Sci­en­tists took to streets for ro­bust funds

Thou­sands of sci­en­tists, stu­dents, ed­u­ca­tional NGOs and sci­ence en­thu­si­asts across the coun­try came out on the streets on Au­gust 9th de­mand­ing ro­bust fund­ing for sci­en­tific re­search and poli­cies to en­cour­age a sci­en­tific tem­per among the pop­u­la­tion.

BioSpectrum (India) - - BIO CONTENT - Dr Man­beena Chawla man­beena.chawla@mmac­

Au­gust 9 be­came a red-let­tered day in the history of sci­ence move­ment of In­dia. The March was held at New Delhi, Chandi­garh, Srinagar, Garhwal, Ut­tarak­hand, Luc­know, Al­la­habad, Bhopal, Ahmed­abad, Mum­bai, Pune, Patna, Ranchi, Cal­cutta, Gang­tok, Guwahati, Agar­tala, Bhubaneswar, Hyderabad, Ben­galuru, Chen­nai, Thiruvananthapuram etc., where thou­sands and thou­sands of peo­ple joined and stood for sci­ence.

“We know of sev­eral in­stances where sci­ence-fund­ing agen­cies such as the Coun­cil of Sci­en­tific and In­dus­trial Re­search (CSIR) and the De­part­ment of Sci­ence & Tech­nol­ogy (DST) have ap­proved re­search projects but have not been able to dis­burse the money due to lack of funds. 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 cowurine, but not sup­port le­git­i­mate sci­ence re­search or­gan­i­sa­tions”, said Pro­fes­sor Soumitro Ban­er­jee from In­dian In­sti­tutes of Sci­ence Ed­u­ca­tion and Re­search (IISER) Kolkata.

Ban­er­jee is the gen­eral sec­re­tary of the Break­through Sci­ence So­ci­ety (BSS), a Ben­gal-based or­gan­i­sa­tion that helps spread ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and sci­en­tific knowl­edge in schools, and that helped or­ga­nize the march. “This was a spon­ta­neous move­ment among the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity in In­dia,” said Ban­er­jee, to spread some aware­ness about what sci­ence means.

At 11 a.m. on Au­gust 9th pro­tes­tors in Ben­galuru, a south­ern city that is one of In­dia’s key sci­ence hubs, were among the first to set off. Ac­cord­ing to the BSS group, more than 1000 peo­ple par­tic­i­pated in this move­ment.

In Delhi, In­dia's cap­i­tal, the march was a tamer af­fair. Some 200 peo­ple took to the streets, car­ry­ing plac­ards with mes­sages such as “De­fend sci­ence, not de­fund sci­ence” and “Stop killing sci­ence for your per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal agenda”.

The Pune march, which was or­gan­ised by In­dia March for Sci­ence Pune Chap­ter Or­gan­is­ing Com­mit­tee, found stu­dents and in­di­vid­u­als from in­sti­tu­tions like Pune Univer­sity, IISER, CSIR-Na­tional Chem­i­cal Lab­o­ra­tory (NCL), Col­lege of Engi­neer­ing (COEP), In­dian In­sti­tute of Trop­i­cal Me­te­o­rol­ogy (IITM), In­terUniver­sity Cen­tre for As­tron­omy and Astro­physics (IUCAA), Fer­gus­son Col­lege and Agharkar Re­search In­sti­tute, among many more.

“For In­dia to be com­pet­i­tive and at par with the sci­en­tific en­ter­prise in devel­oped na­tions, we have to have con­sis­tent and gen­er­ous fund­ing for sci­ence. Con­sis­tent, pre­dictable fund­ing is the most im­por­tant com­po­nent for any en­ter­prise to suc­ceed”, said Vi­nay Ku­mar, Pro­fes­sor, Zakir Hus­sain Col­lege, Delhi Univer­sity.

While or­gan­is­ers claim only 0.8-0.9 per cent of the GDP is al­lo­cated to­wards sci­en­tific re­search in In­dia, South Korea spends 4.15 per cent of its GDP, Ja­pan 3.47 per cent, Swe­den 3.16 per cent, and Den­mark 3.08 per cent, when cal­cu­lated on the ba­sis of pur­chas­ing power par­ity.

