Indian cities are not altogether unfamiliar with marches. Over the past few years, an increasingly awakening civil society has publicly gathered for a variety of causes – from freedom of speech to women’s safety to economic equality. Come August 9th however, for the first time in the country, you can join fellow citizens across India in a march for the cause of science, demanding robust funding for science education and research and pressing for governmental policies guided by scientific evidence.
Eminent scientists, researchers and teachers have come together to put out an appeal to citizens across the country to come together and participate in large numbers in the “India March for Science” spearheaded by the Breakthrough Science Society in a number of major cities, from Chennai to New Delhi, from Bhubaneswar to Gwalior.
Earlier this year in April, over 600 cities globally saw thousands coming out in rallies and protest marches, primarily to condemn and oppose the rejection of scientific evidence of climate change by powerful governments, most notably Donald Trump’s in the United States. India had not quite seized the moment then, but while we may not have a leader who categorically dismisses climate change as a hoax, there has been an increasing awareness among the scientific community about a domestic crisis situation in Indian science.
This crisis, fuelled largely by increasing and deliberate rise of misinformation, regressive practices based on superstition and bigotry as well as the drying up of funds for scientific research, has now led the community to put out a clarion call to citizens to join the protests.
A march to foster ‘scientific temper’
While the immense progress made by Indian science in recent decades cannot be overlooked, what with the globally acclaimed Mangalyaan mission, the development of indigenous satellite launching capabilities and involvement in significant scientific missions and discoveries, it has also been embroiled in a fair share of controversy over unsubstantiated ideas and irrational thoughts being circulated in the name of science or scientific legacy.
From claims of ancient Vedic planes that could fly forwards, backwards and sideways to tracing the origins of plastic surgery to Ganesha’s head, scientists have enough objectionable instances to cite.
“While we can justly be inspired by the great achievements in science and technology in ancient India, we see that non-scientific ideas lacking in evidence are being propagated as science by persons in high positions, fueling a confrontational chauvinism in lieu of true patriotism that we cherish,” say scientists in their appeal for participation in the India March for Science.
|“We must march for inculcating a love for science in our children. Children must be taught EVIDENCE based science and not pseudo theories – which are figments of the imagination. We must march for science to reduce the production of arms and weapons of mass destruction and to use science for the benefit of all humanity – especially the poor. ”
– Arvind Gupta, Science populariser and educator; Signatory to the India March for Science Appeal
A march for funds
Coupled with the angst over active spread of obscurantist and unsubstantiated information is the deep concern over the crunch of funds available for scientific research in the country. The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), India’s primary research and development organisation, finds itself in a financial emergency roughly two years after a directive from the Central government to all research organisations to ‘self-finance’ projects and stick to research that would be in line with the government’s socio-economic objectives.
Even entities like the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and Department of Biotechnology (DBT) that were set up to promote science education and research are suffering the effects of significantly reduced budget allocations in 2014-15.
“We know of several instances where science-funding agencies such as CSIR and DST have approved research projects but have not been able to disburse the money due to lack of funds,” says eminent scientist and Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize awardee Soumitro Banerjee, who is also the General Secretary of the Breakthrough Science Society in India.
In the revised budget estimates for 2014-15, the Centre had slashed funds for higher education by Rs 3,900 crore, the impact of which is being deeply felt now by researchers in premier central institutions such as the IISERs, IITs and NITs. The IITs have moreover been asked to fund their operational and infrastructural expenses from an increase in student fees, following a business revenue model much like private universities.
“So, here we have a situation where the government is prepared to spend money to research on locating the ancient ‘Saraswati river’ and ‘Ram Setu’, and the benefits of cow-dung and cow-urine, but not support legitimate science research organisations,” rues Banerjee.
That succinctly sums up the trigger behind the India March for Science, which all concerned citizens, especially in the state capitals, have been urged to organise. Registrations for participation are underway here. The demands of the movement are simple:
- Allocate at least 3% of GDP to scientific and technological research and 10% 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
At the time that this article was written, close to a hundred scientists and science enthusiasts had signed the appeal. “The scientific community has not always been very vocal on social issues in our country. Now a situation has arisen where they have also started feeling that something must be done before it is too late. From our campaign experience so far, the response from the scientific community, including senior scientists from different parts of the country, has been highly encouraging. We hope that the movement will gather further momentum and make a difference in the days to come,” says George Joseph, Secretary of the Tamil Nadu chapter of the Breakthrough Science Society.