India’s scientific community needs to speak out more on social issues

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In October 1946, a young professor at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), received a phone call from Harold Urey, then a Nobel laureate, inviting him to join a group of activists and scientists called the Committee of atomic energy emergency. Scientists (ECAS). The group was led by Albert Einstein.

The young man was delighted by the invitation and accepted it immediately, and spent the next half of his life engaging in political activism, voicing his opinions on issues ranging from the Vietnam War to the dangers of the atomic bomb, although he was criticized and ridiculed by the political right of the time. It was none other than Linus Pauling, a two-time Nobel laureate and scientist often considered the father of modern chemistry.

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

Despite this history, in recent times the voice of the Indian scientific community in the chorus of protest against the issues affecting the country as well as the world has been depressingly weak. Very rarely do we have an Indian scientist speaking out against tyranny and on social issues. More often than not, they remain silent. Even when some of them speak up, they walk cautiously, as if trying to voice their opposition, but in a way that doesn’t offend the other party.

There are several reasons for this. India has a very large population, so the fraction of scientists is very small. These scientists work in many scientific institutes. And among them, Venky Ramakrishnan, the structural biologist who won the Nobel Prize in 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, science departments are at best of average quality; only a few are well funded, well staffed and undertake serious scientific research.

When people from these departments express their opinions on certain issues, they are rarely heard because they are in a very small minority.

Unlike the West, Indian scientists are largely dependent on government funding for their research. In many Western countries, up to two-thirds of total scientific research expenditure falls on the private sector. Apart from a few usual suspects, India’s private sector funds virtually no serious scientific research. Science today is also expensive. This raises a second problem: research institutes are at the (financial) mercy of the government and are afraid to do anything that could be perceived as rocking the boat.

In fact, not only the funding: scientists also fear not winning this or that prize, not getting promotion, not being inducted into an academy and not being included in lucrative committees, like the Council. scientific advisory to the Indian government.

A third problem concerns the scientific community itself. Members of the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, and Other Backward Communities make up only 9% of all IIT faculty members. Many scientists are also of the view that affirmative action in science education and research undermines the chances of an Indian scientist winning a Nobel Prize. A 2021 RTI request revealed that out of the 466 faculty members of the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, 438 belonged to privileged caste groups. There is no Nobel Prize winner among them.

In other words, the argument seems to be that the presence of these 28 individuals from lower caste groups is the reason why none of the others have won major awards for their scientific work. This argument only betrays a moral bankruptcy on the part of those who make it – and that is reflected in their inability to speak out in the face of autocratic or repressive politics.

When asked why he continues to participate in demonstrations and protests against nuclear war, instead of spending his time studying philosophy and logic, Bertrand Russell answers deemed to have said that if he and his peers only focused on their intellectual work, the world wouldn’t have anyone in time to appreciate him.

Science helps us understand the world in which people live. Scientists are part of this community of people, of this society. If society falls, scientists will fall too – and science will be useless. Thus, alongside their research activities, scientists also have a social responsibility.

There are Indian scientists who speak on occasion. We need more. Science does not exist in silos, and it is important for them – as well as for us – to ask themselves what we are doing with science for. Our scientists must take the lead in defining this goal, and then help defend it.

Saurov Hazarika is a research chemist at Pennsylvania State University.

Feature image: Rupinder Singh/Unsplash