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Postponement of century-old Indian Science Congress sparks controversy

Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Image by Ramrishna Sarkar via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

  • Almost every year since 1914, the Indian Science Congress has brought together a wide range of scientists, academics, students and even Nobel laureates in an event that has been central to the development of science throughout India.
  • This year, the Indian Science Congress was postponed amid reports of controversy between the organizing body and the Indian government.
  • Meanwhile, the Indian Science Congress Association has been accused of politicizing the event in recent years and providing a platform for pseudoscience, sparking protests among many in the scientific community.

The Indian scientific community finds itself in a precarious position these days. The century-old Indian Science Congress, recognized as the country’s most extensive annual assembly of premier scientific minds along with young students, was postponed this year, reportedly amid an unexpected tussle between the Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA), an autonomous body that organizes the event, and the Indian government’s Department of Science and Technology (DST), the event’s main funder.

The meeting, regularly attended by Nobel laureates, has been the largest and premier event dedicated to the promotion of science and scientific temperament in India since 1914. Its focus areas cover a vast range of sciences, including agriculture, forestry, Earth systems, zoology, fisheries and other fields that are pertinent to the future of India’s environment and development.

“Climate change, health, environmental degradation, poverty, inequality … are complex. Most of our challenges and SDGs [sustainable development goals] have scientific dimensions,” writes Sneha Sinha, a consultant for the Research and Information System for Developing Countries, in her 2021 paper about the ISCA’s role in Indian science and its relevance today amid ongoing environmental and societal crises. “Tackling global societal challenges require scientific advice in policy-making.”

The scientific congress has been held every year since independence, barring few exceptions — most recently in 2021 and 2022, when the congress could not be held due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On average, attendance usually numbers several thousand, including scientists, research scholars, university and institution faculty members and students. The meeting traditionally begins each Jan. 3 and is inaugurated by the prime minister, marking the official’s first public engagement of the year.

Reportedly, the DST pays 5 crore (50 million) rupees (about $600,000) to the ISCA every year, the bulk of which goes into organizing the science congress. In September, the government body surprisingly withdrew its support, and the University of Lucknow decided not to host the 2024 congress.

The ISCA then shifted plans for the congress to be held at Lovely Professional University (LPU), hoping the Punjab-based private university would share some expenditure. The DST, meanwhile, alleged “financial irregularities” and a “unilateral decision” by a handful of ISCA officers to relocate the venue from the University of Lucknow to LPU. But then, LPU abruptly backed out in December.

ISCA General Secretary R.K. Verma denied the allegations and said there was confusion, and the organization was now closely working with the government to plan this year’s science congress as soon as possible.

Former Indian Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, with the scientists at the inauguration of the 96th Session of Indian Science Congress, in Shillong, Meghalaya.
Former Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, with the scientists at the inauguration of the 96th session of Indian Science Congress, in Shillong, Meghalaya. Image by the Prime Minister’s Office via Wikimedia Commons.

“We had a confusion,” Verma told Mongabay. “DST informed us that we had changed the venue without their notice. The decision to shift the venue was taken after considering infrastructural requirements to host the Indian Science Congress. The ISCA body that took the decision earlier also had a representative from DST.”

He added, “However, now we are working closely with the government. Several institutions have already expressed their interest to host this year’s science congress. We will decide the venue and dates after taking the government into confidence. We are hopeful of organizing the event soon.”

This development comes amid allegations that ISCA has, in recent years, politicized the science congress and given a platform to pseudoscience since the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rose to power in 2014. The ISCA has been facing calls from the Indian scientific community for reforms to restrict growing governmental interference.

History of ISCA

To understand the significance of the science congress and why the government’s pull-out of support has sparked controversy, one will need to look back at the 100+-year history of the organization and its role in fostering a scientific community in the country.

The ISCA’s origins rest with two British chemists, J.L. Simonsen and P.S. MacMahon, who wanted an organisation similar to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and an annual meeting that could enable communication among science workers, promote research and showcase its importance to the general public. The ISCA was formed in 1914, with Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee as its first president. The first science congress was held that same year at the Asiatic Society in Kolkata.

