April 16, 2018The Printsciencepublic policy

Why scientists must take science to the people

The 1981 statement warned that our nation’s survival and its future depend on upholding scientific temper. We just have to persuade a few hundred million people that this is indeed the case.

The Print This is an unedited cut of my weekly column in The Print (2018-2021)

(There) is an erosion of belief in the capacity of human faculties to solve national problems through a systematic critique of the existing social situation. There is a cancerous growth of superstition at all levels. Rituals of the most bizarre kind are frequently performed often with official patronage. Obscurantist social customs are followed even by those whose profession is the pursuit of scientific enquiry. Our entire educational system works in an atmosphere of conformity, non-questioning and obedience to authority. Quoting authority of one kind or another substitutes enquiry, questioning and thought.

Obscurantism and irrationalism practised by a hierarchy of authorities has the predictable effect of reinforcing retreat from reason. Voices raised against such a state of affairs get silenced. The decision-making processes are increasingly being divorced from any rational purpose or design. There is no long-term perspective based on ascertained facts and scientific analysis.

Ad-hocism, whims and the narrowest of considerations take the place of well-planned programmes. Priorities, if any, are fixed without sufficient data-base and without any attempt at scientific evaluation of national needs, potentialities and feasibility of implementation. Mere slogans tend to be used as a substitute for action and for creating an illusion of achievement. Dramatic crash programmes are launched. These, inevitably, crash. There are no perspective plans.”

At a time when ministers brazenly contest Darwin and Einstein, government institutes research the healing properties of the waters of the Ganga, and packaged cow urine is on supermarket shelves, you would not be wrong in thinking that the paragraphs I quote above are from a recent article.

Actually, they are from July 1981, when a bunch of highly accomplished Indians published a Statement on Scientific Temper’ after a retreat in Coonoor. They conclude by warning, If we have to regain our place in the world and are not to be relegated once again to the dustbin of history; if we wish to offer a life of fulfilment to our destitute millions; indeed, if the light of our civilisation is not to be extinguished, we have to undertake, on a priority basis, the task of nurturing scientific temper.”

It’s easy to dismiss these warnings as false alarms — India has done quite well for itself in the four decades since this statement was published. India’s GDP has grown 10 times, and the average per capita income has risen from $280 in 1981 to over $1,700 last year. India is counted among the world’s big economies and major powers. What’s more, despite the dogma and superstition, don’t we have a competitive technology industry?

Well, yes. We have that despite the low levels of scientific temper in society and government. It is conceivable that millions of people would be much better off if Indian society were to incrementally raise its scientific temper. For a small increase in the number of people who are open to genetically modified crops, vaccines and modern medicine, a disproportionately large number of people will be irrevocably better off. If the economic costs of policymaking based on dogma and ideology are huge, the moral costs are unconscionably bigger.

This is why last week’s March for Science’ was a good thing. Hundreds of people from the scientific and education community turned up in Bengaluru, Kolkata and Delhi, and a few other places, in general support of science and scientific temper, albeit with a number of different specific demands. Unfortunately and predictably, the march was crowded out by the more emotive issues playing out in the public discourse.

Yet, the fact that Indians who care about science have come out on the streets, for the second time in less than a year, is perhaps more important a development than the call to build scientific temper issued from a hill station retreat in 1981.

For, we can no longer rely on the government to use the education and research system to promote scepticism, reason and scientific thinking among the people. The politician and policymaker is cut from the same cloth as the voter, and the more democratic India becomes — as it has since 1981 — the more we should expect that the beliefs, prejudices and mindsets of the population will be reflected in public policy. Yatha prajatatha raja.

Far more than appealing to politicians and policymakers, scientifically minded Indians must make their case to fellow citizens. This is why initiatives like Science and the City’, which sees scientists from Bengaluru’s National Centre for Biological Sciences take science talks to apartments and housing societies, are a step in the right direction.

Scientists will find this an onerous task. Most scientists I know hate distractions and often grudge having to teach undergraduate classes. Braving the traffic to go to apartment blocks to talk to people about scientific topics is neither what they signed up for, nor what they are paid for; nor, indeed, is it something that can go on their CVs. Similarly, braving the social media battlefields is not something scientists would want to do. Yet, it has become necessary.

Vacating their space in the public discourse means that it gets filled by ideologues, charlatans and opportunists (very often the same people), and leads to consequences where we are worse off as a nation. It’s easy to complain that the government allocates less than 0.7 per cent of its GDP to research and development. Based on empirical evidence, we can say that complaining has not worked. The public case for science and reason has to be taken to the public.

It doesn’t cost a lot of money to publish a great science magazine online. Making good video-based science programmes is not as expensive as you think. You don’t need government funding to do any of this. What it does need is a small number of committed scientists to decide they want to do this.

The rest of my The Print columns are here

The 1981 statement warned that our nation’s survival and its future depend on upholding scientific temper”. We just have to persuade a few hundred million people that this is indeed the case.

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