Guest post by VIKAS BAJPAI
There couldn’t be a more opportune time than the present moment in India’s history for an impassioned cry for science to arise from the scientific community in the country. On the 9th of August 2017 scientists from across India carried out the ‘March for Science’ in twenty six cities with the plea addressed to the Prime Minister of the country demanding that:
the Government to uphold Article 51A of the Constitution and to restrain the attempts that run counter to the development of scientific temper, human values and spirit of inquiry enshrined in the Constitution (Organizing Committees of the India March for Science in different cities, 2017).
It was further stated:
Science is not a set of beliefs. Science tries to understand the laws governing the material world and society following a well-established methodology where nothing is accepted without evidence. Thus science has created a body of knowledge that has been tested by practice, which provides the basis for advancement of society. That is why it is now an established canon of governance that all decisions that impact people’s lives should be based, not on personal beliefs, but on scientific evidence (ibid).
Within days, Avijit Pathak, a sociologist teaching at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University wrote his piece, the ‘Hubris of Science’ in The Indian Express as a rejoinder to this ‘March for Science’.
……… the majority of the practitioners remain reductionist and deterministic in their approach. They fail to understand the nuanced meanings of reality — the entire domain of symbolism, human longing and creative exploration. Man is not just “rational” and “logical”; man is also a visionary, a mystic, a poet, a wanderer and civilization progresses because there are multiple ways through which we make sense of the world. Science is just one way, it has no right to silence the other perspectives …….. Is it not a fact that science too is a fiction, a modern mythology of “progress” that, despite the devastating wars, holocaust, environmental disaster, we continue to regard as “solid”, “objective” and “foundational”? (Pathak Avijit, 2017).
In an another particularly derisive critique, Sundar Sarukkai, a professor of philosophy at the National Institute for Advanced Studies, Bangalore writes:
These days when everybody is marching for something or the other, scientists don’t want to be left behind. ………… The difficulty of giving one coherent definition of science or of scientific method, or to have a theory of causality that can help explain how scientific temper can get rid of superstition, caste, religion or even mob lynching should hopefully make them more critical of their own beliefs about science. Yet nothing changes the discourse about science in India. This is truly an example of Science Sena at work (Sarukkai Sundar, 2017).
While having reservations with the latter opinion, the author finds both the demands raised by the organizers of ‘March for Science’ and the world view they arise from and Pathak’s protestations eminently agreeable. Yet the divergence and discordance between the two branches of science, the natural and the social sciences, is a realty that can hardly be ignored; it extends to the extent where, even among the scientific community, many would consider the natural sciences to be the real science and the rest as just a matter of common sense. Needless to say, this discord finds reflection in the intellectual, social, political and cultural spheres of our lives. To put it in the words of Jawaharlal Nehru, part of the problem arises because “Too many scientists today, who swear by science, forget all about it outside their particular spheres” (Jawaharlal Nehru, 1946). Whereas the need is that – “The scientific approach and temper are, or should be, a way of life, a process of thinking, a method of acting and associating with our fellowmen…” (ibid).
This article rests on the premise that neither branches of science can entirely explain the material phenomenon of this world which constitutes our living environment by themselves. Secondly, going beyond scientific investigation, discoveries and inventions, the scientific community is also tasked with the need to find ways and means in which science can truly serve the human race and not just be reduced to a means whereby the powerful exercise their power over the powerless. It is in this context that there is a need for this division to give way to a much more vigorous and virile discourse between the different branches of the natural and the social sciences.
Today our country stands at cross roads. While on one hand the latest technological inventions of science have revolutionized the day to day processes of life for a big section of our population, on the other hand a much larger section of India’s laboring masses seem to have slipped further into the abyss of hopelessness. Most unfortunately, the very gifts of science that have had a liberating effect on the lives of many have today also become tools of further subjugation of overwhelming masses of oppressed and marginalized sections simply because of the fact that the fruits of modern science get monopolized by the rich and powerful. Under these circumstances the need for ‘Integrating the Sciences for an Integral Society’ couldn’t possibly be overemphasized. Those who swear by the cause of science ought to be taking lead in guiding the intelligentsia and the society at large towards building a momentum for such an integration of the sciences. The question is – how?