With the science congress growing in stature in subsequent years, it “provided an opportune time and meeting ground for annual meetings of scientific societies, academies of science and other scientific institutions,” Sinha writes in her paper.

In that first 1914 session, when ISCA had 105 members, papers were read under six sections representing six different scientific fields. By the 34th session in 1947, right before India’s independence, the number of members increased to 2,500 and sessions to 13. Today, membership tops 30,000.

(Left) The brochure for the 1951 Indian Science Congress held at Indian Institute of Science. (Right) An Indian postal stamp commemorating 100 years of Indian Science Congress Association.
(Left) The brochure for the 1951 Indian Science Congress held at the Indian Institute of Science. (Right) An Indian postal stamp commemorating 100 years of the Indian Science Congress Association. Images courtesy of IISc (left) and Post of India (right).

Before the Indian Science Congress, there was hardly any platform that embraced as many scientific disciplines. It served as a common forum for scientists across India, fostering interdisciplinary cooperation, and also giving amateur scientists and students a chance to interact with pioneers of various scientific branches, Sinha writes. “The ISCA was viewed as the largest and most represented organisation of scientific workers in India, whose council consisted of practically all leading scientific workers of the country.”

Other than the annual science congress, the ISCA also organized various events in relation to the Congress, such as garden parties, receptions, excursions, “science dinners” and “science conversazione,” Sinha writes. These activities fostered increased personal and social interaction among the scientific community.

ISCA after independence

“Even in the post-Independence era, ISCA emerged as an important platform for showcasing knowledge production, development advancements in various scientific disciplines as well as advocating use of science in the development of the country. Science and scientists’ role in society, policymaking, become visible during this period,” Sinha told Mongabay.

The ISCA served as a bridge between scientists and policymakers, with the prime minister’s participation being a key feature. It closely collaborated with government departments and ministers and organized special programs, inviting heads of government departments to present progress reports on their science and technology (S&T) programs, stimulating communication and support for science.

For example, Sinha said, the Indian government introduced and discussed its Technology Policy Resolution during an ISC session in 1983, and further S&T policies were introduced during the congress in 1995, 2003 and 2013. The congress’ contribution to science communication and the popularization of science is of immense significance, she said.

Valedictory session of the 100th Indian Science Congress held at the S.N. Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences, Kolkata.
Valedictory session of the 100th Indian Science Congress held at the S.N. Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences, Kolkata. Image by Biswarup Ganguly via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0).

ISCA’s tryst with ‘pseudoscience’ in recent years

However, in recent years, the congress has been accused of bolstering pseudo-science. In 2019, Andhra University’s then-vice chancellor, G. Nageswara Rao, claimed that the Kauravas, characters in the Hindu mythological epic Mahabharata, were born of stem cell and test tube technologies, and that India had guided missile technology millennia ago.

Furthermore, another scientist, K.J. Krishnan, asserted that Newton’s and Einstein’s theories were untrue and would be debunked. He suggested renaming gravitational waves as “Narendra Modi waves” and the gravitational lensing effect as the “Harsh Vardhan effect,” after India’s former Science and Technology Minister Harsh Vardhan. Krishnan further claimed that Stephen Hawking had said there was a superior, millennia-old Vedic equation to Einstein’s E=MC².

All of this followed the 2015 Indian Science Congress, during which a scientist spoke of “Vedic aircraft.”

These incidents have often led to outrage, with scientists from all sections of the country pouring out their condemnations. Over the last decade, there have been allegations of “saffronizing” the century-old institute, and Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramkrishnan called the Indian Science Congress “a circus where very little science was discussed.”

In 2019, the country’s principal scientific adviser at the time urged all scientists to speak up against pseudoscience within ISCA. He wrote in his blog that claims of erroneous links between science and religion, history and culture by laypeople and scientists need addressing, particularly if such views could influence policy.

