Government withdraws order on online science meetings

The restrictions would have made it impossible for many scientists to participate in online conferences.

Updated - February 25, 2021 09:42 am IST

Published - February 24, 2021 10:22 pm IST - NEW DELHI

A webinar in progress via Zoom. Picture for representation. File

A webinar in progress via Zoom. Picture for representation. File

After a backlash from scientists, the government has withdrawn a controversial order that required scientists and researchers, among others, participating in online, international scientific seminars and conferences, to get prior clearance from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) .

“In view of the easing of restrictions on travel and assembly of people guidelines issued regarding political clearance for international conferences/seminars/training etc due to covid-19 pandemic are no longer applicable. All such events will however continue to be governed by the same rules and regulations applicable to political clearances prior to the covid-19 pandemic,” said an office order issued by the Ministry of External Affairs late on Wednesday.

These rules are available on the website of the Ministry of Home Affairs governing conferences, the MEA note says.

The Hindu had reported on Monday that the government was considering withdrawing the notification after protests from India’s leading science academies.

The scientists were reacting to orders issued by the Ministry of Education on January 31, based on the guidelines originally issued by the MEA on November 25.

The restrictions, according to scientists, were too broad-based and vague and would have made it impossible for many scientists to participate in online conferences — in vogue since the pandemic — without contravening the law.

“The Ministry of Education may send their withdrawal notices but those will be effectively forwarding this [MEA note],” a senior official privy to developments confirmed to The Hindu on condition of anonymity.

The now defunct guidelines were applicable to publicly funded institutions and extended to a wide ambit of topics, such as “...security of the Indian state, border, North East States, J&K, or any other issues which are clearly/purely related to India’s internal matters”.

The guidelines also covered “sensitive” subjects that included “political, scientific, technical, commercial, personal [subjects] with provisions for sharing of data in any form; presentations”.

Though such permissions were required for international visits by foreign speakers, this was the first time they were sought to be applied to virtual meetings as well as mentioned terms such as “India’s internal matters”.

Partha Majumdar, president, Indian Academy of Sciences (IAS), wrote a letter to Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal last week requesting that the guidelines be withdrawn. “The Indian Academy of Sciences considers the provisions of the Office Memorandum (OM) to be overly restrictive, lacking in clarity, and detrimental to the progress of science in India, including capacity-building. We strongly urge upon you to withdraw the blanket restrictions and the requirement of permission on the organisation of scientific discussion meetings and scientific training programs in India.”

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