The above mentioned divergence between different branches of natural and social sciences is but a reflection of such a division that already straddles our society, and the societies worldwide. Hence, the way forward can only be elucidated by grasping the social causes of this division which are also at the root of the general crisis that science, scientific research and scientists are faced with today in our country.
As against the extremely slow pace of human development during the era of feudalism, the bursting forth of modern science and the technologies spawned by it are co-terminus with the rise of bourgeoisie democracies organized around capitalist mode of production in the West (Allan Woods and Ted Grant, 2007, p 18-19; Uranovsky, 1936). The simple reason for this being the fact that production of daily necessities of life was revolutionized to such an extent that humans had a lot more time for pursuit of the sciences, both natural and social sciences, along with progress in other areas of human activity. The pace of development of human society has since been unprecedented.
This rise of modern science being coterminous with the rise of capitalism was riddled with possible tensions with regard to the social function of science – whether it ought to be the driver of profits for the incipient bourgeoisie or it be subservient to the larger societal wellbeing? The ideological moorings of capitalism would have, and going by the subsequent experience, actually have led to monopolization of the fruits of modern science by the ‘capital’; and thereby making the larger public wellbeing incidental or subservient to the profit motive. However, the bourgeois democracies in the West themselves came into being as a result of a revolutionary process wherein almost the entire populations were mobilized to effect enormous social, economic and political changes in the society (Allan Woods and Ted Grant, 2007, p 18-19).This could not but have acted as a countervailing force to monopolization of science by ‘Capital’ alone, at least in the initial stages of the rise of modern capitalism. Additionally, modern science also became a powerful tool for challenging moribund ideas which were holding back the societal advancement and thereby created a fertile ground for new ideas that guided the social, economic and political change (Harman C, 2004).
The sense of empowerment of the people could only have facilitated a relative democratization of the gains made by the society, including those in the realm of science. There was a far greater dissemination of scientific temperament in the society than what had been witnessed ever before (Harman C, 2004). This fuelled a quest for knowledge, which couldn’t but have led to questioning of established wisdom, and there by posing a challenge to degenerate and retrogressive ideas, tending to hold back the society. A whole new set of ideas were born that were to be instrumental in creation of a new society. To put this in the words of John Desmond Bernal:
Science puts into our hands the, means of satisfying our material needs and also the ideas which will enable us to understand, to co-ordinate, and to satisfy our needs in the social sphere. Beyond this science has something as important though less definite to offer: a reasonable hope in the unexplored possibilities of the future, an inspiration which is slowly but surely becoming the dominant driving force of modern thought and action (Bernal J D, 1938).
However, the pursuit of science has witnessed a radical shift in contemporary times. Gone are the decades when the market was interested in the end products of science alone. We have arrived at a juncture where private capital is increasingly determining the agenda of science and scientific research. Science has been rendered into a commodity that is bought and sold in the market. As such, developments in science and technology need to be seen in relation to the totalizing mode of production, where in such developments have been integrated as a part of ordinary functioning (Loeppky R: 2005). Thus structurally, there is immense pressure on science to be compatible to the market and it cannot be simply seen as a pursuit of ‘free’ thinking.
The trajectory of development in most of the developing countries such as India has been very different which necessitates understanding of the development of science in our specific conditions. The era of colonialism nixed an indigenous development of both the natural and the social sciences responsive to the needs of the people and society. Political subservience cast a deep impact on the development of the economic, intellectual and the cultural aspects of the social life of the people. Political subservience ensured that the development of our society, including science, took place in a manner and to the extent which facilitated and consolidated the power base of the colonial masters or the indigenous classes which served as the stabilizing pillars of the colonial powers. It is to these ‘indigenous stabilizing pillars’ that power was transferred in 1947.
One is reminded at this juncture of the speech given by the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at his Alma matter, Oxford in 2005. He said:
Today, with the balance and perspective offered by the passage of time and the benefit of hindsight, it is possible for an Indian Prime Minister to assert that India’s experience with Britain had its beneficial consequences too. Our notions of the rule of law, of a constitutional government, of a free press, of a professional civil service, of modern universities and research laboratories have all been fashioned in the crucible where an age-old civilization met the dominant Empire of the day. These are all elements which we still value and cherish. Our judiciary, our legal system, our bureaucracy, and our police are all great institutions, derived from British-Indian administration and they have served the country well (Manmohan Singh, 2005).
