Saturday, January 20, 2018

War on Science

Abha Dev Habib 

We all know that the current government is engaged in a war with History, as established facts are revoked by a combination of diktat and mob rule. A parallel war has received more sporadic attention, but its consequences for our country and our society are not less perilous. This is the war on Science, and on scientific temper and rationality. The two are closely related. In each case, there is a tightening of the purse strings, a rejection of established standards of evidence and facts, the advancement of the careers of those with little academic credibility but of the correct political persuasion, downplaying the achievements since Independence, and allotting supervisory roles to certain `cultural’ organisations. Now, in the case of History, the reasons for all of this are clear. An attempt to reshape the ethos of the country needs to legitimize itself by changing our self-image, and that must rest on changing our perceptions of our past, and of those who have studied it so far. Scientists, however, find themselves at a loss when they wake up every day to a fresh attack on their work and their institutions. Why should they suddenly find themselves denigrated and deprived of resources for their work?


It is not that Science & Technology has been overly pampered earlier. During this century, the maximum annual expenditure on research and development as a fraction of the Gross Domestic Product has been 0.86%, and over the last three years it has been 0.69%. By contrast the typical “developed” country spends at least 1.5% of its GDP on R&D. 

Alarm bells started ringing louder after a two-day `Chintan Shivir’ held in June 2015 in Dehradun. Through Dehradun Declaration, the Ministry of Science and Technology headed by Dr. Harsh Vardhan, mandated organisations involved in scientific research to shift from public funding to Revenue Model in a “business-like manner with clear input-output cost analysis”. The organisations were told to start ‘self-financing’ projects; and send in monthly updates. The Dehradun Declaration for Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) mandates that the Labs should become “self-financing in next 2 years”. It mandates CSIR Labs to “devise ways to develop industry driven technologies”.  As an outcome of the Declaration, CSIR today stares at “financial emergency”. CSIR, which runs 37 research laboratories, has admitted that they do not have money for new projects. This will have a cascading effect on opportunities available for existing and future researchers. The CSIR fellowships have been reduced and scientists fear that many labs will not be able to sustain themselves in the new model. 

The funds cut, however, is not limited to the Ministry of Science & Technology. In the last two years Department of Health Research (DHR) has seen funds cut by 25%. In 2015, HIV/AIDS-related research in India also became a casualty with the Health Ministry stopping 18 donor-funded projects and 14 operational research projects financed by the National AIDS Control Organisation. The UGC has also slashed funds and fellowships.

Recently published “Research & Development Statistics at Glance 2017-18” by the DST shows that in contrast to many developed and emerging countries, the contribution to Gross Expenditure on R&D by the private sector in India is limited to 38.1% even as 58% of R&D institutions in the country are in the private industry. Greater involvement of industry in research cannot be achieved overnight by starving government funded research sector or by giving some fiscal incentives to the private sector. It can only be achieved when industry finds it profitable to invest in research. Private sector investments are limited to certain areas of research only. A greater expenditure on R&D by the private sector, therefore, should supplement the public spending and not replace it. The recommendations of Dehradun Declaration are not based on concrete realities of research in our country and can only damage the research sector. Reduced number of scholarships and research jobs available for students will force many to drop out from higher education. As students from marginalised sections will be the first ones to be pushed out, it will make science education and research even more exclusive.

Damage through the Dehradun Declaration, however, does not stop at funds cut. The Declaration asks CSIR Labs to develop technologies for programmes like Swachh Bharat, Swasth Bharat, Skill India, Smart Cities, Digital India, and Namami Gange. This takes away from the organic evolution of research in the country and is an unprecedented interference of Governments in academic activities of research institutions. Yet another disturbing fact is that representatives of Vijnana Bharati, which is a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) organisation, attended the Chintan Shivir as equal partners.  

Greater Damage
A greater damage which has happened under Modi’s Government is propagation of unscientific beliefs and superstitions as science.  The Prime Minister, at an inaugural of a hospital in Mumbai in 2014, gave examples of Karan from Mahabharata and Ganesha to establish that medical science in ancient India was way ahead with genetic science and plastic surgery known to them. Rajasthan’s Education Minister claimed that cows inhale and exhale oxygen. Home Minister Rajnath Singh stressed the importance of cow protection, claiming that, according to a study by scientists in USA, cows and humans share 80 percent of same genes. He forgot to give any importance to lives of rodents, cats, chimpanzees or other species which share much greater genetic similarity! Even as the genetic similarity between two humans is 99.9%, he forgets to speak against the hate crimes in the name of cow! 

Today top research institutes, from IITs to CSIR to DST, are being systematically used by the Modi Government to earn legitimacy the RSS needs for propagating its beliefs and agenda. On 25 April 2017, the Science for Equity, Empowerment and Development (SEED) division of the Department of Science and Technology(DST) issued Office Memorandum for creation of a 19-member National Steering Committee (NSC) for Scientific Validation and Research on Panchgavya (SVAROP). In August 2017, under SVAROP programme IIT Delhi held a workshop “Uniqueness of indigenous cows and their products over exotic cows” and received 50 proposals for research on panchgavya – mixture of cow urine, cow dung, milk, ghee and curd. 

While the ongoing and new research proposals have taken a hit by funds cut, the fact that money is being siphoned into RSS agenda is disturbing scientists. The entire structure of public funded research today is being used to promote a sectional belief. Inclusion of three members of Vijnana Bharati and Go-Vigyan Anusandhan Kendra, outfits affiliated to the RSS and the VHP, on a DST Committee is an attempt to provide legitimacy to work carried out by these organisations. 

It is even more disturbing that the NSC includes scientists such as V. Ramgopal Rao, the director of IIT-Delhi, R. A. Mashelkar, former Director General, CSIR and V.K. Vijay of Centre for Rural Development and Technology, IIT-Delhi. When top scientists endorse non-scientific beliefs through their active participation by being on committees and writing such proposals, the consequences for the education sector and society are grave. When top officials of research institutes become party to such proposals, it undermines the autonomy of their institutions. When a scientist working in the area of nanotechnology or polymers suddenly shifts to cow-fluids because of the Government of the day, the take home lesson for a young scholar is to value opportunism over scientific contribution. This creates and promotes a working environment where critical thinking and dissent has no space. It damages the capacity of the system, as an inert environment cannot produce path-breaking research or new ideas. 

It is important to underline that this participation by top scientists cannot be forgiven as an innocent act. In the last three years, the cases of cow vigilantism are increasing day by day, and the campaign against cow-slaughter has adversely affected the leather industry and livelihood of over 2.5 million people, mostly dalits. Scientists lending their name to such proposals can only promote RSS-BJP agenda. 

From having a Prime Minister who announced dams as “temples of modern India” and gave impetus necessary for growth of science and technology in independent India, it is a U-turn for science education and research.  We are today led by a Prime Minister and his team who are chanting superstitions and sectional-beliefs from national platforms and while starving R&D, are pushing science education and research on the trajectory set by RSS. While distortion of history is important to establish false belief of superiority, war on science and scientific temper is important to promote and maintain a social order which is more unequal. We are at an important juncture where our silence will only accelerate our fall. 

The author is Assistant Professor, Physics Department, Miranda House, Delhi University

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