Science in India

March for Science: Why thousands of Indian scientists will take to the streets on August 9

Budgetary cuts in funding, pseudoscience and growing religious bigotry has left the scientific community worried.

On August 9, thousands of scientists from India’s premier research institutions and colleges will take to the streets in 26 cities across the country to demand the development of science and a scientific temper in the country. The India March for Science seeks increased government funding for scientific research and an end to the propagation of unscientific beliefs and religious intolerance.

The demonstrations were inspired by the global March for Science on April 22, which saw participation from more than a million people across 600 cities. During the worldwide event, held for the first time this year, members of the scientific community raised issues about the budgetary cuts in funding scientific research. The march was also a way to protest against the policies of the US administration under Donald Trump, who has proposed budgetary cuts for scientific research and has repeatedly dismissed climate change theories.

In India too, scientific temper is increasingly under threat, said the organisers of the August 9 march. “There was not much of a response from India at that time [during the global march] though a similar situation exists here,” said KS Rajini, the state secretary of the Breakthrough Science Society in Bengaluru.

However, the global march triggered a dialogue between Indian scientists. Scores of emails were exchanged between the faculty of the country’s scientific institutions, including the Indian Institute of Science, Indian and Institute of Science and Research and the various campuses of the Indian Institute of Technology. Finally, an appeal was drafted and sent to colleges and research centres calling for the scientific community to take to the streets and participate in public demonstrations to spread awareness about their work. The marches are open to all citizens and the full list of participating cities can be found here.

“We feel that the situation demands the members of scientific community to stand in defence of science and scientific attitude in an open and visible manner as done by scientists and science enthusiasts worldwide, the appeal said.

Insufficient funds

While the global march was the immediate trigger for the demonstrations, members of the scientific community have been raising concerns about lack of financial support form the government for a few decades. “Science cannot be compared to business,” said S Mahadevan, professor of Molecular Reproduction, Development & Genetics at IISc, Bangalore. “One cannot invest in research and expect immediate results. It is a creative activity, and it may take many years before research yields any practical value.”

The situation has become more dire now, said researchers. In June, the country’s largest Research and Development organisation, which runs 37 laboratories, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, declared a financial emergency. Its Director General Girish Sahni told Indo-Asian News Service that they had hardly enough funds to support new research projects.

“In most other countries, 2.5%-3.5% of the Gross Domestic Product is allocated for scientific research in the budget,” said Soumitro Banerjee, professor at the department of Physical Sciences, IISER Kolkata. “In the India, it is only around 0.85% of the GDP. This is far smaller than anything needed to make any kind of breakthrough in science.”

Students in Kurnool rallying for the march on August 9. Credit: India March for Science - Trivandrum via Facebook
Students in Kurnool rallying for the march on August 9. Credit: India March for Science - Trivandrum via Facebook

Unscientific temper

While budgetary issues have been a long-standing problem, scientists feel that over the past few years, scientific studies in India are being “eclipsed by a rising wave of unscientific beliefs and religious bigotry.”

The appeal by scientists issued ahead of the India march said:

“While we can justly be inspired by the great achievements in science and technology in ancient India, we see that non-scientific ideas lacking in evidence are being propagated as science by persons in high positions, fuelling a confrontational chauvinism in lieu of true patriotism that we cherish. Promoting scientific bent of mind can certainly help improve the social health of our country where incidents of witch hunting, honour killing and mob lynching are reported regularly.”  

— India March for Science

In national and international conferences, research papers were being presented without any proper scientific backing, said Rajini of Breakthrough Science Society. Last year, Nobel laureate and structural biologist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan told The Times of India that the annual Indian Science Congress was a circus, where very little science was discussed. Pointing out an incident in the 2015 edition of the Congress in Mumbai, where a participant had controversially claimed that planes were invented during the Vedic period and could even fly between planets, Ramakrishnan said that he would never attend another such conference again.

The fear that pseudoscience is gaining prominence and replacing rigorous scientific research in the minds of the people is evident among scientists. “The scientific community is very often cut off from society,” said UK Anandavardhanan of the Department of Mathematics at Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. “This might not necessarily be a bad thing if our leaders took the initiative to speak about the importance of scientific research to the people. But this has not been happening. I am personally participating in this march because this is one way for the scientific community to connect with the wider public.”

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