, humanism and spirit of inquiry, and the current cultural atmosphere runs counter to that. The march demanded that the government uphold this provision of the Constitution.