Science Congress, or a meet of jokers

Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan’s description of the Indian Science Congress as a “circus where very little science is discussed” has invited much attention for good reasons. It was timely because the 103rd edition of the congress concluded in Mysuru last week. Ramakrishnan has the right credentials to make that comment because he had studied science in India, and attended last year’s science congress in Mumbai. He has vowed never to attend another congress. More importantly, Ramakrishnan’s opinion is not far from the truth, though he may have expressed it in too dramatic an idiom. The Mumbai congress had seen a participant claiming that the knowhow to make aeroplanes existed in ancient India. The prime minister had said that techniques of cosmetic surgery and reproductive genetics were once practised in the country. Politicians may be excused for the ignorance or motives behind such claims, though the positions they hold should instill in them caution and a sense of responsibility. Scientists, however, have no excuse to peddle myth, superstition and fancy as science.

This year’s congress saw a paper on the benefits of blowing a conch. The presenter made a demonstration too. That came close to a circus. Another paper on the environmental credentials of Lord Shiva was on the agenda, but was not presented. If these were oddities, even those which were presented as scientific papers were of low value. Old papers are presented again with minor changes. No new and original ideas are presented in the forums of the science congress. This is not surprising because the standards of a science congress cannot be any better than the standards of education and practice of science in the country. Science has suffered from school level onwards for reasons like lack of teachers and infrastructure and other ills associated with education. Research and scientific efforts have also suffered from lack of funds, politicisation and poor administration. The value of research is not recognised. The number of researchers and the amount spent on R&D are abysmally low. The funds are not well spent too.

Science congresses cannot be any better than what they are till the quality of science improves in the country. The effort should be to improve the standards of education and research so that the proceedings of the congress also improve in quality. Another distinguished scientist, Dr Manjul Bhargava of the Princeton University, who has won the Fields medal, noted that science congresses give scientists an opportunity to interact and discuss common areas of interest. That may be a reason to hold them, but is only the minimal justification.

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