Open minds: On withdrawal of circular on online conferences

The Centre has saved itself from continuing embarrassment at the international level by withdrawing the Education Ministry’s ill-thought-out guidelines for holding online conferences, seminars and training sessions. The sweeping circular, issued in consultation with the External Affairs Ministry, created a bottleneck for scientists in public universities, colleges and organisations and erected new bureaucratic barriers in a pandemic-hit phase when virtual conferences are the only viable channel for researchers to collaborate with global peers. Academicians and others organising the events were, as per the January circular, required to get prior official approval and ensure that the conference topics do not relate to security of the state, border, the northeast, Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, and broadly, any “internal matters”. Event organisers were also mandated to give preference to technological tools and channels not owned or controlled by hostile countries or agencies. The effect of such a vague and abstruse set of instructions could only be to abandon efforts to organise conferences. To their credit, Indian scientists spoke out, and the Indian Academy of Sciences sounded a warning on the order’s detrimental effect on development of science, prompting a rethink.

The pandemic from last year has underscored the value of virtual collaboration for many, although it cannot be argued that it completely substitutes for face-to-face interactions, trust-building and team formation. Without hurdles posed by visas, expensive travel, physical disability and so on, thousands of scientists have been able to participate in online conferences. Attendance at such events grew by 80% in 2020 over 2019 for the Plant Biology Worldwide Summit and over 300% for the American Physical Society meeting, as also for international meetings on cancer, lasers and electro-optics. Many scientists also think a combination of post-COVID-19 physical conferences and new possibilities enabled by virtual collaborations promise to forge even stronger alliances. An entirely new avenue has also opened up for national conferences with global experts taking part that researchers and students in the smallest towns can attend. This cannot, however, happen if institutions are bound by a bureaucratic straitjacket. India has made good strides in some fields with a growing number of peer-reviewed publications, especially in chemistry and physical sciences, as the Nature Index notes. Moreover, rigorous work can help allay concerns, such as on biopiracy, by documenting natural assets. The humanities, too, need to be freed from paranoid restrictions on research topics, curbs on scholars, and the growing pressure to sanctify cultural notions of science and history. Good sense has prevailed on the issue of online conferences, and it should lead to a more liberal approach to all research.

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Printable version | Apr 23, 2021 4:36:45 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/open-minds-the-hindu-editorial-on-withdrawal-of-circular-on-online-conferences/article33944927.ece

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