The Indian Science Congress: The Gorillas are outside.

The 106th Indian Science Congress is being held in Jalandhar from January 4-7. The principal goals of the Congress are “To advance and promote the cause of science in India and to hold an annual congress at a suitable place in India” (http://sciencecongress.nic.in/introduction.php). The Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA) does get some support from the Department of Science and Technology, Ministry of Science and Technology. The ISCA raises funds for its activities, such as for the holding of the Congress, from other sources. Yet (like the Indian National Science Academy, for example) the ISCA decides the agenda, the venue and selects the speakers. The Government has no role whatsoever in these matters. 

We can look at the Science Congress from three perspectives: The Government and what it says, the audience and what they get and the speakers in the scientific sessions and what they say, 

First, the Government does have an important presence in the Science Congress, though it is not a government event. This is the only major annual national science event the Prime Minister of India attends, and perhaps no other Head of Government attends such a function each year. What the Prime Minister says at the Science Congress is important and matters.

The Science Minister is present and speaks at the inauguration. Other Ministers, Science Secretaries, and government officials may be invited to speak. Our science agencies are also invited to put up stalls. The talks by Science Secretaries give a view of where science and technology are headed in the country. These are followed by questions and answers. The exhibitions by science institutions and science agencies attract big crowds, particularly school and college students.

Do look through the PM’s speech this year and previous years. And, all speeches over the past several decades. The reflect our aspirations. Very importantly, and unusually among post-colonial countries, they reflect the commitment of successive governments to science. We must be critical, always, about how governments act. We should also celebrate this commitment, which has been there during very difficult times. India has supported small and big science, basic and applied in a manner that is exemplary and quite extraordinary. Most important, our support in creating institutions that allow ideas to flourish freely has been foundational. We have continued on this path too through the many new central universities, IISERs, IITS etc. that have been created more recently. Yet, these barely touch our needs. This year, the PM’s speech has asked that we attend to research in the State University system. This will get much attention in practice. Similarly, the point made about getting the analysis of data from the soil, water, seed, market, fertilizers, pesticides, into the farmer’s decision- making using AI and other approaches.

As the footprint of science grows, more resources are needed, young researchers should be remunerated better and processes need to improve. We are all together in getting these things done too. As our economy grows, support all-around for science will grow. Old problems will go and new ones will surface. The Jai Anusandhan slogan, therefore, aims to get support for science as a popular demand as distinct from only the fruits of science being a popular demand.

Second, thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of school and college students attend the Congress. They come from all over the state, and from all over the country. The Science Congress, with all the attendant vibrant-chaos, is a great melting pot for students from all over India to meet each other, bond and see parts of India. They love meeting with the scientists, going to the stalls, mobbing the Nobel laureates. It is a Mela, which leaves a lasting impact on them when things go well. For that, the speakers are important.

Third, the speakers. The Science Congress has an overall theme each year, There is a wide range of topics that are covered in the talks. A group of scientists, chosen by the ISCA, requests applications to speak and chooses speakers. Once chosen there is no censorship on what the person actually speaks. Only a few of our best scholars go to the Science Congress. The crowds, chaos, the diverse audience (who does one direct the talk to? The experts, school students. college students?) seem to put off many, This is a pity, The Congress is usually better organised nowadays that some years ago, but more pertinent, its precisely the diversity and lack of tight organisation that makes it special. Perhaps one should just embrace that. The talks, then reflect the speakers. A few are superb, some good, many unremarkable and few, usually one or two, outright preposterous. 

The last part gets disproportionate national and global attention. This attention stays over the year, till the next Congress, assigned to the #pseudoscience bin.  It is a fascinating reflection of our mindset that this bin is taken to be emblematic of scientists and to be an official endorsement. Someone, concerned and well-intentioned, asked, how one (presumably the government)  could give a platform to such preposterous talks at the Science Congress. Well, the organisers rightly don’t have a filter and the Government rightly has no role in the matter. Scientists say what they say, and if they talk nonsense, they will feel the heat from the community. It is indeed unfortunate that a sitting Vice-Chancellor of a great State University, a biologist to boot, says something that is scientifically completely untenable. His Chancellor should get a formal complaint from those who were there and he will surely hear personally from individual scientists and our very vocal science- academies.

The #pseudoscience bin is an important one. But we in India fill the bin in an oddly lazy manner. When lay people, including politicians, make random untenable statements linking religion, culture, the past etc. to science in an erroneous manner; the problem is to be addressed by collegial communication. When scientists make such links, they should be addressed more squarely. If there is a likelihood that such views may enter policy, the engagement needs to go up. But these are not the Gorillas in the room. 

