Not a Congress But a Big Fat Indian Science Wedding

The congress was a gathering of a lot of people many of whom you didn't know, a place with plenty of food, and a place where you did a lot of things to please others.

The 103rd Indian Science Congress (ISC), hosted by the University of Mysuru, has just come to an end and the jury is evenly divided on its purpose, effectiveness and impact on society. One half agrees with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan (Venki), the President of the Royal Society of the UK and a Nobel Prize-winning chemist, and the other with Manjul Bhargava, the Princeton University mathematician and 2014 Fields Medal winner.

The sad part is no one is bothered about what scientists and young India think about the ISC except giving some postscript space for their reaction to Venki’s comment. A lot has been said and discussed about pseudoscience discussions in the ISC, particularly at the last one in Mumbai. So I shall not repeat or dwell on much except saying that I can’t agree more with this excellent piece written by Roddam Narasimha on this issue. An excerpt:

It is high time we learnt once again to distinguish science from mythology (either can be fun, but they are best when not mixed), evidence-based reasoning from unthinking acceptance of authority or speculation, and the rational from the superstitious (realising that a full life may not be purely rational: consider Ramanujan, for example). To make that happen is a responsibility that scientists here must accept, working in close collaboration with friendly outsiders. Our youth are hungry for a sensible knowledge of our past, but are denied an opportunity to acquire it by a marvellous educational system that shuns history in science curricula, and by the paucity of attractive but reliable accounts of the fascinating history
of Indic ideas.

So what do I think of this year’s Congress, as someone who attended the meet for the first time and spoke as a plenary speaker?

The Need

There certainly is a need for such a congress. To me, the ISC is not a place to showcase your most recent Nature or Science paper but to excite the young minds to take up science as a career, to show students what science can achieve for our society and why science is the only medium through which we can attain long-term and sustained economic development. To this extent, I can’t agree more with what Bhargava said about the congress:

What is the purpose of a science congress? Not necessarily to advance individual research. For that, you go to specialised conferences on your subject. Whereas the purpose of the science congress is to meet scientists from across the country, build connections, find common areas of interest and build collaborations, to get a feeling of what kind of science is being done across the country, and very importantly, making connections between the scientists and the public.

The ISC is not and should not be a place to present your latest experimental results. Neither is it nor should be a platform to speak with peers in your own field of work. It should be a platform to disseminate scientific information in a lucid way to the public at large, to excite young minds and to debate science policy and implementation in the country. Why should the ISC host four parallel plenary sessions on overlapping topics? Why not to have a single session with all public-lecture-style talks? Why should individual scientists not give talks on what developments in their own field can do for the common man?

This was demonstrated brilliantly by Professor T. Pradeep of IIT-Madras when he showed the utility of how nanoparticles could be used to mitigate arsenic contamination and poisoning (of water) – essentially taking a real-life problem and solving it with scientific application. (However, I would have loved for him to not have flashed his paper published in PNAS* because I don’t think it was relevant where he has published.)

The Effectiveness

Here, I do agree with Venki that the Congress served little purpose. In fact, I don’t think this year’s meeting was effective at all. First, like many other meetings and conferences in our country, and sadly so, the arrangement for food for speakers was separate, way out from where students, young scientists and other attendees were eating.  As speakers, aren’t we expected to meet, interact and most importantly listen to the young minds during breaks, lunch and dinner? Talking about the ‘future India’, should the Congress not have provided a platform for young India to present what they think about science, their future and what should or shouldn’t be done to promote scientific ethos among young people?

This year’s Congress, like many other congresses before this, was a top-down and protocol-driven meeting. Second, the writings on our badges well testify why the congress was all but about science: ‘Delegate’, ‘Invited Guest’, ‘VIP’, ‘VVIP’ and ‘Dummy’ (not a joke: someone’s badge read Dummy next to his name), among others. Why put ‘VVIP’ and ‘VIP’ on a badge? It surely wouldn’t be amusing for the badges of John Gordon and Manjul Bhargava to read ‘Nobel Laureate’ and ‘Fields Medal’ winner next to their names either. As a society, we are obsessed with prizes and accolades. Rather than respecting and appreciating Venki’s, Gurdon’s and Bhargava’s good work, why the hullabaloo at the ISC about their having won prizes?

The congress officials were least bothered about science or the future of Indian science. This was evident when I watched the President of the congress, rather than engaging with young minds and talking about science, trying to persuade the local organisers for hours to release the travel allowance checks for some of his friends (and the local organisers did a heck of a job and with grace in juggling between taking calls from VIPs and listening to VVIPs, Dummies and an impatient President).

The congress came off like a big Indian wedding: a gathering of a lot of people many of whom you either don’t know or don’t recognise, a place with plenty of food, and a place where you do a lot of things to please others (like smiling at an unknown person when receiving a gift as a newly wed bride or groom). There was little or no participation of the younger attendees except mobbing eminent scientists like Bhargava after the public lectures.

The Impact

The ISC will have no impact on our society. Baring a single session, there were no discussions, debate and exchange of ideas on science education, policy and dissemination of scientific information (science journalism/communication) to the public at large. Why did the congress not devote an entire day to this? Such a period of deliberations could have provided a solid policy document for the government to act on. Additionally, should the ISC not have discussed the parameters to measure success in science? Many promises have been made through successive congresses in the past but few have been followed up and implemented. The first thing that the congress should have done was to follow up on promises made in the previous congress and end with deliverables of this one.

Science is not just for scientists. It needs participation of the public at large. For the ISC to make an impact on our society, we need people who are passionate about science and society, and who can engage with young India. It was disappointing that the recently concluded congress fell short on all these counts. It was nothing but a big fat Indian science wedding.

Binay Panda is at Ganit Labs, Bengaluru. Besides genes and genomes, Binay is passionate about open science, education and free knowledge dissemination.

*PNAS is the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA).