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.
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