Indian scientists: missing in action

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

scientistsI suspect Indian scientists have retired hurt to the pavilion. They were exposed to nasty public scrutiny on a deal made by a premier science research establishment, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), with Devas, a private company, on the allocation of spectrum. The public’s verdict was that the arrangement was a scandal; public resources had been given away for a song.

The government, already scam-bruised, hastily scrapped the contract. Since then there has been dead silence among the powerful scientific leaders of the country, with one exception. Kiran Karnik, a former employee of ISRO and board member of Devas, spoke out. He explained it is wrong to equate this deal with the scam of mobile telephony, where it was alleged that the minister fiddled with procedures to hand out spectrum at throwaway prices. The reason is that this band of spectrum called S-band, reserved for use in satellites, is different from terrestrial spectrum used by mobile operators. In the S-band the users are different, risks are higher and the customer base is smaller. Hence, the cost calculations done for terrestrial spectrum cannot be used to estimate the loss to the exchequer in the ISRO-Devas contract.

Science journalist Pallava Bagla explains there is a clamour for government to “free” S-band for cell phones in a terrestrial setting. This has been done in Europe, also under pressure from private operators. Clearly, there is much more to this story. But when the scientists who understand the issue are not prepared to engage with the public, there can be little informed discussion. The cynical public, which sees scams tumble out each day, believes easily that everybody is a crook.

But, as I said, India’s top scientists have withdrawn further into comfort holes, their opinion frozen in contempt that Indian society is scientifically illiterate. I can assure you in the future there will be even less conversation between scientists and all of us in the public sphere.

This is not good. Science is about everyday policy. It needs to be understood and for this it needs to be deliberated openly and strenuously. But how will this happen if one side—the one with information, knowledge and power—not engage in public discourse?

Take the issue of genetically modified (GM) crops. For long this matter has been decided inside closed-door committee rooms, where scientists know their decisions will not be challenged. Their defence is “sound science” and “superior knowledge”. Interestingly, the same scientists will accept data produced by private companies pushing the product. Issues of conflict of interest will be brushed aside as integrity cannot be questioned behind closed doors. Silence is the best insurance. This is what happened inside a stuffy committee room, where scientists sat to permit Mahyco-Monsanto to grow Bt brinjal.

This case involved a vegetable we all eat. This was a matter of science we had the right to know about and decide upon. The issue made headlines. The reaction of the scientific fraternity was predictable and obnoxious. It resented the questions. It did not want a public debate.

As the controversy raged and more people got involved, the scientists ran for cover. They wanted none of this messy street fight. They were meant to advise prime minister and the likes, not answer simple questions of simple people. Finally, when environment minister Jairam Ramesh took the decision on the side of the ordinary vegetable eater, unconvinced of the validity of the scientific data justifying no-harm, scientists were missing in their public reactions. Instead, they whispered about lack of “sound science” in the decision inside committees.

The matter did not end there. The minister commissioned an inter-academy probe—six top scientific institutions looked into GM crops and Bt-brinjal—expecting a rigorous examination of the technical issues and data gaps. The report released by this committee was shoddy; it contained no references or attributions and not one citation. It made sweeping statements and lifted passages from a government newsletter and even from global biotech industry. The report was thrashed. Scientists again withdrew into offended silence. The final report of the apex science group is marginally better in that it includes citations but it reeks of arrogance cloaked in jargon. The committee did not find it fit to review the matter, which had reached public scrutiny. The report is only a cover for their established opinion about the “truth” of Bt brinjal. Science for them is not a matter of enquiry, critique or even dissent.

But the world has changed. No longer is this report meant only for top political and policy leaders, who would be overwhelmed by the weight of the matter, the language and the expert knowledge of the writer. The report will be subjected to public scrutiny. Its lack of rigour will be deliberated, its unquestioned assertion challenged.

This is the difference between the manufactured comfortable world of science behind closed doors and the noisy messy world outside. It is clear to me that Indian scientists need confidence to creatively engage in public concerns. The task to build scientific literacy will not happen without their engagement and their tolerance for dissent. The role of science in Indian democracy is being revisited with a new intensity. The only problem is that the key players are missing in action.

