The dark side of Indian science

Published: Saturday 31 December 1994

EVEN without the dramatic discovery of spies at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) last fortnight, it could always be said that the most important scientific programmes run by the Union government have a spooky air about them. Their vital operations are invariable concealed from the public which pays for them. Questions about performance and accountability, isolated occurrences in any case, are invariably evaded by cliched evocations of "national security".

Because the latter explanation is simplemindedly swallowed by the public at large, and the media in particular, we are usually vaguely hopeful about what our science is up to. Take the ISRO affair itself. Nobody precisely knows what strategically scientific information was lost due to the lust and greed of the 2 senior officers at India's premier space organisation. The government, expectedly, tried to cloud the murky affair even more. As a result, fears about the damage in media and other publicly concerned circles has speculatively traversed from notions of communications technology for submarines diving into the deep oceans to guidance mechanisms for spacecraft climbing into the deep oceans to guidance mechanisms for spacecraft climbing into the wide skies. But regardless of whatever, they are convinced that it was crucially important for country. The unlooking view comes attached with the assertion that the information leaked from ISRO was hitherto possessed by only 5 other countries in the world. Wouldn't hordes of others line up to steal it?

It is natural, and legitimate, for the people of developing countries to look to their boffins for solutions to their problem of poverty, and also for technologies that would enable them to catch up with the already developed nations. But the tendency to treat scientists as sacrosanct bodies must be resisted, simply because often this establishment makes erroneous or false claims for itself. What are the 5 technologies of world importance that India science has actually come up with in the past 50 years?

International espionage at ISRO may have robbed the country of knowledge crucial to its own interests. Simply because little can be done to retrieve that, it must be given up as an unfortunate loss. But the episode may be used as an excuse to further clamp information about the country's premier scientific bodies, particularly those in the space and the nuclear research sectors. That would be even more lamentable.

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