Our Pseu­do­sci­en­tific Fer­vour

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - De­bku­mar Mi­tra

Sixty chil­dren dy­ing in five days at a Gorakhpur hos­pi­tal in Ut­tar Pradesh is a symp­tom of what ails science in In­dia. Seventy years since In­de­pen­dence, such tragedies can’t only be called ‘ad­min­is­tra­tive fail­ures’. The big­ger malaise lies in how science is seen and prac­ticed in this coun­try.

Other than atomic science and space tech­nol­ogy — pos­si­bly due to their di­rect as­so­ci­a­tion with the na­tion­al­ist pose — lit­tle else sci­en­tific is cel­e­brated in this coun­try. The hall­mark of this ne­glect is the pal­try sum that goes by the name of bud­get al­lo­ca­tion for science and tech­nol­ogy. It is a cruel joke in the name of giv­ing im­pe­tus to re­search.

A cou­ple of decades ago, agri­cul­tural sci­en­tist MS Swami­nathan had said that “In­dian science has lost its champions with the pass­ing away of [Homi] Bhabha, [Megh­nad] Saha and [PC] Ma­ha­lanobis”. In the1950s and 1960s, the big strides In­dia took in the fields of science are largely due to these gentle­men and many of their col­leagues. The pol­i­tics of the day did al­low a sym­pa­thetic ear to be lent to sci­en­tists, and re­searchers lob­bied hard to cre­ate great in­sti­tu­tions, lab­o­ra­to­ries and tech­nol­ogy re­search hubs. Even pri­vate en­ter­prise came for­ward to en­cour­age science ed­u­ca­tion and re­search.

Things be­gan to change in the mid-1970s. The coun­try’s first nu­clear test in1974 at Pokhran had been show­cased as the pin­na­cle of nu­clear physics re­search in In­dia. In 1975, Emer­gency was pro­mul­gated and science suf­fered col­lat­eral dam­age. While atomic science con­tin­ued to en­joy ‘po­lit­i­cal pa­tron­age’, the rest of the sci­en­tific estab­lish­ment had lit­tle sup­port.

By the mid-1980s, there was a dis­tinct lack of en­cour­age­ment in the form of bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties, por­trayal of science in so­ci­ety and fund­ing. Simp- ly put, In­dia is not proud of its re­searchers and sci­en­tists.

How is science viewed in In­dia? In­dian astronomers and as­tro­physi­cists led by Prof Joydeep Bagchi of the In­ter-Uni­ver­sity Cen­tre for Astron­omy an As­tro­physics (IUCAA), Pune, and Prof So­mak Ray­chaud­hury, di­rec­tor, IUCAA, re­cently an­nounced the dis­cov­ery of Saraswati, a large su­per­clus­ter of gal­ax­ies lo­cated in the di­rec­tion of the con­stel­la­tion Pisces, at a dis­tance of 4,000 mil­lion light years from Earth.

While the re­port ap­peared on sev­eral me­dia out­lets, there seemed to be lit­tle ex­cite­ment. Very few peo­ple no­ticed it, and the dis­cov­ery ended up be­ing just a re­search pa­per in a jour­nal. Other coun­tries — and their peo­ple — would have proudly shouted from the rooftops about such a find.

There is lit­tle en­thu­si­asm, other than cel­e­brat­ing a Na­tional Science Day and mark­ing the launch of Chan­drayaan to cham­pion science among fu­ture sci­en­tists. No won­der, de­spite hav­ing a size­able num­ber of re­search labs, qual­ity out­put is few and far be­tween.

There is no dearth of tal­ent in this coun­try, which has been proved time and again by the per­for­mance of In­di­ans work­ing abroad as sci­en­tists and tech­nol­o­gists. But a sci­en­tific tem­per es­sen­tial for nur­tur­ing young minds is sadly miss­ing in In­dia.

Rea­sons range from short­age of fund­ing to the lack of mod­ern sci­en­tific cur­ric­ula. But it ap­pears that In­di­ans don’t view science as an es­sen­tial part of de­vel­op­ment. The de­pen­dence on quacks and yo­gis to solve med­i­cal prob­lems, re­ly­ing on re­li­gious scriptures to ex­plain reg­u­lar phe­nom­ena such as eclipses, treat­ing sci­en­tific ad­vance­ment as a re­sult of past ya­j­nas are just a few things that colour our vi­sion against sci­en­tific method.

There is no ef­fort what­so­ever to en­cour­age ra­tio­nal think­ing — pit­ting su­per­sti­tion against time-tested sci­en­tific truths, or dis­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to ac­cept facts with­out ques­tion­ing them. So, when go­mu­tra (cow urine) is touted as a panacea for all ail­ments, there is lit­tle re­sis­tance against its use or even test­ing its ef­fi­cacy.

As more and more chil­dren die in UP and we cel­e­brate an­other In­de­pen­dence Day, science in In­dia braces to fight for an­other day. In­dia will soon be the most-pop­u­lous coun­try in the world. With less than three re­searchers for ev­ery 10,000 peo­ple, we are not help­ing the cause of sci­en­tific de­vel­op­ment.

Mak­ing pi­ous state­ments and flash­ing the lat­est gad­gets do not give oxy­gen to the dy­ing em­bers of sci­en­tific tem­per in In­dia. It needs rad­i­cal so­lu­tions in the form of funds, ac­tive po­lit­i­cal sup­port and, above all, en­cour­age­ment to ask ques­tions be­fore ac­cept­ing ‘cures’ like go­mu­tra.

Not a vet’s chart

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