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Talk Point: Is India’s march for science political, necessary or just misinformed?

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On 14 April, scientists and research scholars from at least 20 cities in India will join over 600 cities across the globe to March for Science. The effort is to encourage scientific temper among the masses in an era of misinformation and dearth of funding in science research.

ThePrint asks: Is India’s march for science political, necessary or just misinformed?

By marching in solidarity, we are sending a message: ‘Ignore science at your own peril.’

Kiran Mazumdar Shaw
CMD, Biocon

India’s March for Science is necessary as well as timely. By marching in solidarity with scientists from over 600 cities across the globe, we are sending out a strong message: ‘Ignore science at your own peril.’

India was ranked 60th out of 127 countries on the Global Innovation Index for 2017. Why does the same country that gave the world the mathematical concept of zero, thus laying the foundation of our modern number system, rank so poorly in scientific innovation today? What has led to this sad state of affairs?

I believe this is largely because we, as a nation, are not investing adequately in science. R&D spending as a proportion of India’s GDP has stagnated below 1 per cent over the last two decades. Despite the country’s severe healthcare challenges, the budget of the Indian Council for Medical Research has also remained appallingly low.

While we can rightly boast of beating the world in atomic research and space science achievements, we are yet to build a formidable reputation in areas like genomics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, clean energy etc., which are expected to grow to trillion-dollar industries in the future.

If we are to leapfrog into a higher trajectory of economic growth, we will need to foster scientific education, research and innovation through forward-looking policies.

The government will need to base its policies on a foundation of hard scientific evidence rather than making knee-jerk decisions that suit the public mood.

For example, farmers in India are being denied the prospect of a better livelihood because anti-GM lobbyists have been peddling half-baked and irrational theories of ‘Frankenfood”’ This is despite the presence of overwhelming scientific evidence to prove that GM (genetically modified) crops are not only safe, they also have large, widespread benefits for farmers and economies that embrace them. In 2013, farmers worldwide realised a net economic benefit of $20.5 billion from planting GM crops, according to British agricultural economics consultants PG Economics.

In today’s knowledge-driven economy, science is the primary driver of progress. I believe the March for Science today is a right step towards a better tomorrow.

Disclosure: Kiran Mazumdar Shaw is an investor in ThePrint India. For our list of investors, click here.

The March for Science will not be a quick fix, but is a massive opportunity to start a dialogue on the problems the community faces

Nandita Jayaraj
Science communicator and co-founder of

As someone who has been following the trends of gender inequality in science in the country, I can emphasise on the importance for a movement in this regard.

The context: Despite a majority of undergraduates in the sciences being women in the country, top research institutions have 10 per cent or less women among the faculty. Transgender persons holding scientific positions are unheard of and all of this comes, of course, with class and caste intersections as well.

Yes, it’s true that India seems to be marching in the right direction. Some recent examples being the IITs increasing the number of seats to accommodate more women students and the Department of Science & Technology announced a programme for school girls to research at top institutions (as part of ‘Vigyan Jyoti’, the government’s Rs 2,000-crore push for women engineers). Award committees too are starting to recognize women scientists.

But, it is crucial to realise that this is just the easy part.

The IITs increasing seats for women may ensure that more of the 12 per cent women who make it through the JEE join an IIT, but what about the remaining 88 per cent who don’t even qualify? Without a demand for transparency and regular updates from the Vigyan Jyoti team, how will we know that these programmes for 11th standard students are being implemented properly? Is the Infosys Science Prize committee which was much praised for awarding 3 women out of six winners ever going to acknowledge that their jury chairs remain exclusively male?

One thing that is for sure is that Indian science needs drastic and sustained questioning. March for Science will not be a quick fix, but it is a massive opportunity to start a dialogue on the many problems facing the science community and consequently the progress of a nation whose citizens, according to a recent study, have one of the highest trust in science.

The elite science community has paid little attention to the problems of casteism and sexism

Sundar Sarukkai
Professor of philosophy at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.

First of all, we have to get rid of the myth that there is one homogenous science community in India. There are the scientists in elite science institutes like TIFR and IISc, and then there are the others. Thousand of others in government laboratories, defence organisations, ISRO etc. These are not the glamourous scientists who necessarily have Ivy League degrees but who have contributed far more to Indian science than many from these elite science institutions. There are also countless other scientists who teach science in our colleges and un-fancy universities. So when you look at the quantity and diversity of scientists in India, to call a march of a privileged few as the march for Indian science is as short-sighted as some of the demands of this group.

This elite science community has paid very little attention to the needs and demands of the countless others who are teaching and propagating values of science in the larger society, from villages and small towns to cities. These privileged scientists are not seen in the trenches of teaching and defending science and scientists in places where it is difficult to do so. On the contrary, they have multi-crore laboratories, AC rooms, subsidised food, Seventh Pay Commission salaries, highly pampered gated institutes and yearly visits to their Mecca (the US). Not so surprisingly, it is these privileged scientists who talk of science in naïve terms and reduce its creative complexity to a rhetoric of linear rationality for their own ideological purposes.

Most sadly, these privileged groups do not find time to march against casteism and sexism endemic in Indian science institutions, nor march against brutalities such as chemical warfare (that has become so commonplace now) or against deleterious effects of technology on society– all of which are associated with scientific rationality. Instead, they want to foist a mythical view of science on poor unsuspecting ordinary citizens of the country.

