Missing at the Indian Science Congress: science, scientists

Source: Amitabh Sinha (The Sunday Express)
Posted online: Sunday, January 06, 2008 at 0000 hrs IST

This year’s event prompts Govt to rethink its association: dismal attendance, ‘old’ papers, ‘frustrated’ experts, rehashed seminars

Vishakapatnam, January 5. It started in 1914 at the Asiatic Society in Kolkata to “stimulate scientific research in the country through a gathering of research workers.” But 94 years later, at a time when borders between different science disciplines are fast disappearing, the Indian Science Congress is facing a crisis of identity.

So much so that top scientists have kept away from the latest edition that began on January 3 here, flagged off by none else than the Prime Minister himself. The Congress ends tomorrow but attendance is at a dismal low at most of the sessions, papers being presented are two or three years old, and the government is left wondering “what it needs to do in this situation.”

Barring full halls for lectures by the three Nobel Laureates invited this time, Paul M Nurse (Medicine), Roger D Kornberg (Chemistry), and Robert Curl Jr (Chemistry), a top official in the Science and Technology Ministry told The Sunday Express: “For the past three years, hardly anything of relevance has come out of this Congress.”

The Ministry provides a grant of Rs 1 crore every year to the Congress which is supposed to showcase the best of Indian science and popularise it among young scientists and students. But now, the official said, the Ministry is forced to “rethink whether to continue its association with the body of scientists (Indian Science Congress Association) who are running the show.”

“I am sorry to say so but the Science Congress has become more of a mela,” says Prof C N R Rao, chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Prime Minister, who is among the country’s top scientists who has skipped the Congress here. “I have become frustrated with it. I have my research to attend to and decided to stay away,” he said.

He’s not the only one to have skipped the event. Of the 41 laboratories under the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), only two are represented by their directors. Indeed, the director general of the CSIR himself has not shown up.

Premier scientific institutions like the Indian Institute of Science, TIFR, various IITs etc., are either not represented at all or have a mere token presence. Moreover, not a single top-level scientist has turned up from the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) or the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) or the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) had a team led by its director G Madhavan Nair but its session on community development through space applications was a rehash of ideas already expressed at several other fora.

Some of the big names who were scheduled to speak pulled out at the last minute. National Knowledge Commission chairman Sam Pitroda was listed for a lecture on Friday but as was revealed later, he had never sent in his confirmation. Secretary of Department of Biotechnology M K Bhan could not make it because of poor health.

“It is disappointing to see that the Science Congress is not able to attract the best of scientific minds in the country. I am very concerned with this,” admits celebrated agriculture scientist M S Swaminathan, one of the few well-known faces present here. “We must look at making better arrangements and doing whatever is necessary to ensure that the top scientists attend this event.”

Prof Vijaylakshmi Ravindranath, director, National Brain Research Institute, who was here for the first two days, said the event needed some structural changes. “It is a wonderful platform for the Indian scientists to showcase their work,” says Dr Ravindranath, the only woman to head a major laboratory in the country.. “But I think the organising committee must do something so that this does not become irrelevant.”

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One Response to “Missing at the Indian Science Congress: science, scientists”

  1. Amit Sheth says:

    I suspect this may be because Indian institutions do not much international quality research– this is certainly true in Information & Communications Technology or Computer Science- the disciplines I have exposure to.

    When I look around Indian educational institutions, I do not find vibrant PhD programs in India. Also the institutions have not developed policy and support for encouraging international quality research.

    During my visit to Tsinghua Univ., a professor told me that publication in international quality (CSI indexed) journals is a primary factor during their yearly progress review, which requires Chinese academics to compete at the international level.

    Such policies have to be matched by making academic profession rewarding (intellectually through freedom and competitive funding support, and financially– faculty salaries cannot be 40% of industry salaries), and students must be shown what is it for them to pursue research careers.

    Some more thoughts are captured in a white paper (Strategic Importance of Higher Education and Research in Positioning Gujarat for Global Competitiveness) here:
    http://knoesis.wright.edu/library/download/GlobalGujaratDiaspora-Sheth-Extended.pdf

    Amit Sheth