Going through this, one might as well say that governance in modern India is about as good as the colonial governance. Given the strife and disaffection that has come to be normalized in our society and the application of draconian laws by the rulers to deal with it, they surely have every reason to take pride in India’s colonial legacy. Anyhow, our concern here is with regard to the impact this has had on the development of science in India; and for the moment, the development of natural sciences.
To put it in a nutshell, and with due regard to Indian scientists who did the country proud, as also those who are braving tremendous odds to do so, the development of science in India has at best been the assimilation of scientific theory and practice derived from West, rather than being the development of a vigorous and virile scientific endeavor pervading deep into the society and serving as the ‘sanjeevani’ for its rejuvenation and creative development in all areas of human activity.
No doubt, the products of modern science have touched the lives of even the most lowly placed among Indians and there is a ready acceptance for them among the people, but that is no measure of scientific ferment in the society, nor is it an indication of a felt need for science as a guide to action in our daily lives. The lives of common Indians, even the best educated among them, continue to be riddled by unscientific believes, customs and practices, many of which are now sought to be rationalized in the name of ‘cultural nationalism’ or ‘Hindu revivalism.’ The hatred harbored by these forces towards a scientific outlook in life is evident by the gruesome murders of rationalist thinkers like Narendra Dhabolkar, Govind Pansare and M M Kalburgi within a short interval of each other.
When the chief of the space agency of the country invokes divine blessings at Tirupati for the success of the latest space mission and the Prime Minister of the country has the temerity to claim existence of transplant surgery and stem cell technology in India in the Vedic times, how can one blame the common Indian who insists to wear the insignia of his/her caste as a guide to social action, or those who are willing to kill their own son or daughter because their Khap disapproved of the relationship he/she chose to enter of his/her own accord. There could scarcely have been a more humiliating and demeaning moment for Indian science when the pundits of the Sanskrit department of Mumbai University organized a special session at the highest representative body of Indian Science, the ‘Indian Science Congress’, during its 102nd session, to claim that aircrafts and inter-planetary space-crafts flew in India during the Vedic age. Apart from such ludicrously audacious claims, what is more tragic is that there was not a single scientist of eminence, from within the establishment, who called a spade a spade in this matter. The common public, it seems, couldn’t care less about the whole issue. Little wonder then that a caption line in the Times of India read – ‘If Indian science congress is a joke, it’s because science in India is a tragedy’ (Subodh Varma, 2016).
The worrying thing is that this tragedy seems to be systemic and systematic; characterized by the indifference of almost all who could play a role in remedying the situation. When the common people at large loose interest or perceive that they have little stake in an issue, the all-important public oversight that shall keep everyone else on course and stand accounted for, is lost. This lack of public oversight, consequent to a lack of craving for a scientific temperament itself, seems to have been diligently cultivated by the powers that be. Take for example the fact that despite science being compulsory till 10th standard in school, 59% of secondary schools in India do not have an integrated science laboratory; implying thereby that the children study science without ever being able to see an experiment, let alone conduct one. At senior secondary level the situation gets even worse, where only 32% of schools have a separate room for a laboratory, a quarter of which are ‘partially equipped’ (SubodhVarma, 2016).
It is in this overall context that the scientists ought to see their challenges unfolding. Given such a colossal lack of enthusiasm for science in the society, the governments of the day do not only treat science education and research in the country by the tip of their boots, but also get away with it. Despite the goal of spending 2% of the GDP on science research in the country as per the 2003 National Science Policy (Subodh Varma, 2016), the present Modi government, in its very first budget further cut down the allocation for science research which had already been stagnating at .9% of the GDP for about a decade. Worse still, the ‘Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister’ which had served as a crucial link between the scientific community and the government, was also dissolved (Prasad R, 2015).
So a situation has emerged where in given the resource crunch, there is increasing “competition” among more and more scientists for an ever shrinking pie of the cake; and even this pie is not for anyone to have.To be able to partake in this “competition” you first need to be employed; and if employed, then the need for security of tenure. Further, the rewards are selectively awarded to the chosen ones from among those who manage to get into the system. Scientific capability may just be one of the criterions for this, i.e. if at all. Resultantly, a young scientist, from the day s/he gets on to the system is compelled by an unwritten, un-codified ethic of nepotism to keep the right people in the right places in good humor, and therein the very first condition for a meaningful scientific enquiry – a fearless and forthright questioning of the things as they stand, gets compromised. Funding is just the first hurdle, there are many more to contend with – bureaucratic red-tapism, departmental politics and the politics of publishing in scientific journals etc. What should be the incentive to the scientist – should it be individualized or should it be socialized?