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  • Science in India is

    Science in India is controlled by the government and no Indian scientist worth his monthly pay packet is going to jeopardise it by saying something that the government and his bosses do not want to hear. I am a retired ISRO engineer and I have been appalled by the canards flung at us. I applaud Kiran Karnik for what he did but he could do so as he was outside the government. In my 34 years of service I can count on the fingers of one hand my superiors who could appreciate straight talk from the ranks. We are governed by certain archaic rules, the FR and the SR to the cognoscenti, which looks on public statements by in-service personnel as violation of these rules. The silence therefore is not voluntary.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Yes, it was very of Kiran

    Yes, it was very of Kiran Karnik to speak out and very important to explain the facts about this case. While I understand the constraints to speak about, we have to find a way for scientists, even as they work in government funded institutions to be able to speak out and engage with public debates. However it is more than just this. It is also about the reluctance (maybe justified) of scientists to speak to an audience who is not well versed in the technical issues and may even misunderstand and misquote what is said. But this is the nature of public debates.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Yes. I agree with

    Yes. I agree with you.

    Scientists lack social consciousness to translate their knowledge for social well being. There was a time when Prof.Y.Nayudamma was Director General of CSIR(during 70s) he initiated a project ADOPTION OF BACKWARD DISTRICTS by CSIR which was well thout out project which aims to bring Science and Technology to the doors of those who needed it. Unfortunately with change of Government in 1977,the project has been disbanded.

    Even after 63 years of independence poor are becoming poorer and rich, richer. Why?

    Life is worth living. Worth depends on values and values depend upon quality of life. "We are what we value. That which we value, moves us into action". Value and quality of life tend to differ and are inevitably related to the conditions and experiences. Values determine our choices and choices force us to examine our values. Values are basically attitudes - a manifestation of behavior.

    Somehow science and technology have escaped social control. If technology is to serve peoples' needs, objectives and values - people must be involved. What motivates people to be involved? If living and working conditions can be improved; economic returns increased; drudgery of work reduced; social pride and prestige increased; people would be involved and welcome technology. Any imposition, teaching or preaching would not help. To catch the fish, the bait must be attractive to the fish. Technology must be presented in an acceptable, understandable and assimible manner to people at their levels to meet their needs and satisfy their values. To do that, technology should be coupled with social technology.

    The way technology has been generated and used has led to disparities, domination, greed, consumerism, etc. Does technology make poor worse off? Can we change the direction of technology? Thanks to technology, fashions and life styles spread fast. How does one arrest, change or limit this onslaught? Ambitions, aspirations, desires, apart from wants, are but human nature. How to stop this misdirected growth e.g. emphasis on luxury goods instead of basic needs? Technology helps increased production but does it help distribute justice also? In trying to catch up with 'modernism' and 'consumerism', the general feeling is ÔÇ£all that is rural is bad, all that is urban is good and all that is foreign is best". How to arrest this trend? Do the values give rise to technology or technology determines the values of the society? Is technology to be adopted to the society or society to adopt to technology? What are the value implications of technology? Are there any indicators to distinguish social structure and its influence on Technology? As late International renowned Scientist put it, Our motto should be MODERNISE THE TRADITIONAL- TRADITIONALISE THE MODERN".

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore (AP), India

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Congratulations for this

    Congratulations for this thought provoking editorial. whatever the author mentioned in her article is true. we hope that in coming time people will realise the necessity of such kind of discussions and debates on science related topics, time will come when scientist will come out and people will also show interest in discussing such issues which are directly related to each and everyone and not simply the specimans of labboratories. congratulations again.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • A rigorous and thriving

    A rigorous and thriving scientific culture in India (other 'developed' countries do suffer the same malady) is thwarted by two core issues:
    *Unquestioning acceptance of information by the public and
    *Scientists/Academicians who obtain qualifications/ hold positions despite their glaring lack of scientific temper.
    The 'expertise' of a scientist is tested not by one's flair for technical jargon but rather by depth of knowledge and the ability to communicate that knowledge effectively with stakeholders.
    The effectiveness of communication is determined solely by the extent to which knowledge improves everyday life through informing policy and/or practice.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • I do not understand how

