'Science should be non-authoritarian and self-cleansing'

 He has held many important positions; among them being director of the country’s premier National Geophysics Research Institute, Hyderabad, and secretary, Govt of India’s Dept of Oceanography. He has been associated with leading scientific establishments such as Indian Institute of Astrophysics, the Indian Institute of Science and the University of Roorkee.

He is also a zealous reformer having designed geophysics curricula, restructured the research programmes at NGRI with emphasis on scientific rigour, and re-designing and writing science textbooks for CBSE. He founded the ‘science to people programme’ in Hyderabad in 1984 to popularise science which is a statewide movement today. At present he is with the Centre for Mathematical Modelling and Computer Simulation, Bangalore. R Akhileshwari of Deccan Herald caught up with him in Hyderabad recently for an interview. Excerpts:

How do you react to the debate that research should be democratised? Are research organisations in our country democratic in spirit and practice?

Scientific research has to be democratic. It cannot be authoritarian because it is open for any correction. Science forever strains to discuss truth; it is self-avowedly in pursuit of truth and implicitly open to correction. Therefore, any scientific research should be democratic and inclusive.

You speak of the values of science...

The first value derivable from the pursuit of science is ‘straining towards the truth’. It stems from the innate curiosity of the human spirit to understand the nature of the physical world and a constant urge to perfect this knowledge through a long chain of processes of hypotheses formulation and validation by discriminating design of thought or physical experiments. Any single error in this long chain can corrupt the subsequent processes. Thus we all bear a collective responsibility to maintain the purity of scientific research, which in other words means reporting the results of scientific investigations with uncompromising fidelity... or simply put, telling the truth. This should involve such transparency that any other individual or group can scrutinise the findings and if needed, correct or supplant with more valid knowledge.

Do you think that scientific research has been hijacked by commercial interests and corporates with an eye on making ever more profits?

No, I don’t believe it has been hijacked. I would put it this way: the list is growing of technology induced social problems such as environmental degradation and endemic diseases; then we have genetically modified crops, regenerative medicine, new chemicals and materials. I believe the contemporary society is unwittingly mortgaging its future by accepting and adopting hasty and uncritical applications of new knowledge.

I believe that a constructive approach would be to create robust mechanisms for continual appraisal guided by the values of science. As for newer technological products and systems, there is a need to set up open, scientifically sound, non-authoritarian mechanisms for their evaluation accompanied by enlightened public discussions which will help evolve judicious policies for their adoption and if necessary, appropriate laws for their regulation.

What about unethical practices that have crept into science?

Science should be self-cleansing but in today’s world it is burdened by unethical practices. Those who practice science as a vocation have got into a competitive mode which brings about unethical practices — like any competition — for money, fame, awards which are won more by lobbying with politicians than recognition by peers. How can institutions, scientific or any other, deliver if they are headed by people who have no vision, no intellectual competence? What can we expect of a vice chancellor who is a political beneficiary? There is a huge hunger for power, which is only to serve the self and not the institution. There is a crisis of functioning of the system. People who make decisions want only name and visibility. There’s no judgement involved. They then lull into complacency by singing the song ‘We are second to none.’ The system is unlikely to change unless it is depoliticised.

One of your interests has been to popularise science...

We need two things to popularise science among the children: good infrastructure and good teachers. We have failed in both. It is important for the children to know that the teacher doesn’t know everything and books don’t have all the knowledge. I’m constantly amazed at how smart our kids are, but the tragedy is that they are more creative, talented and intelligent than their teachers. Today, teachers have stopped learning and that’s a terrible tragedy. Perhaps 2-3 per cent of our teachers are world class, but the rest are junk!

What can we do about it?

Empowering the civil society is our only hope. It has to get strong enough to assert itself. I feel sad that the structure of the government traumatises those not having connections. Can’t we change it? Is it impossible? I can’t see how it can’t be done. The sense of equity and justice has to be strengthened and fought for.

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