The Indian Science Congress like its political counterpart, the Indian National Congress owes its origin to a British initiative. In 1914 two British chemists J L Simonsen and P S MacMahon laid the foundations of the Indian Science Congress Association (isca), the body that conducts the annual science congress in January every year. The first meeting of the Congress was held on January 15-17 1914 at the premises of the Asiatic Society, Calcutta, with Ashutosh Mukherjee as president. By the time this magazine goes to press the 94th science congress would have concluded in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu.
Over the span of nearly a century the science congress has grown into a mega event attended by nearly ten thousand practitioners of science including some thousand students. There are fourteen sections, encompassing various branches of science and over a thousand papers are read.The presence of highbrow vips adds a touch of high drama to the opening sessions.
All the hoopla notwithstanding, the meet has more of congress and less of science in it. The participants are middle-class teachers or government-employed scientists, many of them accompanied by their family and friends. For them the event is an escape from drudgery.
The train fares are paid by employers, the registration is inexpensive and the food an exciting change. The so-called research that is read out during the science congress is below par, even by humble Indian standards. The major attractions are the plenary lecture sessions which bring together giants in the field of science and their presentations are often rhetorical reviews of their life-time achievements. A new idea (which is what any scientific gathering most cherishes) hardly ever surfaces during the deliberations.
India is a politically-divided nation and political grievances, perceived or real, often surface during the event. Science suffers in consequence. There is a widespread notion that the Indian Science Congress is Bengal-dominated, perhaps because of the situational advantage that Kolkata enjoys as the headquarters of the Indian Science Congress Association. Fixing the venue for the subsequent year's congress is widely perceived to be a political decision with controversies in its wake. This year, the venue was shifted to Chidambaram from Amity University Delhi, because criminal cases are pending against directors of Amity University.
Recently, the science congress has apparently moved up in the esteem of many delegates, chiefly for the technical and organisational efficiency enabled by technology.
The presentations have moved up from the overhead projector to Microsoft PowerPoint. More halls are air-conditioned, and more delegates fly their way to the destination. But the substance of science has actually declined, and is falling alarmingly.
The evil that plagues the Indian Science Congress, and Indian science likewise, is essentially linked to the nature of Indian society. The inability to understand, appreciate or nurture true merit, the rigidly hierarchical structure of authority, the reverence for power rather than scholarship, the lack of incentives for genuine achievement, and the exodus of bright minds towards a career of profit have weakened science.
More alarmingly, the truly-motivated have all chosen to remain silent, leaving the reins to the politically savvy, mediocre opportunists that prey upon the system. These reasons have been so often cited that such complaints have been reduced to clichs.Ironically, we had Nobel class scientists in British India, but none today!
India has an abundant number of activists working for the protection of minorities, women, children, animals and the environment. But when it comes to protecting the interests of science, there seem to be none. What we need is activism in science too, which must expose the absurdities and fallacies in the prevailing system. Only then can we have less of congress and more of science in our academic community.
M K Unnikrishnan is at the Department of Pharmacology, College of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Manipal