On 22nd April 2017, more than a million people undertook a march for science across 600 cities, demanding that their respective governments should not only increase the funding for science and promote scientific research, but also ensure that government policies are guided by scientific evidence and rational outlook.
The importance and transformative power of science and technology, and the cultivation of scientific attitude among the citizens, reflect in the country's social and economic progress. Developments arising from the applications of science and technology can liberate populations from grinding poverty, and the spirit of rational outlook can enrich their social life, creating the basis for a progressive and egalitarian society. This has been recognised and articulated in Article 51A(h) (42nd Amendment, 1976) of our Constitution, which says: "It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of enquiry and reform."
It is however, a matter of deep concern for all of us to note that the cultivation of rational thinking and scientific temper in India is heading towards a crisis. It is a far cry from the wisdom enshrined in our Constitution. There have been alarmingly frequent instances of obscurantism and religious fundamentalism in our society, which mark a departure from the vision of a nation guided by a rational outlook, scientific temper and humanity. The as yet unsolved killings of the prominent rationalists Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi stand as testimony to this. We are also witnessing the re-emergence of regressive customs. A wave of intolerance, manifesting in the form of honour killings and religious bigotry in thepublic arena, as well as caste- and gender-based atrocities, threaten to tear apart the fabric of our complex and multifaceted society.
The funding for higher education, and science and technology research, has continued to remain sub-optimal. There are also several indications that significant portion of the allocated resources for science and technology research will be channelized towards programmes whose scientific merits have not been adequately tested.
It is lamentable to note the poor overall performance in education; government investment in higher education is below the global norms, and the gross enrolment ratio in higher education is even below the average for developing countries. To make matters worse, there are indications that the number of fellowships through National Eligibility Test (NET) may be reduced. Coupled with the proposal to make NET mandatory for pursuing scientific research, this would lead to a severe crisis in manpower for conducting scientific research. This could effectively sound the death knell for research in many of the Universities.
Sustained Governmental support is central to the pursuit of meaningful scientific research in an inclusive environment. We are worried by the inclination of the Government to reduce public funding of scientific research and to require research institutes to earn their own finances from private sources. The latter will heavily bias the choice of projects towards short-term practical goals at the expense of longer-term, basic science research. Fundamental research is essential to understand the world and how it works and can lead to previously unanticipated and novel technologies - we will be ignoring this at our own peril. Furthermore, a steep hike in the fees for students pursuing higher education would lead to the exclusion of a large section of the students from the economically weaker sections of society. This, in essence, would restrict the pursuit of higher education and research to the economically privileged fraction of society.
In light of all these concerns we would like to place the following demands to the Government:
- Publicly denounce and put a stop to the propagation of unscientific, obscurantist ideasand religious intolerance, and inculcate scientific temper, human values and a spirit ofinquiry in conformity with Article 51A of the Constitution.
- Allocate at least 10 percent of GDP for higher education and at least 3 percent of GDPfor scientific and technological research.
- Ensure that the education system does not impart obscurantist ideas that are notsupported by scientific evidence.
- Enact policies that are in conformity with provable facts and rational thinking.
- Address the lack of appreciation in our country for the value of science to society, whichvalue has been demonstrated in developing and developed nations the world over.
- Aurnab Ghose