The Sciences

Indian Scientists Demand Better Government Funding and Gender Representation

As restrictions for the Lok Sabha elections prevented them from participating in the Global March for Science on Saturday, scientists held seminars instead.

New Delhi: While thousands of people participated in the Global March for Science on Saturday, scientists and enthusiasts in India held seminars to discuss the role of science in formulating evidence-based policies on the status of the planet.

Indian scientists could not join this year’s edition of the march, which was held in more than 100 locations across the world, because of restrictions put in place for the Lok Sabha elections. In several cities and towns, seminars were held in solidarity with the march, which aims to champion “robustly funded and publicly communicated science” as a “pillar of human freedom and prosperity”.

Scientists will participate in an Indian March for Science on August 9. Indian scientists marched on the same day in 2017, after missing the global march that year.

In Mumbai, mathematicians M.S. Raghunathan, S.G. Dani professor Tejal Kanitkar, scientist Nagarjuna G., social activist Vivek Montero and others told the media that government support for science in many countries is dwindling. Policymakers are “systematically ignoring” scientific data on the status of the planet, they said.

Also Read: After Second March for Science, Scientists Asked to Rethink Funds Demand

The speakers also raised concerns about standards of educational institutions. According to the Indian Express, they said government-run schools and colleges have been neglected and wanted at least 6% of the GDP to be spent on education.

A statement issued by the Mumbai chapter warned of “greed for maximum profit” causing “unrestrained exploitation of natural resources and emission of toxic substances into the environment”. This would drive the planet to climate disasters, they said.

The scientists also highlighted the “alarming rise” of “institutionalised propagation” of unverified claims as science, identifying the Indian Science Congresses as a testimony to this fact. “Many myths about ancient India are being foisted on people as scientific facts. This is undermining the constitutional obligation to cultivate scientific temper. Whichever government comes to power should refrain from these attempts to undermine science,” they said.

Governments should utilise scientific data and base decisions on scientifically informed advice, the scientists said.

The Chennai chapter’s convenor Uma Ramachandran said science’s role is “often cold-shouldered by the government”. According to The Hindu, she said several institutions are facing a crisis of funds. “This, in turn, is affecting scientific research and we need adequate support. While successive governments have spent less than 0.8% on scientific research, we feel that at least 3% of the GDP should be spent on the same,” she said.

In Bengaluru, the seminar focused on the gender gap in science. Speakers said women constitute just 14% of scientists in the country and continue to face discrimination. Rajani K.S., the former head of Presidency College’s biology department said less than 40,000 women are employed as scientists, technologists and engineers in research and development labs in India. “This is a low number, considering there are 30 crore people in these fields,” she was quoted as saying by The Hindu. It is a problem faced globally, she said, as just 30% of researchers are women.

Former professor at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics Prajval Shastri said women are interested in science, pointing out that half the PhD scholars or those employed in higher education are women. “But if you look at the so-called prestigious research institutes, their representation reduces drastically. In physics, it is 10% while in some institutions, there are no women faculty members at all,” she said.

In 2017, Indian scientists marched with two key demands, asking the government to increase the investment on science and technology research and stop the propagation of unscientific ideas and pseudoscience.

The Wire reported that while scientists unanimously supported the demand to increase government’s investment, they were divided over the second claim. Some scientists felt this stance “threatens to undermine genuine traditional knowledge and alternate systems of medicine”.

After Indian scientists participated in the second edition of the global march last year, The Wire reported that they were told to “rethink” funds demands. Department of science and technology secretary Ashutosh Sharma said the absolute allocation to the department has risen in tandem with India’s GDP.

GoI’s principal scientific advisor K. VijayRaghavan also wanted the scientists to plan how the increased investment should be spent.

Also Read: A Seminar With Pseudoscience Has Blessings of DU’s Department of Education

In New York, the march highlighted the gender disparity in science. An all-women lineup of keynote speakers kicked off the march, touching on climate change, sexual harassment, gender inequity and activism within the STEM fields. The speakers included BethAnn McLaughlin, founder of #MeTooSTEM, marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, 13-year-old climate activist Alexandria Villaseñor and grassroots organizer Aracely Jimenez-Hudis.