The March for Science organisers must ensure that in countering the government’s myths, they don’t end up defending colonial Western myths.

Suvrat Raju
Theoretical physicist at the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences.

The March for Science should be viewed from a broad perspective. Its significance is not limited to an annual demonstration but lies in the fact that it provides a forum for the scientific community to engage with society on several important questions.

Traditionally, in India, policy level decisions about scientific and technological issues—such as nuclear energy, GMO foods, or intellectual property rights—have been made by the government in consultation with a small number of scientific administrators, who are often unwilling to challenge the establishment. The current movement of scientists might allow the broader scientific community to weigh in with a more diverse set of views; this engagement is important for society.

Another concerning issue is the government’s attacks on academic freedom—most notably in central universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University and University of Hyderabad. This affects scientists directly, and the March will allow them to register their protest.

The March will also challenge our understanding of the history of science. Current textbooks contain an Orientalist history that focuses only on ancient Greece and medieval Europe. This is deeply problematic and often just factually wrong. In many cases, the Greeks are given credit for advances, like the “Pythagorean” theorem, which were actually discovered centuries earlier by other cultures, including the Babylonians and the Egyptians. And credit for the calculus, which was pioneered in India, is given entirely to Europeans.

The current government’s attempts to combat this problem have been farcical. For instance, the Prime Minister declared that the legend of Ganesha revealed the existence of plastic surgery in ancient India. But, the organisers of the march must be careful that, in countering the government’s myths, they don’t end up defending colonial Western myths.

Hopefully the engagement of scientific community with these questions will lead to constructive means of decolonising and democratising science in India.

The views expressed are personal and do not represent those of his institution.

India needs to march for more women in Science

Farah Ishtiaq
Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance Fellow, disease ecologist based at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, IISc

India is a growing scientific hub, striving to make its mark as an emerging country among science-focused nations. Scientists are increasingly demanding respect for their research and discouraging any promotion of superstition and ‘pseudo-science’, with a strong steer towards ethics.

Promoting higher education and protests in support of science is probably necessary; however, there is one very Indian science problem to be aware of: Age limits on academic positions, which puts the Indian academic landscape in stark contrast with many other countries. The age limits in the current system mean that India is unable to absorb enough competent, experienced scientists, and yet India ends up spending more than the UK or Canada per researcher.

The age limits are unfair and unjustified, particularly to women, as maternity leave and family or childcare responsibilities often push women beyond the ‘preferable’ age of 35 when they apply for their first faculty position. March for Science needs to recognise such issues and promote gender equality in science and make the movement more inclusionary for women. As a developing nation, how can India afford to have such poor and discriminatory policies and rules, when it means that India misses out representation of women in science?

Such policies are preventing many women scientists’ progression to faculty positions and to a large extent is used as an excuse to promote a culture of nepotism by selecting from their preferred academic sphere. With only 200,000 full time researchers (and only 14 per cent of them women) from a population of 1.3 billion, new research institutes currently being developed end up short of skilled workers and many are struggling to even introduce basic fields like ecology and evolution.

There is no shortage of competent scientists but there is a real need for open-mindedness among scientists and the supporters of the March. India cannot be a role model for other developing nations if we can’t grow and evolve our colonial mindset and system, run by people coming from an ageism culture and trying to maintain an age structure in academic positions.

It is high time to think not just about supporting science but to have an equal representation of women in science.

The March for Science’s objectives need to be clear, practical, non-partisan, and most of all, welcoming

Sandhya Ramesh
Science editor, The Print

There have always been disbelievers in science through the decades, and thanks to today’s hyper-connectivity, large communities with amplified voices are easy to form. Science needs a lot of awareness, especially in India where apart from blatantly wrong viral Whatsapp forwards and appallingly ignorant statements by ministers, misinformed and harmful movements like anti-GMO and anti-nuclear are widespread, with even the anti-vaccine trend catching up now.

The March for Science movement that came about in the U.S. as a response to Trump’s actions on climate change has come under constant criticism world over for controversies ranging from mismanagement and sexism to fudging. In India especially, the movement’s objectives have been called into question even within the scientific community and numbers seemingly disproven. Whether accurate or not, it is disconcerting that such accusations follow what are some of the brightest minds in the country.

Science needs to be open. Scientists understand the world deeply at a much more intricate level than most of us do. In the process, they also understand their world of research, funding, and practices, much better than others. Thus it is to be expected that supporters outside of their direct peers don’t identify as strongly with their cause as they do. Indian science needs drastic attention and ample funding. To that end, it is imperative that the March does not alienate the people it seeks to convert by making sweeping rhetorical statements without contextual numbers.

Like the American equivalent does, the Indian March has to also ensure there is dissemination of accurate information, including existing problems on how funds are spent and to educate people who want to join the cause. Scientists, of all people, should not expect others to take their word without backing. Inculcating a scientific temper in a billion-strong developing nation is an act of patience and inclusion, not overnight conversion by imposition. Keeping the March’s objectives clear, practical, non-partisan, and most of all, welcoming, is important to enable understanding among the public about why such a march is necessary and why it is important to speak truth to power, no matter who holds the power.


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