Most science-related events and conferences in India present a common puzzle. The 106th Indian Science Congress that recently concluded in Jalandhar did it too. This puzzle has two pieces – two questions – and attempting to answer them could tell us more about what really ails these events.
- Why do we have a conference where so many disparate fields are brought together without a purposeful basis?
- Has the event benefited by the presence of politicians?
To answer the first question, let’s revisit the Indian Science Congress Association’s (ISCA’s) origins. It was the brainchild of two British chemists who thought “scientific research in India might be stimulated if an annual meeting of research workers somewhat on the lines of the British Association for the Advancement of Science could be arranged” (source).
Although the body’s creation represented progress at the time, we must today consider reassessing that remit. And the longer we put this off, the more the ISCA will seem trapped in its colonial cradle.
The ISC is a big event that has participants and attendees from around the country. And the ISCA’s undertaking is as such public-spirited, and has the following goals (quoted verbatim):
- To advance and promote the cause of science in India To hold an annual congress at a suitable place in India
- To publish such proceedings, journals, transactions and other publications as may be considered desirable
- To secure and manage funds and endowments for the promotion of science including the rights of disposing of or selling all or any portion of the properties of the association
- To do and perform any or all other acts, matters and things as are conductive to, incidental to or necessary for the above objects
However, the way it is organised often interferes with these goals, especially on the ‘promoting science’ front.
Trying to do too much
Events that endeavour to unite disparate voices on different topics must think about why they need to come together, and their intended audience. But by not doing this, the ISCA ends up serving only a nominal form of representation. It’s notable that thousands of school and college students attend the event – sit in on talks, visit the stalls, speak to scientists, etc. So it’s also a unique opportunity to reach so many young people at once and inspire them to take up a career in research. But the ISC squanders the chance.
Scientists get on stage one after another to talk about topics as different as materials science and agriculture, as “mechanism of sex determination in coccoids” and “ONGC’s initiative for rebuilding India”. This is disconcerting. Cramming everything into a four-day event isn’t going to promote science, however broad the goals may be.
Instead, the ISCA should consider breaking the congress up into multiple smaller events, each more tightly focused, and spread across the calendar. (I recently presented my work at the ‘International Conference of Poisonous Plants’, where the only item on the agenda was ‘poisonous plants’.)
Such events should also be overseen by someone familiar with the subject. This way, proceedings won’t fail to address relevant contemporary issues. More importantly, the ‘stewards’ can guide fresh college students into collaborations with graduate students and working scientists on their chosen topics, help them prepare and present posters, and nurture long-term interest.
All of these pointers are in fact part of a larger irony centred on what the ISCA believes are its star attendees every year: the Nobel laureates. The congress celebrates their presence without also acknowledging that they are good researchers because the scientific infrastructure in their countries is well thought out. Moreover, the laureates’ fields of study rarely – if ever – resonate with students who are at the start of their academic lives.
Science, society and the government
According to K. VijayRaghavan, the principal scientific advisor, the science congress is the only major annual science event that the prime minister attends. This is a problem – not because it’s the only event he attends but because he needs to attend it at all. His presence only distracts the event from its stated purpose of promoting science.
More broadly, it may sound heartening that the Government of India is trying to bridge the gap between scientists and the common people; Harsh Vardhan, the Union science minister, said so at a previous congress. But this is a flawed aspiration. The criticism that scientists make it difficult for ordinary people to understand science is valid but it can only be fixed by better science communication from scientists and journalists, not the political establishment.
And the problem isn’t restricted to the prime minister’s presence. It extends to his speech as well, and which has of late been used to encourage research in this or that area. But politicians should not dictate what research should be undertaken and when. Apart from questions of autonomy and authority, research undertaken at the behest of the powers that be will be at risk of losing support when the government changes.
In sum, the ISCA should consider spreading the congress out, keeping each instance close to a specific topic and fostering deeper interactions with its attendees.
Ramanujam Nadathur is a molecular biologist and doctoral student focusing on fungal endophytes at the New Mexico State University, Las Cruces.