The Indian Science Congress is getting to be a controversial affair, not quite in character with the image of scientists as dour people focused on the tasks at hand in bettering human lives. The low point in the 103rd edition of the congregation held in Mysuru this week was when Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, the Indian-born British Nobel laureate (speaking in faraway Chandigarh), dismissed the event as a “circus”. The Baroda-educated molecular biologist has questioned scientists considering astrological auspiciousness for the launch of the Mangalyaan mission to Mars, and has also raised his eyebrows at how a research paper purporting to be on aviation in ancient India could be presented at the congress, in a reference to last year’s congregation. This year, a scheduled paper that painted Lord Shiva as an ancient conservationist figure has raised a furore — though it was not presented.
What we need is a sober look at the congress and separate genuine criticism from ones that smell of political biases or differences. The word science itself need not refer to the physical sciences as it has come to be believed over the decades. We now refer to as social sciences some subjects previously or still clubbed into the arts or humanities. However, given the global adherence to rigorous logic and proof in physical sciences, perhaps the historical and mythological elements are best presented in events linked to history or to esoteric subjects such as aesthetics. However, there is reason to question Dr Ramakrishnan’s cynicism. A counterpoint came from a person of comparable stature, Princeton academic Manjul Bhargava, who has won the prestigious Field Medal, the Nobel’s equivalent in mathematics. Dr Bhargava remarked that the congress may be seen as an event for scientists to build connections and discuss common areas of interest. It would be appropriate to weigh the opinions of both these men in the right balance. In modern India, it is best to treat a science congress as an event for physical sciences, while equally engaging subjects rooted in antiquity or esoteric subjects are best shifted to the rigours of other disciplines. There is a need to restate some of ancient India’s glory, but we need to avoid the pitfalls of romantic ideologies. The congress, nevertheless, justified its existence when Prime Minister Narendra Modi called upon scientists to keep five Es — economy, environment, energy, empathy and equity — at heart in their work.
The science congress is best viewed not as a circus or jamboree but as a gathering of scientists to cross-fertilise ideas, connect with the society at large and weld vital linkages for the sake of public policy.