Regaining the focus

Recent history of the Indian Science Congress Association suggests that it most often makes news for matters other than science. Like the British Association for the Advancement of Science, now known as the British Science Association, it was meant to be a forum for scientists to present topical research, get funds and serve as a platform for science to reach out to the broader public.

Two British chemists, J.L. Simonsen and P.S. MacMahon, were the driving force behind the first Congress that was held from January 15 to 17, 1914 at the Asiatic Society, Calcutta. “One hundred and five scientists from different parts of India and abroad attended and the papers numbering 35 were divided into six sections — botany, chemistry, ethnography, geology, physics, zoology under six sectional presidents,” the website of the association informs us.

C.V. Raman, Meghnad Saha, statistician P.C. Mahalanobis and engineer M. Visvesvaraya were among the Indian scientists who held forth at these early Congresses and were instrumental in shaping a vision for science that would be relevant to India as an independent nation.

Cut to 2013 when the organisers of the Congress were gearing up for the centenary edition, and a stinging editorial appeared in India’s most popular science journal. “Few practising scientists of note consider the Congress as an important event,” P. Balaram, then the director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, wrote in Current Science , which he edited. “Pomp and ceremony take precedence over substance. Over the years, the Congress has been reduced to an occasion where the inaugural session appears to be the raison d’être for the meeting.” This was particularly ironic considering that Current Science , started in 1932, was itself a brainchild of deliberations from an earlier Congress.

In 2015, after the Narendra Modi government came to power, the Science Congress in Mumbai hosted a session where a speaker and his co-presenter held forth on the presence of “ancient” aeroplanes and spacecraft in the Vedic Age.

This year’s edition had to be shifted out at the last minute to Manipur because of ‘student unrest’ and ‘security issues’ at Osmania University, Hyderabad, the first venue. Unlike annual conferences of say the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Indian Science Congress has struggled to attract enough contemporary scientists to take it seriously and speak persuasively about their work. While communication technologies have rendered the Congress’s primary purpose of being a vehicle for transmitting new research irrelevant, there is no reason why it cannot become a prestigious forum to inspire young science students into meeting leading scientists and learning to find joy and meaning in their careers.

A first step would be to go back to its roots of being a stage for science than a podium for politics.

Recommended for you