Nobel Laureate Prof. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who attended the Indian Science Congress held in Mumbai in 2015 and called it a “circus” as very little science was discussed, is annoyed at the outrageous statements made by a few speakers at this year’s Congress. In an e-mail interview, he talks about the steps needed to restore respectability to the ISC.
Responding to a question from an Indian journalist, you had commented that the Indian Science Congress was a “circus”. What made you say that?
The Indian Science Congress is too large and unwieldy, and the result is a slightly chaotic atmosphere. It is far too big for younger unknown scientists, let alone students and research fellows, to get to know senior scientists or even each other.
One thing I particularly disliked was that they fly top international scientists business class and put them up in 5-star hotels with a car and chauffeur at great expense, but then shepherd them away in VIP tents where their interactions with young scientists are limited. The large size also means the quality of the talks is extremely uneven. This is not even counting those few talks that are simply outrageous, pseudoscientific nonsense.
Do you think the idea of the Congress catering to a wide audience (school students to scientists) is the basic problem?
In principle it is not a bad idea to have a broad meeting. However, its size needs to be restricted and interactions across disciplines and generations maximised.
Are you aware of any national science meeting that is inaugurated by a politician or where the main focus is on this event?
This may well be unique to India and could actually be a good thing if used well because it signals support for science from the highest levels. Currently there is too much politics among the organizers and scientists, and a lot of jockeying for “who gets to sit on the dais when the PM speaks”. It is also not clear that there is sufficient two-way conversation between the Prime Minister and the scientific community or whether something actually emerges from the Prime Minister’s visit that affects the course of science.
Do you see a sharp decline in the level of discourse since 2015 as pseudoscience gets discussed?
I have not done a comparison. However, why doesn’t the Prime Minister or other high officials speak out against this?
If there a few things that can be changed to make the Indian Science Congress respectable, what would you say are the most important ones?
The meeting needs to become smaller in order to be better organized. I think eminent scientists who come should be required to stay the whole time, and give at least two-three talks, including one to the Children’s Science Congress, which I found to be the best part of the Science Congress.
The meeting needs to be smaller and depoliticised. They should abolish people sitting on the platform for the Prime Minister’s speech — this dais nonsense is a particularly Indian disease. The talks need to be vetted by serious committees with the appropriate expertise. If despite the careful vetting, someone begins to spout nonsense, they should be ejected by the chair of the session.