    I do not understand how scientists can interact with people on scientific matters. Who are the people? how can a scientist explain to an illiterate farmer or a superstitious middle class person about fusion and fission in public debate. There are few scientists who are good at teaching. Indians are less knowledgeable but more argumentative. It is our culture right from the days of Upanishads. The only conduit can be the activists. But many Indian activists are pre-prejudiced people. Besides in arguments invariably they are offensive both in body language and verbal language. The only way out is that the activists should become specialized people so they can first study the subject thoroughly and then discuss with scientists. This SHOULD NOT be in public debates (worse in Tv) as the activists try to win brownie points. In some cases the activists also deliberately influence the people to one side of the debate. An INFORMED and dispassionate debate between activists and scientists is necessary so that activists can inform and influence the people.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • The editorial does make an

    The editorial does make an important point about the need for scientists to engage in public discussions, and one finds that this happens very rarely if at all, even in matters that urgently demand scientific opinion. However, a more fruitful approach would be required in order to make scientists' voices heard out of the "comfort of closed door committee rooms" to get around this problem. Trashing scientists will likely lead to more reticence in the public sphere. The editorial fails to take into account that any of the issues in question- introduction of Bt crops for example, is complex in nature and the science/technology of it is only one aspect. The socio-economic factors involved are probably of equal or greater consequence. Expert opinions would be required from all concerned areas. Second, 'scientists' are not a monolithic group in the manner in which they are referred to in the editorial. They may differ in their opinions on any issue, as was the case with Bt brinjal. All those interested in a public debate on this issue have to contend with the fact that there are individuals who believe that there is no harm in introducing Bt crops, even among scientists. This is not just because they have commercial interests but also from scientific points of view. Of course, the merits of any claims from any side would need to be discussed and investigated before making a decision. Third, it is not accurate to say that there were no reactions from scientists on the Bt issue. Prominent people such as P.M. Bhargava and M.S. Swaminathan have spoken out against introduction of Bt crops (covered in all major newspapers). There were others who have debated in other, albeit more restricted fora, with different points of view. Pl see the journal Current Science - CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 97, NO. 12, 25 DECEMBER 2009, CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 98, NO. 10, 25 MAY 2010, CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 100, NO. 2, 25 JANUARY 2011, CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 100, NO. 5, 10 MARCH 2011. There are also several other pieces on the Bt debate. Certainly, as pointed out by other bloggers on this site, the scientific establishment is dogged by an "unscientific" culture, in which the hierarchical structure leaves little room for honest and principled reactions. This is true of Indian academia and extablishments as a whole. Openness is required from all those involved.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • In my opinion those who have

    In my opinion those who have a sound knowledge of their subject have no problem in explaining their view point to even the lay public. If a scientist avoids talking to the public there is some thing wrong with him/her. Either he/she is not confident or he/she is arrogant. Someimes arrogance is a cover for lack of knowledge like the in the case of the scientists of the Inter-Academy report on GM crops.

    The scientists who hold the Indian public in contempt because of their belief in its scientific illiteracy are shirkng in their duty towards the nation. The nation has spent money on their education and they owe it to the country to help it in becoming scientifically literate.

    Enquiry, critique and dissent are the very basic tools of science. But perhaps the government scientists may find it convient to do away with these tools.

    Lakshmi Bhargava

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • I wish to start by

    I wish to start by complementing Kiran Karnik, my colleague for the second time, in the Science Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India (SAC-PM) for his bold, forceful and argumentative articulation, in the form of an open letter to the PM, in support of ISRO which I read sometime ago in one of our national English Daily. The only problem is that his association with the Devas (Spin-off company of ISRO) will be used by the other side to discredit his views, despite his being so objective and transparent. Sunita Narain, I firmly believe, is made of a different polymer with unique SNPs that will continue to make her impermeable to the new assaults and threats from the pesticide mafia. Pallava Bagla is his usual best, calling all the scientist to come out of their ivory towers and talk to the common man and present evidence based support and not just wishy-wash the burning questions be it Bt Brinjal, nuclear power, or preparedness for Tsunami etc.

    That science is needed for the growth and development of the country has never been in doubt. Our urge to dismiss simple questions as 'anti-science' which consequently snowballs into a major controversy is what is making society mock at us thereby questioning even our scientific integrity.There is no shade of grey in science, it is either black or white. We need to come clean by presenting hard data in support of our arguments and then let the public at large become educated about the issues before they draw any conclusions.

