Regaining respect: on Indian Science Congress

Doing away with the inauguration may see reduced political interest in the Indian Science Congress

January 09, 2019 12:15 am | Updated 12:27 am IST

Reacting to controversial remarks made by Andhra University Vice Chancellor G. Nageswara Rao and Dr. Kannan Krishnan at the recently concluded 106th Indian Science Congress at Jalandhar, Nobel Laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan said in an email, “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.”

The Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA) has finally decided to do what Professor Ramakrishnan has suggested and bring some respectability to the Congress. In a resolution, it decided to obtain in advance the abstracts of the lectures of all speakers, including those speaking at the Children’s Science Congress. “We will not vet but screen the abstracts, and not allow pseudoscience to be presented. We will also have a person from the Association at every session and remove the speakers from the dais if they go beyond the purview of the submitted abstract,” said Premendu P. Mathur, General Secretary (Scientific Activities), ISCA.

While the standard of the Congress has been in steady decline for several years, since 2015 it has seen questionable comments by speakers glorifying India’s ancient scientific achievements. The stage was set in October 2014 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when he cited the examples of Karna and Ganesha to wrongly claim that reproductive genetics and cosmetic surgery existed in India thousands of years ago. At the 2018 Science Congress, Union Minister of Science and Technology Harsh Vardhan claimed that Stephen Hawking once said the Vedas had a theory superior to Albert Einstein’s e=mc2. The credibility of science was also eroded when Union Minister of State for Human Resource Development Satyapal Singh claimed last year at an event that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution of man was “scientifically wrong”. It might be more than coincidence that Professor Rao felt emboldened to claim that the Kauravas were test tube babies and that India possessed knowledge about guided missiles centuries ago. On his part, Dr. Krishnan rejected Einstein’s theory of relativity, Newton’s theory of gravity as well as Hawking’s theories on black holes.

The Association must take bold decisions to transform the Congress into a platform for serious scientific discussions. Professor Ramakrishnan, who called the Congress a “circus”, suggested that the meeting be “made smaller and depoliticised”. The most needed reform would be to do away with the inauguration altogether. P. Balaram, a former director of the Indian Institute of Science, said that if the inauguration were to be excluded from the agenda, the event would see reduced political interest and more genuine science. In such a scenario, serious scientists will hopefully flock to the Congress in greater numbers.

The writer is the Science Editor of The Hindu

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