“A major feature of ISCs over the past decade has been the prominence of officially supported claims based on faith, which are antithetical to the idea of evidence-based science,” Satyajit Rath, president of All India People’s Science Network (AIPSN), told Mongabay. “The ISCA has shown itself unwilling and/or unable to fulfil this basic curating function effectively and systematically. This failure is a consequence of the tendency of all such establishments like the ISCA to conform to and buckle under prevailing pressure — in this case, the anti-science, anti-rationality perspective of the currently dominant political ideology.”

However, ISCA’s Verma doesn’t agree. “Other than promoting science, we also have the aim to popularize it, and that’s why, at times, there might have been some sessions about unserious science. But it won’t be right to judge the entire science congress based on one or two such sessions,” he said.

“I am not going to blame anyone. I can assure you that science congress was and will never be in favour of promoting pseudoscience. Sometimes, media nitpicks controversial topics from the vast fixtures of serious science discussions. We are clear that if anything meets the condition of scientific evidence and reproducibility, we will promote it.”

The former vice chancellor of Bihar-based Munger University further added that serious science is not easy to communicate to laypersons, and thus “popular science” is also discussed for promoting science through the congress.

“In popular science, the discussion is often about advancement made in technology,” he said.

AIPSN’s Rath, who is also a biology professor at the Pune-based Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, echoed the same, saying, “Over the past five decades, as the scientific enterprise has grown in the country, the ISC has always had to deal with balancing being a forum for detailed scientific deliberations and, on the other hand, a platform for broader discussions of S&T policy for public outreach.”

He added, “Some sessions managed this balance well, some not as much.”

Is the science congress still relevant?

Reportedly, the DST, in its notice declaring the withdrawal of financial support to this year’s science congress, said the event had lost its relevance. “The ISCA annual event has already lost its relevance among the scientific community and lacks professional approach in the conduct of the meeting on many fronts,” the Deccan Herald quoted the DST notice.

Amid growing government interference, the Indian scientific community has been calling for reforms at the Indian Science Congress Association and its marquee annual event for some time now.

Rath noted important developments that have contributed to the ISC’s loss of scientific relevance. The first, he said, is the inclusion of claims and perspectives in the ISC that are based on faith, “which has degraded the very idea of evidence-based science.” He claimed that the science congress’s shift toward involving “private” academic entities with limited credentials has also steered the organization’s focus away from public policy and good, which has been a core aspect of the ISC’s ethos.

Meanwhile, several media reports have claimed the government is deliberately trying to undermine the ISC in its bid to promote an alternative conference, the India International Science Festival (IISF). Reportedly, one of the main IISF organizers, which has ties with the parent organization of India’s ruling BJP, describes itself as a “science movement with a Swadeshi [from within India] spirit, interlinking traditional and modern sciences … and natural and spiritual sciences”.

However, ISCA’s Verma said he doesn’t agree that the science congress is competing with anyone. He said, the Indian Science Congress “is a wide event. In terms of scale and dimension, it is unparalleled in India. On an average, 3,000-4,000 serious research papers are published. Nobel laureates attend the event. What is being discussed in science congress sets the scientific discourse of our country.”

He also dismissed the claims that there was any conflict between the ISCA and the Indian government. “I do not find any point of conflict. [The] government also wants quality of research and presentation, and we do also aspire [to] these. We have to provide [a] wider platform where an upcoming scientist can rub shoulder with accomplished scientists (even Nobel laureates). This provides inspiration.”

Furthermore, “In my opinion ‘Swadeshi’ science means science carried out in the country. … Any finding or research work should be termed ‘scientific’ if it is based on data that are reproducible. Any bias has no place in science,” Verma said.

ISCA was founded with the primary objective of providing a platform for science in India, Verma said. “Just like ‘accepting anything without evidence’ amounts to superstition, so is ‘rejecting anything even if it has evidence.’ It is the same as saying ‘anything Indigenous amounts to superstition.’”

Banner image: Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Image by Ramrishna Sarkar via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

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