Last but not the least is the question of who appropriates the fruits of this labor of science – humanity at large of which the individual scientist is a part, the individual scientist or the private capital which can afford to buy the scientist’s patent and maximize the profits there of? Should the scientists not have a say in answering all of these questions, especially as these are vital to making or unmaking the meaning of their labor. And as stated earlier, due to increasing control of private capital over science, the space for scientists not only to exercise control over their expertise and area of research, but also the usage of its outcomes is fast shrinking. But as of date the processes necessary for answering these questions are almost invisible in the public realm. This however does not mean that the decisions are not being taken on these vital issues; this only implies that in the absence of a robust contestation from the side of the scientists and the people at large, these issues get decided in a manner where in the larger public good becomes incidental to and subservient to accomplishment of the interests of the powers that be.
To think that the issues which seemingly appear to be beyond the power of an individual scientist to resolve, are then the issues that are best left to the whims and fancies of the mandarins and their political masters would amount to an unprincipled surrender. This would amount to the perpetuation of the malaise as is evident today. Neither can the solutions come by way of being holed up in the labs. Scientists need to realize that the adversarial challenges posed to them are essentially political in nature. These adversities are launched from the launch pad of the current economic, social, cultural and political makeup of the society. Additionally, science has to increasingly deal with a universe which has increasingly become a creation of humankind itself, which implies that the phenomenon at the center of our enquiry may not readily lend themselves to being reduced to well defined and quantifiable measurements. There shall increasingly be a qualitative dimension to unraveling of such phenomenon.
For the purposes of illustration, one may examine the recent advances in biotechnology research especially that of genetic engineering and genetic screening. It is well argued that these new technologies have the potential to significantly alter the basic frameworks for organizing life and the organisms in nature. This makes it imperative for a change of perspective in respect of the conditions of moral judgment and actions that were previously considered unalterable. For Francis Fukuyama (2003: 193) such new technologies which are most likely to lead to limitless possibilities of alterations will be by and large directed towards fulfilling utilitarian ends. These ends can be reduced to a few categories of pain, pleasure and autonomy, at the expense of ineffable human qualities like genius, or ambition or sheer diversity. In India, the debate on implications of biotechnologies on human beings and their ethical underside is nascent. However with regards to agriculture, especially Bt. Cotton, the debate has been fierce and socially divisive.
All of these facts militate in favor of an increasing engagement between the natural and the social sciences, apart from the determinism that it is only through engagement of these two branches of science that we can overcome the impediments to making science a social force at the head of human development. Last but not the least, to borrow it from the words of J D Bernal, let us not forget that – “The starving of research of potential human value is but one step removed from the starving of man” (Bernal J D, 1938).
This situation needs to be remedied, and there is a need to initiate a vigorous dialogue on these aspects in order to focus the country’s attention to the need for reinvigoration of science. Obviously, this dialogue cannot be conducted within the confines of individual disciplinary boundaries in the nature of conferences that are organized to discuss and share the latest advancements in respective disciplines. The dialogue has to be of a kind that not only speaks to other disciplines but speaks across disciplines. Above all, the dialogue has to center stage the theme of how science and even more, a ‘scientific temperament’ are crucial to not only overcome the present challenges to ensuring the wellbeing of humanity, but also for taking the human race to the next stage of development of society. By implication then there has also to be a serious dialogue regarding the impediments to the development of science and scientific temperament in the country; the numerous difficulties being faced by scientists regarding funding of research or their work environment and the social and political origins of these difficulties; what needs to be done to overcome these difficulties and last but not the least to emphasize the relevance of this endeavor to human wellbeing. There is also a need to have a realistic assessment of India’s scientific traditions and the factors that impacted these traditions. There is no doubt that a civilization as old and as culturally productive as India could not but have made an important contribution to the development of science historically; however, there is a need to separate the ‘myth’ from the ‘reality’, and to avoid unsubstantiated claims.
The author would like to acknowledge the valuable inputs received from Dr Jyoti Bhosale, Assistant Professor, Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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