The CSIR, a chain of 39 lab­o­ra­to­ries across the coun­try and gov­ern­ment-funded, is grap­pling a se­vere fund crunch. Even though its an­nual Rs 4,000 crore bud­get hasn’t been cut, it has barely Rs 360 crore as op­posed to a typ­i­cal Rs 1200 crore this year to fund re­search pro­grammes and sci­en­tific staff have been asked to ag­gres­sively scout ex­ter­nally for funds.

Mul­ti­ple sci­en­tists at the In­sti­tute of Ge­nomics and In­te­gra­tive Bi­ol­ogy (IGIB), a prom­i­nent CSIR lab in Delhi, were keen on go­ing for the march but didn’t join be­cause of a gag or­der passed by the di­rec­tor ask­ing for non-par­tic­i­pa­tion.

San­jay Ku­mar, Di­rec­tor, IGIB stated that the sci­en­tists were barred from go­ing be­cause par­tic­i­pa­tion posed a po­ten­tial se­cu­rity risk. “We don’t know the size of the mob in­volved. When gov­ern­ment sci­en­tists are part of such a demon­stra­tion, it could lead to prob­lems. So this no­tice was is­sued as part of a safety measure”, he said.

Sci­en­tists who did not march also shared con­cerns over the al­lo­ca­tion of re­sources to re­search. “It’s a very dif­fi­cult time for re­search in In­dia,” said Satya­jit Mayor, di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Cen­tre for Bi­o­log­i­cal Sci­ences (NCBS) in Ben­galuru. “There is no real fo­cus on ex­pand­ing the re­search base in the coun­try.”

But Ashutosh Sharma, Sec­re­tary, De­part­ment of Sci­ence & Tech­nol­ogy (DST), Gov­ern­ment of In­dia, dis­agrees in part with the protesters’ com­plaints. Fund­ing for In­dia's min­istry of sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy (which al­lo­cates cash to the DST among other sci­ence agen­cies) has risen by dou­ble-digit per­cent­ages an­nu­ally since 2014–15, he points out, out­strip­ping the coun­try's eco­nomic growth while the DST's funds for ba­sic and ap­plied sci­ence have al­most dou­bled in the past five years.

In line with this, Bio­con chief Ki­ran Mazum­darShaw while heap­ing praise on the state gov­ern­ment ini­tia­tives said sci­en­tists from Ben­galuru should not sup­port this move­ment. “It is a very my­opic thing to do, be­cause I think sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy and in­no­va­tion is re­ally the fu­ture of any coun­try or econ­omy and no one can af­ford to cut short that in­vest­ment, be­cause we will be shoot­ing our­selves in the foot", she said.

In ad­di­tion, Min­is­ter for In­for­ma­tion Tech­nol­ogy and Bio Tech­nol­ogy, Gov­ern­ment of Karn­taka, Priyank Kharge said, "I would like to as­sure and re­as­sure ev­ery­body over here (in Ben­galuru) that I'm not sure what gov­ern­ment of In­dia is do­ing, but when it comes to pure sci­ences, sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy there will be no cut of funds from the gov­ern­ment of Kar­nataka. I am say­ing this with a lot of con­fi­dence. We want to en­sure that emerg­ing sci­ences and tech­nolo­gies just don't die in the labs."

A mem­o­ran­dum was sub­mit­ted to the Prime Min­is­ter de­mand­ing:

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

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

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

4. En­act poli­cies based on ev­i­dence-based sci­ence. The In­dia March for Sci­ence had the sup­port of the in­ter­na­tional March for Sci­ence held across 600 com­mu­ni­ties in April. This March would re­mind us that sci­ence is part of our ev­ery­day lives.

Sci­en­tists and re­searchers take part in In­dia March for Sci­ence in Al­la­habad

Sci­en­tists and re­searchers in a pro­ces­sion for In­dia March for Sci­ence

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