For the past 99 years, researchers from all parts of India have been meeting at the Indian Science Congress in the first week of January. The congress was established to popularise science and allow researchers to deliberate on crucial aspects of science relevant to the country.
But, though the congress gives scientists an opportunity to catch up with fellow researchers, and students to network, the talks themselves fail to communicate on new frontiers of science. Let me give an example. The presidential talk in the plant science session in the just concluded science congress was on “Plant parasitic nematodes and their management by bioagents”. Only five references out of nearly 150 were of studies published in 2011. A subsection of this presentation was presented at the 2010 congress, too. For students sitting in air conditioned, wi-fi enabled classrooms, with Google at their fingertips, this kind of information might not be very useful or inspiring.
But then, maybe I am thinking like a journalist, always on the lookout for the latest developments. So, I talked to some of the past presidents of the congress for their views on the how the congress can be made more relevant. Most concurred that a change is needed. RA Mashelkar who presided the 2000 congress said: "The world has changed and India has changed. It is time that the science congress also changes.”
“Introspection and reorientation is needed now,” recommended RS Paroda who was the president of the 2001 congress in Delhi.
That settled, I asked for ideas on how the congress can be improved. Paroda suggested the Indian Science Congress should now be a forum through which scientists can lobby with the government. At the end of the conference, a set of recommendations are sent to different departments of the government. “It is time to ensure that there is follow up on these recommendations,” he said. Both Paroda and Mashelkar want mini-conferences, debates and discussions organised throughout the year instead of just one congress in the beginning of the year.
Asis Datta, general president of the 2004 session feels that while the science congress is serving an important purpose, it should emphasise on new technologies and subjects such as climate change and science of drought, salinity and genetically modified crops. S S Katiyar who had headed the 2002 congress was not too willing to accept that the science congress needed changes. He went on to say that every year, the general president took adequate steps to make the congress more relevant. “This aspect is on our mind and I would give my suggestions to the committee,” he said.
But he also asked me for suggestions. So here goes: I think, the time has come to insist on quality research instead of quantity. I want to go home with new knowledge. I want to know what researchers in India are doing and how it would affect my life. The proceedings should tell me what happened in the country since the last time I attended the meeting. At a more basic level, attending sessions should be a comfortable process. Waiting at the venue for half an hour only to find that a session has been cancelled is just not acceptable.
The centenary session to be held in Kolkata next January could be the year for change with prime minister Manmohan Singh being nominated the general secretary of the session.
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