The Gorillas, who deserve to be in #pseudoscience bin are huge, several and freely roaming around. But, first, here are just a few from history and then from the present. Trofim Lysenko’s (under Stalin and Kruschev) rejection of Mendelian genetics, ruined the study of genetics and plant breeding in’ the Soviet Union, ruined Soviet Agriculture and caused famines through the acceptance of what was, then too, clearly pseudoscience. Millions of lives were lost because of the introduction of a process where Lysenko was complicit. In South Africa, tens of thousands lost their lives when the President and Health Minister asserted that HIV does not cause AIDS. This has long been recanted, fortunately. More recently, human-induced climate change gets denied, by those with direct interests and by a leader. Some affluent from the West have the luxury of not just voicing pseudoscience on vaccines, but actively funding and propagating these views. This results in people dying. Other activists have views on agriculture which, like Lysenko, display not only a poor understanding of genetics but a desire to translate this poor understanding into policy by stoking fears in the public, and thus grid-locking well-intentioned policymakers. Yet others have similar views on nuclear power. More recently, Nobel Prize winner James Watson, now 90 years old, reiterated his decades-old racist and bigoted rant on African intelligence, which are scientifically flawed. Such views, if not repudiated have a great danger in seeing the revival of eugenics On a more mundane level, many scientists look at where research work is published, to judge its merit rather than what it says, creating an assessment pyramid which has little science in its construct.  These are the topics that must be at the centre of the debate on pseudoscience.

The application of science, through technology, must be cautious and wise. This requires careful listening to a range of scientific possibilities, and working with citizens, and government. Time and attention must be given to all views. But, as with Lysenko, as with HIV-AIDS, as with climate change, if we  (our scientists, in India)  hesitate to call our #pseudoscience in these debates we risk endangering our citizens and the planet. By preventing the right thing from being done and by also by doing the wrong thing ‘big’ pseudoscience poses a great danger. 

Salacious headline- grabbing stories are interesting, but focusing on them risks  ignoring the big pseudoscience Gorillas rambling in the porcelain shop which is our planet. 

18 thoughts on “The Indian Science Congress: The Gorillas are outside.

  1. This blog was much needed. ” Similarly, the point made about getting the analysis of data from the soil, water, seed, market, fertilizers, pesticides, into the farmer’s decision- making using AI and other approaches.” While AI is looked at as a panacea for all problems, and it does give an opportunity to get to the front rows, we also need to keep in mind the inclusiveness of the beneficiaries. I think we need to give a big push for Citizen Science in areas like quality of soil, water and air, seed conservation, market info, fertilizer-pesticide use and impact. Citizen Science also provides an opportunity to include schools and colleges into data-acquisition process, promotes STEM education from highschool onwards and creates a favourable climate for progress of science and innovation. Though there are talks of Citizen Science in certain forums, and some NGOs are engaged in this, a big push is needed. Just imagine the amount of data that can be had if all the high schools along Ganges collect water samples once a week, analyse with a simple kit and upload the data on the cloud for scientists to analyze! The possibilities are enormous.

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  2. Sir, inculcating scientific temper among masses is part of India’s constitution. If a person appointed to an eminent position by the Government is using his position to spread pseudoscience, what is the Government’s response to that in the interest of upholding our constitution, is what I would like to know. Just saying that scientific fraternity and people in general will condemn or question him, etc., is frankly not enough.

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  3. So true that pseudoscience is plaguing the global society and becoming more prevalent in India. Choice of those who believe the pseudoscience and act upon endanger the lives of others including children. Even some schools offer options for parents to either vaccinate or deny vaccines which create confusion that lead to not vaccinating children. Spreading pseudoscientific concepts through social media such as WhatsApp not only spreading false information quickly but also worsening the issues further. Strict scientific policies and regulations are critical.

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  4. I am life member from last 10 years. First time i submitted an abstract to 106th ISC under Physical Science category by thinking that our work may be useful for civilian application.

    Criteria of not selecting Gorilla speakers may be made transparent. At least they should be sent a mail their research work is not suitable for ISC.
    Thanks to organizers.