    It is indeed high time we create a regular platform for such healthy scientific discourse with all the stake holders. We can call it by any name, e.g. "Science and Society:Myths and Reality", but what is important is that this should become a movement where we have periodic (say 1st Saturday of the month) meeting at a central place (such as IIC, or Press Club or any similar venue) in one city (begin with in Delhi) which can then rotate to other cities.

    I will be personally happy to participate in such an interactive program, and I hope very soon I will be in a position to do so. The Society can then take a call to accept our reject the fruits of science.

    Kiran, Sunita and Pallav, are you listening...

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Indian scientists would have

    Indian scientists would have the confidence to creatively engage in public debate if ONLY THE SCIENCE THEY DABBLE IN WAS THEIR OWN...that they merely market science from everywhere else makes them marketeers,at best technical middlemen or technological ado/apters, not scientists...they are, therefore, not missing in action... but aimply missed the action !

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • This is precisely the

    This is precisely the scientific arrogance/hubris we must guard against...if a scientist cannot explain to an illiterate farmer or a superstitious middle class person about fusion and fission in public debate s/he has no right to dabble in it in his/her lab, either...which could be CERN , if you like ...OR EXPECT SUPPORT FROM THAT FARMER OR THAT SUPERSTITIOUS MIDDLE CLASS any case why should it be so difficult to tell either that the atom or atomah or atamha or atma is pure energy...( every idiot Indian has known this for time immemorial from his / her very birth)...all Indian scientists have to convince the "farmer or a superstitious middle class person" is that they now have - the scientists , that is - have found ways of releasing this energy in a controlled form in specific instances/circumstances for human good(power)...or bad(armaments) ....that scientists cannot do this credibly is because they themselves have no faith in this their discovery...therefore they have no confidence in their own arguments, particularly in public forums!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Having due regard to the

    Having due regard to the Indian scientists it must however be emphasised that the general public, Aam Admi, is largely disappointed for lack of any meaningful contribution to society from their side. It is common knowledge that they normally take the cue from their counterparts abroad, some of them are of course of Indian origin, instead of doing any original research. Obviously they are happy-go-lucky type, sitting in a comfort zone. In recent time except for Brahma Chellaney who has most vehemently opposed the Nuclear Deal signed off by the GOI with the US, none has spoken against it. Should our Atomic scientists not now engage in public debate over revisting it after the Japan disaster? We have hardly a Shakarov in India to spurn GOI awards for their happy-go-lucky life. So they feel it is all hunky-dory in their own world which remains insulated to the hardships faced by the general public. Have we hard about any campaign or agenda being pushed in India by our scientists for switch over to CFL with ideas about how to dispose of the toxic mercury from waste CFL lamps? It is a serious social issue. Do our scientists have any solution to increase food output so as to release pressure on prices? Thank God Green Revolution was the US-Mexican joint venture later followed in India. The entire scientific community needs to be freed from Govt control particularly when it is run by a scheming minister of a corrupt political establishment. Does our Tsunami warning system work? So the Indian scientific community has failed us very badly.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Yes, listening and hearing as

    Yes, listening and hearing as well. I agree with you we need forums to discuss these issues and we certainly think about your ideas.  I hope we can further this interaction, debate and discourse in the pages of Down To Earth as well. But thank you for your comments.

    Posted by: Sunita Narain | 4 years ago | Reply
  • You have listed very

    You have listed very important matters of science of everyday life. It is for this reason we need an incorporation of science into policy and practice and it is for this reason that we need to build a scientifically literate society.

    Posted by: Sunita Narain | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Absolutely right. We do need

    Absolutely right. We do need to wake up and make ourselves sensitive to our surroundings with a bit of inquisitiveness on a scientific premise rather than leave things to our scientists for our own well being. The illetaracy and superstitions have been the hallmark of Indian way of life. The rich in India cannot claim any exception either, though they can afford themselves costly education. To refer to the Bhopal Gas tragedy, our scientific community had failed to forewarn the people about the portent dangers from the possible MIC leak that was in the making in the Bhopal UCIL plant. Nor have our scientists perhaps given any solution for the removal of the highly toxic top soil of the plant area and its adjacent water bodies which remain still polluted. Thankfully the issue has engaged your serious attention. You have been vociferous in your condemnation of the wanton destruction caused by the the US corporate to our live assests and other properties. The corporate greed and the GOI's connivance are unpardonable. In the light of nasty politics in India and the comfort zone in which our scientists prefer to remain ensconced CSE is the only hope and can provide us a way forward.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • ......... i find the solution

    ......... i find the solution of tsunami..........

    but i want a scientist to talk ........ can u help me......... indian scientist. ......

    pls help friends..........

