Sunday, October 26, 2008

Indian Science Congress: A waste of time?

Over at Lab Rats, Mint science reporter Jacob Koshy asks: Is the Indian Science Congress "a waste of time"? He links to this Indian Express story which quotes Prof. C.N.R. Rao (Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister) as saying, "“I am sorry to say so but the Science Congress has become more of a mela. ... I have become frustrated with it. I have my research to attend to and decided to stay away.”

I have never been to the ISC, but I know a few people who have. Here are some impressions (please add your perspectives in the comments):

  1. ISC lacks focus. Take, for example, ISC-2008 [pdf] held in Visakhapatnam. Its scientific agenda runs from transport systems to traditional and complimentary [sic] medicine to nanotechnology to linkages with social sciences to training the trainers. With such a broad coverage, you are lucky to find a few scientists whose work is of some relevance to yours. When travel money is so scarce, you would rather go to more focused conferences in your own field.

  2. It lacks focus in other ways, too. It tries to serve too many constituencies: politicians, researchers, college teachers, school teachers, and all kinds of students (graduate, undergraduate, high school, and in some cases, even primary school). I'm not even including journalists and the general public. There's no way it can please everyone; I get the impression that it manages piss everyone off!

  3. Since the Prime Minister attends this event (and makes a keynote speech), it attracts a whole bunch of science administrators and politicians. Their presence, in turn, attracts a bigger bunch of toadies people whose primary interest is in being seen in the company of biggies at the ISC. Science gets sidelined.

  4. ISC does have a few scientifically focused sessions, put together by leading scientists who lean on their friends to come and present their work. But these sessions are a sideshow.

  5. All of which are different ways of saying ISC privileges politicians -- of the regular kind and of the science kind -- over scientists and science. The conference organizers' primary interest is in pleasing the former. In the process, scientists get slighted -- for example, their lectures take place not in the posh plenary auditorium, but in shabby halls with poor audiovisual facilities -- and come away with strong feelings of disgust.

ISC does serve a useful function: ceremony and celebration. It's a platform for recognizing scientists through awards and prizes. But even this crucial function is not being done well. Consider, for example, the India Science Prize, which is like a science Bharat Ratna with cash. Given the prestige associated with it, you might think that this Prize would be taken seriously. Well, you would be wrong: the first Prize went to Prof. C.N.R. Rao in 2004; and then, um, it went into a coma!

Bottomline: It's true that many serious scientists avoid going to the ISC. Even those who do go, do so because of pressure from administrators or because they are among the prize-winners. Over the years, I think even the politicians have caught on to the growing irrelevance of the ISC; the PM's participation appears half-hearted. I cannot recall any major science policy speech made at the ISC in the past decade.