2017 – When Cows Came to Indian Labs and Scientists Took to the Streets

It has become harder for scientists to be critical of the government, to spend money the government would otherwise give for 'panchgavya' research, to pay PhD students on time and to finish experiments on time.

People holding placards at a 'March for Science' protest in August 2017. Credit: PTI

People holding placards at a ‘March for Science’ protest in August 2017. Credit: PTI

As we bid farewell to 2017, The Wire looks back at some of the markers of disruption that affected different spheres, from politics and economics to technology and films.

On the face of it, Indian science continued in a business-as-usual mode in 2017, with success stories from space, astronomy and biotechnology, and a slew of new policy initiatives such as fellowships to attract foreign talent. However, at its centre it was a disquieting year. Indian scientists faced declining funds for basic science research, took to the streets in a ‘March for Science’ and came to terms with cows being part of core research agenda.

As the year draws to a close, there has been more distressing news – that the annual Indian Science Congress that was to be held in Osmania University in Hyderabad from January 3, 2018, has been postponed. While the congress has become a tradition that has persisted in spite of its declining relevance and usefulness, the reason for postponement was more concerning: a Dalit student at Osmania had killed himself allegedly because of a dearth of employment opportunities.

Let’s the good out of the way first. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) added a few more feathers to its cap. In February, it lofted 104 satellites into space in a single launch, followed in May by launching the 2.2-tonne ‘South Asia satellite’ to help India’s neighbours with communication, telemedicine and mapping natural resources. This was more space diplomacy than groundbreaking technology. And, of course, these feats were in addition to other routine satellite launches. On a slightly different note, ISRO also successfully test-flew the first GSLV Mk III with its cryogenic upper stage on June 5, announced future missions to Mars and Venus with US help and released details of a new rocket being built for launching small satellites.

India set up a new underground science laboratory at the Jadugoda uranium mines in Jharkhand and so joined the global hunt for dark matter. Gravitational astronomers were generally upbeat as well, since at least 37 of them had contributed to a Nobel-Prize-winning discovery, and have since been looking forward to getting the country’s own Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory detector gravitational wave built by 2025.

Finally, the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) has been preparing itself to support genome-editing research in the country. This purportedly path-breaking technology can be used for to engineer better crops, breed more valuable animals and tackle inherited disorders.

Now for the more concerning stuff.

The 2017 budget allocation for science rang the first alarm bells of the year. A month earlier, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had declared at the Indian Science Congress in Tirupati that India would be a global scientific power by 2022. But barely a month later, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley laid those hopes to rest. The key ministries and departments engaged with scientific research – the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Department of Atomic Energy, the Department of Space and the Department of Earth Sciences – together got a hike of just 11%, worth a dismal 6% after inflation.

India’s science budget was hovering at about 0.8% of the GDP for over a decade, and this has continued with Modi’s government. This was disappointing because scientists had had greater expectations of the Bharatiya Janata Party, that it would offer them a better deal in the form of more funds and policy initiatives, relative to the previous UPA government led by Manmohan Singh.

Science in India continues to suffer “because of the budget cut in 2014,” according to Soumitro Banerjee, a physicist at IISER Kolkata. “Since then, there has been a marginal increase in the budget but that is yet to offset the effect of the earlier throttle.”

In India money for research is disbursed through agencies like the Department of Science & Technology (DST), the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and the Indian Council of Medical Research. “The money [made] available to them has been insufficient to fund the research projects that experts [had] approved,” Banerjee said.

While smaller institutes engaged in theoretical research did not suffer much, those with larger experimental projects did – they latter received sanction letters on time but no money. For many ongoing projects, funds for the financial year 2017-2018 were released only in October. Many PhD students have not been getting their fellowships on time either.

The DST’s flagship ‘Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research’ programme to attract young talent to science, which used to support all students of the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER) till 2015, now supports only half as many.

Girish Sahni, the director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), had written to the laboratories under his purview two years ago that they would have to obtain funds for research from investors on the outside. While the directors of a few CSIR institutes maintained the official party line that this was an opportunity to forge private partnerships, scientists contacted by The Wire (and who wished to remain anonymous) doubted many laboratories would be able to survive in this paradigm. And surely enough, in June this year, Sahni declared a financial emergency.

But it was just a CSIR emergency. The government didn’t stop having money to spend – something scientists found out much to their dismay when the Centre began to push research on, and funding for, bovine bodily fluids and excreta. Around the time the CSIR was going broke, the government instituted a 19-member panel to oversee research that would ‘scientifically validate’ the benefits of consuming milk, curd, ghee, cow dung and urine – and a mixture of the five, called ‘panchagavya’.

These two proximate events – quasi-bankruptcy on the one hand and fiscal profligacy on the other – prompted a section of the Indian scientific community to organise a ‘March for Science’ in August, four months after the global march had happened. Apart from protesting the Centre’s ideas of what it considered valuable research, the participants also spoke out against the spread of unscientific ideas.

Also read: The ‘March for Science’ Debate

But it’s not clear who paid attention. In October, for example, the alumni association of the Indian Institute of Science was forced to cancel a two-day astrology workshop organised by one of its members on campus. But curiously enough, these voices of reason went quiet right after, instead of speaking out against other astrology workshops in the country or even the problem of superstitious beliefs at large.

The march also brought out another thing that had changed for the worse this year. Several scientists The Wire spoke to said on condition of anonymity that they weren’t able to participate because they were afraid they would be punished by their respective supervisors. Some institutes didn’t even want to take the chance, going a step ahead and directing their staffers to not take part. It takes a very small jump here – if that – to believe scientists can no longer speak freely or voice any critical opinions.

Yet somehow, the scientific community expects things will get better in 2018. According to Banerjee at least, there is an audacious hope that the Centre will increase the science budget to 3% of GDP and the education budget to 10% of GDP in 2018.

Should we brace for more bad news at the end of 2018?

T.V. Padma is a freelance science journalist.