March for Science highlights parlous state of research

Thousands of students, scientists and supporters gathered in 30 Indian cities to support the country’s ‘March for Science’ earlier this month. It was an impressive turnout. They were joined by many government scientists despite receiving emails forbidding them from taking part.

India’s March for Science on 9 August took place several months after the Global March for Science on 22 April in cities across the world, in part as a protest against US President Donald Trump’s unscientific views on climate change.

There was very limited participation by Indian scientists in the global marches in April, with a small march in Hyderabad, a science hub in Southern India, and in one or two other cities. But the global event galvanised scientists into issuing an appeal which translated into the 9 August march.

“We feel that the situation demands that members of the scientific community 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.

According to one estimate 10,000 took part. The independent but influential Delhi Science Forum, which mapped the marches, reported enthusiastic participation by scientists, teachers, students and researchers in the main scientific hubs of Bangalore, Delhi, Chandigarh, Chennai, Hyderabad and Pune as well as in smaller towns like Gangtok, Kurnool, Puducherry, Tumkur, Tirupati and Mysore.

India’s marches also highlighted the parlous state of research in the country. According to Delhi Science Forum member Prabir Purkayastha, a leader of the Delhi march, even the much-vaunted Indian Institutes of Technology or IITs do not have the funding required to take them into “next-generation science”.

“This is why one of our main demands is that the government urgently increase spending on real science – rather than pseudoscience and mythology – to 3% of GDP [gross domestic product].”

At the annual Indian Science Congress in January, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “If we want science to deliver, we must not constrain it.”

But Modi’s rhetoric that by 2030 “India will be among the top three countries in science and technology”, appears empty as long as the country continues to spend about 0.8% of GDP on research and development compared to neighbouring China’s 2% of GDP on R&D with demonstrable results, according to scientists.

State of publicly-funded science

Purkayastha says the present government is happy to reap the benefits of past investments in the IITs and institutions like the Indian Institutes of Science and the government laboratories of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research that have produced the scientific manpower that made possible high-profile successes in areas such as space, atomic energy and the pharmaceutical industry, but it is unwilling to follow up.

“Today, even the vast scientific infrastructure created in the past with public money is seen as a burden,” he says.

Another Delhi Science Forum member, D Raghunandan, president of the All India People's Science Network, says: “The perception in the present government is that it is pointless ‘wasting’ money on research when you can buy technology from abroad. In fact, this government is already committed to acquiring billions of dollars worth of technology and hardware from abroad.”

Science and scientists have little influence on policy. Raghunandan explains that Indian scientists have traditionally been content with placing their views and ideas before bureaucrats or political leaders for final decisions and he believes “any culture that existed of conducting serious studies to inform policy-making is now abandoned”.

Various government ministries and departments concerned with science have openly declared that only those research subjects that promote government policies and programmes will receive support and funding. And this is being seen by the scientific community as giving the go-by to independent, evidence-based research work that academicians and institutions may consider important.

Many spoke of confused signals from the government. “On the one hand, the government wants to promote a ‘Make in India’ policy, but on the other it is actually cutting back on funding for research projects.”

Purkayastha says the government’s stated policy of considering the “enterprise of science as a business enterprise, which should pay for itself through its research output”, is flawed. “Every country understands the importance of investing in science – whether it is communist China or capitalist US.”

Vijnana Bharati, also known as VIBHA, a major non-governmental organisation recognised by the Department of Science and Technology and affiliated to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, criticised the march in a statement issued by its secretary general, A Jayakumar, as “politically-motivated, left-oriented and anti-government”.

Jayakumar said budgetary allocations to the ministry of science and technology were not reduced as the marchers claimed, but were raised from US$978 million in 2013-14 to US$1.2 billion in the 2016-17 budget.

Irrational science

These figures are not contested by the marchers, but rather they complain that the money is going towards “irrational research” and is controlled by concerned ministries rather than the research institutes or their heads.

In popular perception, the ministries are ready to fund anything from proving the medicinal value of cow dung and cow urine to promoting Vedic mathematics because it suits the ideology of the present government that rose to power in 2014 on massive support from the Hindu majority. For example, the prestigious IIT Delhi is currently considering no fewer than 40 proposals to fund the validation of claims made regarding bovine excretory products.

Accordingly, one of the main demands of the science march was to “stop propagation of unscientific, obscurantist ideas and religious intolerance, and develop scientific temper, human values and a spirit of inquiry in conformance with Article 51A of the Constitution”.

In Raghunandan’s view, when ministers place greater value on mythology than science and even say publicly that “perceptions are more important than facts”, then much more than a march for science is needed.

Scientists defy ban

According to the Delhi Science Forum, because of the parlous state of affairs, several government scientists defied the ban to participate in the march, though they preferred to stay anonymous for fear of reprisals. In Delhi, researchers from the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology or IGIB, one of 37 Council of Scientific and Industrial Research or CSIR laboratories, turned out in strength to protest against diminishing funds for research and for salaries.

“We are risking our situation by participating. After all, scientists in this country have never been known to take to the streets in protest against anything including science policy and prefer to stay in their laboratories,” said an IGIB researcher. “We are joining this march because we really don’t see any future for serious research in this country.”

CSIR scientists who dared to defy the ban complained loudly about how the CSIR labs have taken a 50% cut in their funding this year and that many young scientists have not been paid their salaries for some months now.

Chetana Sachidanandan, senior scientist at CSIR's IGIB and assistant professor at the Academy of Scientific and Innovative Research, confirmed that project funds have been stopped and salaries not paid since March. “All the work done so far on these projects is now in danger of going to waste.”

The CSIR received US$64 million in funding for the fiscal year 2017-18 – 10% higher than last year’s allocation. However, the CSIR was asked to ‘self-finance’ research from external sources two years ago and its laboratories have since been progressively starved of funds.

“I only know that very little money has come in and that is not enough even to keep the institute running properly,” Sachidanandan said.

“Our future is bleak unless our supervisors arrange alternate funding from external agencies – something unheard of for government labs,” one marcher said.

The original version of this article has been modified to include comments by Chetana Sachidanandan.