It’s time to democratise science in India

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n Shiv Visvanathan
One of my great disappointments with science in India has been with the role of the national academies. Academies as representing the best of the profession should be conversant with both the logic of inner competence and the wider relations between science and society. The history of Indian academies has been generally dismal. The academies have become more sites of internal war between scientific factions like the Raman and Saha groups than efforts to add a sense of vocation to the profession. In fact, the academies split into factions representing regional interests rather than pursuing the interests of the profession. When Jairam Ramesh was minister for environment, he requested various academies to produce a report on biotechnology and agriculture. What he got was a piece of plagiarism filched from some piece of corporate reporting. The irony was not lost on the peasant and other social movements who did their best to put their scientific evidence forward. The contrast was stark. The academies were playing plagiarist while the laymen were seeking to sustain scientific argument.
Of late, things have been improving. The Indian Science Academy in Bengaluru has not only allowed its journal Current Science to be a focus for open debate, but is creating another journal to debate the links between science policy and society. As a professional initiative of its current president, this move is a welcome one. In fact, Ramakrishna Ramaswamy has been not only an outstanding mathematician, but, as a university don, deeply concerned with the fate of the university. Mr Ramaswamy’s understanding of institutions is an acute one and his stands have been courageous. A recent speech he gave about the future of the university was moving and worrying as the current regime tries to paralyse the everyday functioning of research. The BJP’s misunderstanding of science stems not merely from its misreading of ancient science, which is bad scholarship, but from its incapacity to understand the research process as a continuous system which needs money and norms to sustain both discipline and curiosity. The tragedy of the Indian university has reached pathetic proportions as both the syllabus and research system go out of its control.
In this context, the academy’s attempt to produce a document outlining a research code for science is welcome. The ethics document as an exercise is a beginning and one hopes that it becomes a template for a richer and more complex document. One also hopes it opens a conversation between science and civil society. I realise that professional autonomy is a crucial part of a framework of ethics but the threat here is not from the people, but from a state. In fact, the BJP regime’s confusion of science and technology, and its attempt to create big science as a state spectacle destroys the little autonomies and diversities of science, which accounts for its many-sided creativity.
A debate, a conversation between science and society about ethics is essential. First, science is a part of a wider culture of rationality and reason, which the citizen must engage in. The roots of science, the logic of research, the interaction between science and technology after the industrial revolution needs to be understood. A citizen has to be involved in science and be sensitive to it. The interaction becomes more urgent as development projects like large dams, urban planning are foisted in the name of science. It is in the interest of the scientist to also participate, not only because science is no longer commons, but a peace of intellectual property. It is also subject to the constraints of corporate distortion, specially in medical research, and to the secrecy and security of defence research. Two things become urgently necessary to include within an ethical framework of science. An important set of guarantees has to be arranged both for the scientist as a dissenting imagination and as a whistleblower. Second, Indian science has to help revive the Pugwash movement against war. Pugwash, incidentally, as a conference, was set to begin in India. One needs to revive a new version of the Russel-Einstein manifesto.
One realises scientific ethics has a broad and narrow template. The narrower strand focuses on method and data, its integrity, replicability, focusing on issues of competence and the threat to plagiarism. The pressure to publish has also created an epidemic of secondary, second-rate journals, which is emasculating quality science. The wider framework deals with issues of sustainability, peace, responsibility, access and intellectual property, where the scientist can no longer behave like an intellectual island. One needs to build life-sustaining models where science needs an understanding of itself beyond cost-benefit analysis. It has to consider the recent debates on the democratisation of knowledge and interrogate the conventional ideas about expertise, which is often another word for specialist illiteracy or Promethean hubris. The linkage between science and defence is imposing a cage of secrecy and irresponsibility around science where a cosmopolitan, ethical science has to transcend the narrowness and parochiality of national interest. One has been lucky in recent decades that science has produced a tradition of great dissenters like chemist Linus Pauling, paediatrician Benjamin Spock and linguist Noam Chomsky. Science desperately needs such dissenting imaginations not only to challenge the state but to challenge a statist science. Turkey’s attempt to remove the discoveries and debates about evolutionary theory from textbooks should be a warning.
Intellectually and cognitively, science has to cease being a hegemonic system and confront the reality of other knowledge and even the possibility of alternative sciences. Not all of the latter can be reduced to racial science or the ideology of Lysenkoism, which Stalin used to hunt down scientists like Nikolai Vavilov.
Fortunately, the opening of such questions came both from scientific movements lead by Desmond Bernal and Joseph Needham, but also from one of the great interdisciplinary creations which has helped create an exciting field called science studies. The work of scholars like Thomas Kuhn, Martin Bernal, Bruno Latour, Sheila Jasanoff, Ziauddin Sardar and Ashis Nandy have added to a more textured and nuanced understanding of pluralist science. Any sense of ethics has to understand limits, uncertainty and complexity and the scientist’s responsibility for working under such cognitive conditions. The opening-up of science studies in India and the attempts to build a framework of scientific ethics creates a possibility for democratising science, making it more responsible. India has always had rich traditions of debate. Today, as a society, we need to explore these wider questions without getting caught in a fetishized attitude to IT or biotechnology. The time is ripe in India to question medical ethics, to interrogate nuclear energy, to intensify the understanding of ethics in nanotechnology and the creativity of ecology. A democracy that leaves science alone will not remain democratic for long.
Shiv Visvanathan is professor, Jindal Global Law School and director, Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems, O.P. Jindal Global University

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