With Ministers Like These, Every Day Must Be Science Day

The discovery of the Raman effect was a product of multiple factors, not a single moment in the history of science – so 'Science Day' should be a commemoration of all those factors as well, and not confined to one day.

February 28 is not India’s first ‘Science Day’ in 2018. In fact, it’s the fourth.

The first ‘Science Day’ was on January 20, when Satyapal Singh, minister of state for Human Resource Development (HRD), said Charles Darwin was wrong and scientists from around the country rose up in measured frustration against his statement, had three science academies issue a statement and, most of all, elicit an admonition from HRD minister Prakash Javadekar against Singh.

The second ‘Science Day’ was budget day, February 1, when Arun Jaitley’s dismal offerings for fundamental research sparked a conversation of both hope and despair among scientists in labs around the country.

The third ‘Science Day’ was when the MHRD announced the Prime Minister’s Research Fellowship without, it would seem, any consultation with stakeholders, the result being some scientists dubbing it an unmitigated disaster poised to demoralise the bulk of India’s best young research minds.

On the fourth ‘Science Day’, two of the country’s science academies, the Indian National Science Academy and the Indian Academy of Sciences, have together organised an event in Delhi today with its chief guest being none other than Satyapal Singh. It seems the original plan had been to conduct the event at the Rashtrapati Bhawan convention centre with the country’s president in attendance along with a few ministers, giving a talk to scientists, 300 schoolchildren, etc. As one scientist told me, “Science Day has to be celebrated with scientists, not politicians”, so the absence of the majority of those invited shouldn’t play foul to what can still be a useful occasion for school-goers to connect with veterans of research. One of the organisers mentioned that today is also International Rare Disease Day, and the gathering will be used to discuss rare diseases as well.

Actually, February 28 is the 59th ‘Science Day’ this year, since it’s the 59th day since the start of the year. This is because every day is ‘Science Day’. In fact, it was ‘Science Day’ on February 26 when a scientist announced the improvised version of a card game, developed since 2015, on Twitter to help its players understand “information exchange during mate choice”. It’s ‘Science Day’ every Monday because there’s a new Life of Science article out. It’s ‘Science Day’ every morning when science writers and journalists think about what they are going to write about that day.

February 28 has traditionally been used to commemorate the discovery of the Raman effect by C.V. Raman, India’s sole Nobel laureate in the sciences; this way, the day has quietly become the foundation for a state-sponsored valorisation of a single prize awarded by a bunch of Swedish academics. India has seen many scientists of the calibre of Raman but many of them are not as well-remembered because they didn’t win international – particularly Western – recognition nor were they members of the upper castes who could afford science education and research (consider the story of Meghnad Saha).

This is the same West that many of our ministers are also fond of deriding. The truth is that it’s complicated. We know the West will favour the West, infrequently because of irrational prejudices and frequently because of systematic defects that repeatedly and increasingly penalise India – and most of Asia, Africa and Latin America – for the way it treats national scientific enterprise. Others are to blame, sure, but we’re to blame the most. Part of the problem is our top-down approach to administering scientific research and education, a symptom of which is ‘celebrating’ science on a single day and relegating to it a nook behind the mind’s backburners on all other days.

The myth of the ‘lone genius’

Additionally, it must be noted that the Raman effect was not discovered on a single day, nor was it discovered by the endeavours of one person alone. Sure, Raman may have been looking through the data, piecing the numbers together and elucidating the presence of an effect he was the first in the scientific literature to make sense of (though even this is disputed). For India at the moment, it’s more important to examine the things that fell in place for his discovery to become possible. This isn’t a prompt to draw up a roster of the people who helped (such as Lokasundari Ammal and K.S. Krishnan) but rather an occasion to reflect on such intangibles as theoretical foundations, inspiration, social support, the academic environment in which Raman conducted his experiment, the political environment that ensured he had the money, the opportunities he had to correspond with international scientists and journals, etc. In short, the discovery of the Raman effect is a product of multiple factors, not a single moment in the history of science.

But no – it would seem ‘Science Day’ is a day to think about the science. This is unfair; we have scientists who know how to conduct their research. Let’s use the day – and all days – to make such research more possible, meaningful, enjoyable and equitable, please?

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The government has had opportunities to remedy the situation every year but it fails to bite. This is a nonpartisan judgment: the UPA I and II regimes that preceded the prevailing reign of the BJP might seem more benign in contrast but that means nothing to a postdoc scholar whose stipend hasn’t been paid in months, nothing to a community the total public expenditure on whom is the highest today at a shocking 0.69% of GDP, and nothing to an enterprise whose usefulness is being gauged solely in terms of what it has to offer to the shape-shifting, self-serving agenda of “national interest”.

Away from the funding front, we also have opportunities every year in the form of instituting better fellowships, smoothening the process of applying for and receiving research grants on time, fostering more consultations between industry, government and academia, etc. On a broader level, the private sector has cut ahead in areas where the corporatisation of science has become desirable because the bureaucratisation of science has become detestable. A common example is drug research and discovery.

Here’s an uncommon one: awards. The Infosys Prizes are better organised than are the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prizes. There’s an email blast that goes out to journalists when the winners of the former are announced; the press is invited to sit in during the award ceremony; then a PR team kicks in, pushing interviews with the prize’s winners among journalists from prominent media outlets. On the other hand, the Bhatnagar prize has been awarded for 60 years to over 500 scientists – but nothing of the sort Infosys undertakes has ever happened. In fact, on the sole occasion there has been fanfare surrounding a prize, it was awarded to Appa Rao Podile – the VC of the University of Hyderabad, a plagiarist as well as a man accused of specifically disprivileging lower caste students on campus –  by the organisers of the 2017 Science Congress.

(Disclaimer: The Wire‘s science section is funded by Rohan Murty, the son of N.R. Narayana Murthy, in turn one of the trustees of the Infosys Science Foundation that awards the eponymous prizes.)

Hell, we have everyday opportunities in the form of getting ministers to celebrate legitimate scientific achievements instead of abdicating one’s responsibility towards lakhs of scientists and crawling back into the now-barren womb of “ancient India”, puranas and whatnot.

Science day every day

It’s evident by now that it’s not the availability of opportunities but the will to seize them. Further yet, it’s not that the will doesn’t exist but that the intent doesn’t. We’re not faced with a group of ministers bungling their jobs but a group that knows exactly what it’s doing: angle for what they say is the ‘national interest’, and force everything else to tag along. By cornering our reasons to celebrate science into the confines of a single workday, we’re at risk of abetting what our ministers are doing: abdicating responsibilities towards science on other days.

This includes attending schools, colleges and universities; interacting with schoolchildren and college students; sitting down with apex investigators to hear their concerns out; instituting independent science evaluation and funding bodies; giving talks about the importance of scientific research. In all, engaging with the country’s multifarious research establishment towards reducing the separation between administrator and practitioner, and engendering a more consultative approach to decision-making in the national interest.

Science is an everyday endeavour; celebrate it, scrutinise it, share it, demand it on every day of the year. Just the same way marking ‘Earth Hour’ is doing nothing to help Earth if you’re not going to have environmentally conscious daily routines, you might as well not mark ‘Science Day’ if you’re going to mark it on just one day.