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From labs to the streets: Scientists are marching for science today in India

The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) - India's largest research and development organisation - has publicly stated that it is too short of cash to fund research. Photograph: (Others)

Delhi, India Aug 09, 2017, 11.32 AM (IST) Madhumita Saha

True to the spirit of the Quit India Movement, which stands as an ultimate testimony to popular mobilisation, scientists in India are taking to the streets today. Concerned at the state of affairs in the research establishments, researchers and academicians across India are leaving the safe recluse of the laboratory space to march for science. The charter of demands which they are placing before the government and the society at large includes a plea to revamp the research infrastructure of the country, better funding for research, and a call to awareness against pseudoscience. 

Science and technology have been integral to the imagination of modern India. With India's independence, the Nehru government ensured substantial funding to build up the nascent nation-state's scientific infrastructure. The focus, understandably, was on developing the country's industrial and agricultural sectors. More importantly, Nehru as the first prime minister of the nation was tirelessly harping on the importance of inculcating what he called the "scientific temper" among the scientists and the citizens of the country in general. Development of the scientific temper, Nehru believed, would help to prioritise the role of reason over everything else in the running of the nation-state and it would effectively replace the archaic colonial mentality. Instead of knowledge being the prerogative of a privileged few, it would now come to serve the needs of the nation. 

Scientists who are going to march on the streets of Indian cities on 9th August believe that India's scientific establishment is moving far away from being a reason-driven enterprise.
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Scientists who are going to march on the streets of Indian cities on 9th August believe that India's scientific establishment is moving far away from being a reason-driven enterprise. In the name of protecting of indigenous knowledge, more money is being poured into conducting research on what they consider to be pseudo-sciences. Development of scientific temper is what these scientists are asking for, and it is a legitimate demand being enshrined in Article 51A of the Constitution.

Premier research institutes, such as the IITs, NITs, and IISERs are suffering from severe fund crunches. 
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There are a set of strange contradictions that are plaguing the current state of scientific research in India. For instance, Indian scientists have been spectacularly successful in the discovery of gravitational waves and of the Higgs Boson, in the interplanetary mission through Mangalyaan, and in reducing foreign dependence through the development of indigenous satellite launching capability. However, premier research institutes, such as the IITs, NITs, and IISERs are suffering from severe fund crunches. 

Earlier this year, the central government decided to allocate substantially more fund for the IITs. But even with a collective raise of Rs 2,468 crore more, the officials at IIT (B) pointed out the hike is not enough to meet the financial requirements for its project Vishwajeet - the Ministry of Human Resources Development's (MHRD) plan to catapult IITs to the top of global academic rankings. 

Scientists taking to the streets today point out that India’s spending on scientific research has been less than 1 per cent of GDP for the past two decades.
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While India's scientific capabilities continue to be the national status symbol, rather an indispensable factor, if PM Modi's "made in India" plan has to succeed. But the scientists taking to the streets today point out that India’s spending on scientific research has been less than 1 per cent of GDP for the past two decades. The scientists are demanding an allocation of at least 3 per cent of GDP to scientific and technological research and 10 per cent towards education. The demand sounds legitimate considering the fact that most of the hike that IITs had received recently would go towards building infrastructure, such as hostel facilities. While infrastructural improvement is important for the growth of any institutions, this actually leaves very little resources to bolster research.

Such has been the financial crisis that the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) - India's largest research and development organisation - has publicly stated that it is too short of cash to fund research. Left with no alternative, Girish Sahni, the Director general of CSIR, has asked in a letter that he has sent out to all the laboratory directors, to manage with funds from their external earnings. Sahni has reportedly also asked labs for a business development report on the status of technology that can be “out-licensed to companies/ stakeholders immediately”.

In his letter, Sahni, reportedly, tells  labs to identify at least “one outstanding game-changer technology” that they could provide in the “short run”. 

While it is rarely doubted that science plays an indispensable role in boosting the economy, generating employment opportunities, and in improving the physical quality of life, scientists are differing sharply with the government on the recent political uses of science.
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While it is rarely doubted that science plays an indispensable role in boosting the economy, generating employment opportunities, and in improving the physical quality of life, scientists are differing sharply with the government on the recent political uses of science. Through the course of human history, irrespective of the ideology of the ruling clique, science had been used as a political tool. USSR was hell bent on excelling in space science research to prove its superiority over the capitalist West. Similarly, nuclear science was the bone of contention between India and Pakistan. Agricultural science became a crucial tool in fighting the Cold War. But the danger in the indiscriminate use of science as a political tool has been more than evident. For instance, USSR has paid a stiff price under Stalin for adopting Lysenkoism over Mendelian genetics. The scientists who are marching today fear the same for India. 

In the indiscriminate glorification of the science of Ancient India, they see "fuelling of a confrontational chauvinism in lieu of true patriotism." If such a trend is not immediately brought to an end through practising evidence-based science, there are very real dangers that obscurantist ideas will take a deeper hold on the society. That will certainly mean an end to Nehru's dream of developing scientific temper among Indians. We may send as many rockets to space or build as many nuclear bombs, but the country will continue to cringe in shame from one more lynching, with one more woman getting branded as a witch, and another couple being killed for marrying against religious norms.

Madhumita Saha

The writer is an academic-turned journalist. She taught history at Drexel University and New York University before joining WION.

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