Science & Technology

Indian Science Congress: The circus comes to an end

This annual researchers’ meet, the 106th edition of which ends today, has a history of controversies that have taken its stature down

 
By Vibha Varshney
Last Updated: Monday 07 January 2019
Indian Science Congress
Prime Minister Narendra Modi (in the centre, in red) in a group photograph at the 106th session of the Indian Science Congress at Jalandhar in Punjab. Credit: Press Information Bureau Prime Minister Narendra Modi (in the centre, in red) in a group photograph at the 106th session of the Indian Science Congress at Jalandhar in Punjab. Credit: Press Information Bureau

Yet another session of the Indian Science Congress (ISC) comes to an end on Monday, January 7, 2019, in Punjab. As always, it made news for controversial statements. During a session for children, G Nageswara Rao, vice-chancellor of Andhra University, claimed that India was well aware of stem cells, test tube fertilisation and guided missiles thousands of years ago, citing tales from Mahabharata and Ramayana. Science bodies, as far away as in Karnataka, protested that scientists should not mix mythology with science. The paucity of good discussions on science at the congress is evident if this one statement by this one scientist, who is nearing retirement, ends up getting so much media traction. 

There is barely any science to report on. A quick assessment on media coverage shows a mix of political statements from the first day, a few on what the three Nobel laureates said and about a time capsule that has been burried in the university. 

But such statements should be expected from the ISC as this is not the first time such a thing has happened. It had held an exhibition on ancient science at its 102nd edition. Since anyone, who has ever attended a science congress would know that saying something like this would backfire, Rao could have made the statement thinking no publicity is bad publicity.

Even when teachers in classrooms across universities use such examples, they don’t do it without saying these theories are not supported by research. Over the years, the ISC has been losing relevance. Just before the centenary session in 2011, Down To Earth had recommended that the congress get a makeover, but obviously nothing of that has happened. 

K VijayRaghavan, principal scientific advisor to the government, in his blog on Rao’s statement, said, “Only a few of our best scholars go to the ISC. The crowds, chaos, the diverse audience (who does one direct the talk to? The experts, school students. college students?) seem to put off many, This is a pity.” 

True, these are the people who are the real culprits behind the falling standards of the congress. But we need to realise that India does not have a vibrant research sector. Only 10 Indians are part of the world’s 1 per cent top-cited researchers, according to a recent analysis by Clarivate Analytics. Nonetheless, the Indian Science Congress Association could use the support of the best minds in the field.  Activists, IT professionals, teachers, students and members of the scientific community who were protesting at Indian Institute of Science (IISc) against Rao's statements should direct their energies towards guiding ISCA. 

Other than lack of solid science, the ISCA faces many problems now. Last year, it could not be organised during its traditional time in January but was held in March since Osmania University, where it was to be held, got into a controversy over a student suicide. The year before, the association struggled to find a venue when SV University in Tirupati offered to help. Maybe, it is to avoid such problems that more and more sessions are being organised at private universities. This time, the ISC was held in Lovely Professional University in Phagwara. Since 2010, this is the third time that the congress has been organised by a private and for-profit university. This is obviously a good advertisement for them but it makes Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s request to promote research in state universities ring hollow.

(The author is an Associate Editor at Down To Earth)

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