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  5. Thank you for such a fine summary Vijay. I wonder if there are /were plans to start hosting the talks through social media and videos so non locals could benefit or even participate? Regards Gautam Thor

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Excellent analysis of the situation. A few absurd claims should not tarnish Indian science and the vast majority of Indian scientists. Thank you for publishing this piece so promptly

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  7. Dear Vijay, I am a TIFR alumni, and as such have heard a lot about you. And good things only. Your contribution and support have helped the spread of good science in India. However, given that ISC is government mandated , (given the PM inaugurates every session ), it does reflect upon the government core believes. I would only hope that you would stop the spread of this pseudo scientific bullshit that is being promoted in this events. As a high level bureaucrat I hope you stand by what you believe in and do everything you can do stop this kind of pseudo science nonsense. They might be a few, but they are being given a platform with an enormous reach. Such kind of opportunities are hardly given to PhDs who truly believe in Science and are infinitely better scientists than those nut jobs. I only hope that you make sure that you make sure that committees comprising of real scientist and frauds chose the speakers.

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    1. Clarify what u r referring as pseudo science..
      For me, when a theory which is not yet fully proved is propagated as if it’s a law, it is pseudo science. Ex: Darwin’s theory

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  8. I attended some of the sessions and I found them absolutely nonsense,full of misleading information, political and mythological bias which should not be there.I doubt about the selection committee who were responsible for selecting speakers for the Children Science Congress and others…

    Most importantly LPU(the organizing University) is like to show off more for dignitaries but for making the sessions crowded they forced their own University students to sit in the particular sessions selected by them by enforcing attendance and academic benefits (marks) for the next semester even if anyone was not interested in the particular session.
    Also if you see the standard of teaching here is just very very bad because they can build infrastructure and looks attractive but in terms of academic that place is just below average,no funding for students for doing curiosity driven research because if they don’t get any benefit out of it they will not going to invest and in science Congress they are taking about Research,that’s like a joke, actually they are doing business,not doing for education actually.

    My question is that’s how India will going to produce young scientific minds ?
    Why in children science Congress the discussion is more focused on political and ancient mythological ideas rather than recent scientific discoveries when the theme is “Future of Science and Technology” ?
    How government can ensure the quality of teaching?
    How a exam based Indian education system can produce bright researchers?
    Because exams are destroying our curiosity and interest because here in Indiayou can choose subjects of study in the basis of exam marks(a test of memorization basically, but for innovation we need the power of imagination, creativity and passion) and academic ranks,not in the basis of interest and passion.if you can’t change the system you can’t attract the top talents from the world and even in the country if someone has talent because of this stupid system most of them want a stable govt./private job rather than Pursuing career as a researcher.
    – Hope intellectual can understand it and govt. able create the chance which is very very fundamental for betterment of Indian education system for generating young creative minds,not the robots.

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  9. Vijay –

    You occupy a highly visible position. The scientific community looks up to you for leadership. In the current context – debating irrational pseudoscientific presentations at the ISC, bringing up the gorillas that plague global science is a red herring. You have a greater say and responsibility for scientific affairs in this country. It is easy to bash the gorillas. More difficult to banish the monkeys hiding in your bonnet. But you first have to accomplish the latter before taking on the former. If your courage and forthrightness mean that your political bosses sideline you, so be it. Being on the right side is more important than being on the dominant side. In the long-run, the right side will win and that will be your legacy. Else, you will also be forgotten amongst the many pawns that allowed themselves to be used.

    Regards,

    Swami

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  10. Dear Vijay
    Thanks for sharing very well written post. As you have pointed out, unfortunately only the ridiculous and scientifically false assertions of politicians etc make the headlines and other important presentations are sidelined. If, after such speeches, an expert panel could ruthlessly shred such psuedo scientific b.s., at least the event will retain its dignity and hopefully discourage others from dishing it out.

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  11. Dear Vijay:
    Thanks for taking up the issue. You have hit the nail on the head.As on of the contributors to this blog has correctly said that it is more important to be on the right side than to be on the dominant side.I sincerely hope you will continue on this path.
    Cheers!
    Pradip

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  12. I’m not Indian (but was born in England, where the Indian cultural influence now is almost as large as the English cultural influence in India).

    I’ve seen the same religious and right wing balderdash here in Australia, and in the US. In the states, it really is affecting governmental policy at both state and federal level, and the effect is growing. Please don’t go down the same path.

    Religious freedom is necessary – see the wars or religion in Europe in the 17th century, or even closer to home, the tragedy of partition. But that freedom has of necessity to be constrained, by all means claim that 2+2=5 if that is your belief, but you can’t be permitted to act on that belief if designing a bridge, or determining targeting coordinates for a nuclear warhead. Reality wins in the end.

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  13. When the true and tested (researched and documented) contributions of ancient Bharat to the sciences are not acknowledged, promoted and celebrated widely, and everything ‘ancient’ is taken as ‘unscientific’, the rise of proverbial gorillas is hardly a surprise.

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