    ÓñªÓÑçÓñûÓññÓÑç Óñ╣ÓÑê ..Óñ╣Óñ«Óñ¥Óñ░ÓÑç ÓñÁÓÑêÓñ£ÓÑìÓñ×Óñ¥Óñ¿Óñ┐Óñò ÓñçÓñ©ÓÑç Óñ©Óñ«ÓñØ Óñ¬Óñ¥Óñ»ÓÑçÓñéÓñùÓÑç ÓñòÓÑÇ Óñ¿Óñ╣ÓÑÇ ........

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Thanks for the forthright

    Thanks for the forthright editorial. Indian scientists are not very different from Indians in other spheres of life. While the scientists in Government organizations like ISRO may have some constraints in expressing their opinion, I find that even in free academic institutions, our scientists do not speak their mind. Either they are afraid or they maintain a strategic silence. Scientists should not hide behind jargons and it is their responsibility to provide scientific information objectively. As Einstein said 'You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grand mother'. However, Indian society and government should guard against taking some reputed scientist's opinion on a technical issue as a scientific opinion provided by an expert on the same.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • I given 7 year from my life

    I given 7 year from my life to science..but never any body called me ..when i think that why am doing this but i have no answered ..i want make scientist but never will come this day..asad khan 09889587244.
    i know..what resion of gravity how does force on an object..
    why moon rotate..
    moon have no rotate of 27.7 dayes..
    when come earth quick..
    sun real velocity
    earth real time of rotating..
    why come jwar bhata..
    and i prooved that i am not fool..
    and second last... gravity is not thing it is only velocity

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • I agree with the first

    I agree with the first comment. Let me give my experience three different institutes. When I completed my Ph.D. Thesis and gave it to my professor to approval. At one page he wrote -- you should not criticize your own guide/teacher and returned my thesis. Later several friends of my professor told him not to do that, in fact we all told him not take you as a guide as we know your temper. He refused to sign the thesis -- though my DG approved it and asked the university vice-chancellor to permit me to submit my thesis to the university. They in turn agree but I did not do that but published the thesis under scientific articles both national and international journals. Here I come across another problem -- My work was submitted for an award by my boss. In the award commission, my previous boss told to the committee this work belongs to Mr. Reddy and the committee rejected it. However, chairman I friend of my boss over ruled and selected for the award. The local officials demanded that I should fight but I refused to do that. Then they threatened me sending to a punishment post but just at that time I joined another international organization.

    Next, when I joined a new institute I was asked to carry out the job left by a consultant -- who did the analysis for all 81 stations and for one station results were published. When I saw that work, the computer programme he used was inaccurately computerized. So, I started my own work. Unfortunately, the same consultant came back as my boss and dumped all the analyzed results and started harassing me. When ever I submit a paper for clearance, he used to put his name and another collegue of mine's name and my name at the end and used to publish. I went abroad to avoid these problems -- by that time I published more than 100 papers.

    T avoid confrontation, I joined a foreign university and completed my Ph.D. with entirely different subject. Here unknowingly I encountered a different situation wherein, I did not used a model which is widely used in that country including my guide. Nothing happened but another Ph.D. student who completed his Ph.D. using that model approached my professors [two, one from the university and another from scientific institute] on this issue. They simply told the student discuss with him. He in turn approached me. On one Sunday, I explained him why I did not used that model and why I used X and Y models. He was convinced with my argument and simply dumped his thesis [six years work] and took up new topic -- I left the country submitting my thesis to the university --. Later he informed that we both received Ph.D.

    Next, I was posted in country as UN expert. I was supposed to take up the work in line what the agency developed. But I did not used that. The chief who was behind that agency's concept development [whom I knew earlier, worked in the same institution -- he in fact developed the concept based on my talk at that time with referring to my work] simply told me that you go ahead with your concept but don't tell any body my concept is bad or erroneous. I completeted my task with my model concept. Left the country after the stipulated period and at debriefing time the head of the group insisted why I had not followed the agencies concept. He asked me writting my answer. He was convinced with my response and asked to modify the agencies concept, which I turn it down.

    This is life.

    Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply