The Indian Science Community Needs To Be More Vocal on Social Issues

This article was first published on The Wire Science.

In October 1946, a young professor from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), received a phone call from Harold Urey, by then a Nobel laureate, who invited the young professor to join a group of activists and scientists called the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists (ECAS). The group was headed by Albert Einstein.

The young man was elated by the invitation and accepted it immediately, and spent the next half of his life engaged in political activism, voicing his opinions on issues ranging from the Vietnam war to the dangers of the atomic bomb, despite being slammed and ridiculed by the political right of the time. This was none other than Linus Pauling, a two-time Nobel laureate and a scientist often regarded as the father of modern chemistry.

Pauling was not alone. History is replete with examples of renowned scientists taking very active political stands in the face of threats to the social harmony, tolerance and the comity of nations. Why, recall the Indian scientist Prafulla Chandra Ray’s popular remark in 1924, at the time of India’s independence struggle: “Science can afford to wait but Swaraj cannot.”

Despite this history, in recent times, the voice of the Indian science community in the chorus of protest against the problems ailing the country as well as the world is depressingly feeble. Very rarely do we have a scientist from India speaking up against tyranny and on social issues. More often than not, they remain silent. Even when some of them speak up, they tread with caution, as if they are trying to voice their opposition but in a way that doesn’t offend the other side.

There are several reasons for this to be the case. India has a very large population, so the fraction of scientists is very small. These scientists work at many science institutes. And of them, Venky Ramakrishnan, the structural biologist who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2009, said, “India has pockets of good institutions.” Most of the good science in the country happens in these pockets. Similarly, in most Indian universities, the science departments are of average quality at best; only a few are well-funded, well-staffed and undertake serious science research.

When people from these departments voice their opinions on certain matters, they are seldom heard because they are in a vanishing minority.

Unlike in the west, India’s scientists are largely dependent on government funding for their research. In many countries of the west, as much as two-thirds of the total expenditure on science research is by the private sector. Apart from a few usual suspects, the Indian private sector hardly funds any serious science research. Science today is also expensive. This gives rise to a second problem: research institutes are at the (financial) mercy of the government and are afraid to do anything that might be seen to be rocking the boat.

In fact, not just funding: scientists are also concerned about not winning this or that award, not securing a promotion, not being inducted into an academy, and not being included on lucrative committees, like the Indian government’s Science Advisory Council.

A third problem has to do with the science community itself. Members of ‘Scheduled Caste’, ‘Scheduled Tribe’ and ‘Other Backward Communities’ groups make up only 9% of all faculty members in the IITs. Many scientists also harbour the view that affirmative action in science education and research undermines the chances of an Indian scientist winning a Nobel Prize. A 2021 RTI query revealed that of the 466 faculty members at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, 438 belonged to privileged caste groups. There is no Nobel laureate among them.

In other words, the argument appears to be that the presence of these 28 individuals from underprivileged caste groups is the reason why none of the rest have won a major prize for scientific work. All this argument does is betray a moral bankruptcy on the part of those who make it – and which is reflected in their inability to speak up in the face of autocratic or repressive politics.

When he was asked why he kept participating in demonstrations and protests against nuclear war, instead of spending his time studying philosophy and logic, Bertrand Russell is reputed to have said that if he and his peers just focused on their intellectual work, the world wouldn’t have anyone left in time to appreciate it.

Science helps us understand the world that people live in. Scientists are part of that community of people, that society. If society falls, scientists will fall too – and science will be for nothing. So along with their research activities, scientists have a social responsibility as well.

There are Indian scientists who speak up on occasion. We need more of them. Science doesn’t exist in silos, and it is important for them – as well as us – to ask what we do science for. Our scientists must take the lead in defining this purpose, and then help defend it.

Saurov Hazarika is a research scholar in chemistry at the Pennsylvania State University.

Featured image: Rupinder Singh/Unsplash