Scientists Take to the Streets for Science

Prabir Purkayastha

THE March for Science took place on August 9 in more than 30 cities and towns in the country, involving thousands of scientists, researchers, teachers and students. These protests took place in the context of slashing funds for scientific research and education, and the promotion, with State support, of unscientific, bogus and obscurantist ideas in public life. The demands of the march were for a greater share of the GDP for science, technological research and education, and to promote scientific temper in the country, a constitutional obligation under Article 51 A.

 

While the scientific community in India had come out in condemnation of the assassination of three rationalist and critical thinkers – Professor Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Dr Narendra Dabholkar – and the lynching of Akhlaq in Dadri, this is the first time that scientists have taken to the streets to raise demand in favour of science itself.

 

The current government, as also earlier ones, had talked of India becoming a developed nation and a global leader. In the increasingly knowledge based economy, creating knowledge is integral to economic and social development. It is with this recognition that India created the scientific infrastructure after independence – education for creating a large scientific community, science-based departments such as Atomic Energy, Space, etc. The standing of IIT's, IISc, TIFR, AIIMS, the CSIR laboratories, are all the results of this investment. It is this infrastructure that provided the human resources for India's industrial development, and its successes in space and nuclear power, and the creation of the generic pharmaceutical industry in the country. This is why India is now called the pharmacy of the world; and ISRO looked upon by the world as the vehicle for cheap space launches. 

 

Today, India is barely able to provide the cost of salaries, and the maintenance of this infrastructure, leave alone for the creation of new knowledge. Its leading science and technology institutions are in danger of becoming institutions with first rate faculty and students, but third rate infrastructure for laboratories, libraries and journals. One institution in the US, Stanford, has an annual budget of Rs 39,530 crore ($5.9 billion) as against the science budget in India of the key science ministries – the ministry of science and technology, the department of atomic energy (DAE), the department of space and the department of earth sciences –  of Rs 34,759.77 crore. China's science and technology budget is eight times India's S&T budget, an indicator of why its science institutions are rapidly out-distancing the Indian ones.

 

CSIR, with 37 national laboratories, and the bedrock of India's 36 billion dollar pharmaceutical industry, has a budgetary allocation this year of Rs 4,063 crore. The PM exhorted it to “self finance itself”. CSIR has now declared a financial emergency, with Girish Sahane, the director general, stating that after expenditure on salaries, pensions, capital and other commitments, what is available for laboratories and new research projects is a paltry Rs 202 crore. Unfortunately, this drop in research allocation, not just the allocation for the institutions, is the bigger crisis in Indian science. 

 

A developed country needs to devote at least 3 per cent of its budget to science and technology research. In India, the figure is languishing at a rate of 0.85 per cent. Again, without a healthy base of science education, we cannot create the people who can then do first rate science. Against a need to spend 10 per cent of the budget on educating our people, we are spending less than 3 per cent.   

 

What is extremely disturbing for India's future is not just the drop in research expenditure. The powers that be – the ministers and now the newly appointed heads of scientific institutions – are all singing the tune that scientific research has to finance itself. They look on the enterprise of science as a business enterprise, which should pay for itself through its research output. This has never happened in any society – knowledge that is created takes far longer to percolate into industry and give returns. Even the most capitalist of countries, the US, the flagship of global capital, understands the need of investing in science. Even the distinction between disciplines, basic and applied science, is disappearing. First rate science needs first rate facilities and a willing group of researchers. We have the second; but without the first, we are forcing our best researchers to go abroad if they want to advance science and their careers.

 

Apart from the attack on scientific institutions, there is also the attack on scientific and rational thinking. All kinds of obscurantist thought is being propagated as “ancient science”, and any demand for evidence is treated as anti-national. The call for funding of research on benefits of cow urine and cow dung is not to validate any of these beliefs but only to prove their efficacy. Unnat Bharat Abhiyan, with IIT Delhi as its lead institution, is examining nearly 40 proposals to fund these absurd claims. That bovine excreta varies depending on whether it is a cow or a buffalo is the height of nonsense, as any person with a modicum of school science will tell us. Yet we have ministers, and government leaders, repeating this day after day, using such claims to demand a ban on all cow slaughter. What was a political instrument for Hindutva forces to create communal mobilisation – Hindus revere cows while Muslims eat them – is now being given a “scientific” basis.

 

This is not the only arena in which critical reasoning is challenged. A minister in BJP ruled Maharashtra, Shripad Yesso Naik, is now on record that any doctor propagating what he calls “allopathic” medicine is anti-national.  Madhya Pradesh, another BJP ruled state, is now proposing that the yoga centres of the Maharishi Patanjali Sanskrit Sansthan (MPSS) – the state nodal agency for the promotion of Yoga and Sanskrit – astrology and vaastu experts should give health advice to the sick. The poor get astrology and vaastu, and the rich go to private clinics and hospitals: this is the blue print of the future of the BJP and Hindutva forces.

All those who oppose this attack on science and our future need to come together; hence the demands of the science march:

·      Allocate at least 3 per cent of GDP to scientific and technological research and 10 per cent towards education.

·      Stop propagation of unscientific, obscurantist ideas and religious intolerance, and develop scientific temper, human values and spirit of inquiry in conformance with Article 51A of the Constitution.

·      Ensure that the education system imparts only ideas that are supported by scientific evidence.

·      Enact policies based on evidence-based science. 

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