October 28, 2015

India's three scientific academies have for the first time spoken out about growing irrationality and intolerance

The Telegraph - 28 October 2015

'Sad', science stands up to be counted

G.S. Mudur

New Delhi, Oct. 27: India's three scientific academies have for the first time spoken out about growing irrationality and intolerance in the country, contributing to a crescendo of concerns that have until now emerged largely from the community of humanities.

An inter-academy panel on ethics in science has said the Constitution demands allegiance to scientific temper that, the council said, encompasses rationality, rights and responsibility in equal measure.

"We note with sadness and growing anxiety several statements and actions that run counter to this constitutional requirement of every citizen," the five-member panel said in a statement.

Also called the "Committee of Elders", the panel represents three bodies: the Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi, the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore, and the National Academy of Sciences, Allahabad. The country's most accomplished, influential and respected scientists are fellows of the three academies.

The panel, quoting Rabindranath Tagore's poem, Where the mind is without fear, has issued an appeal to "all sections of Indian society" to raise their voice against acts of irrationality and intolerance.

Many scientists view the panel's move, coming amid a chorus of similar concerns expressed by sections of writers and members of the Sahitya Akademi, as significant because the scientific academies have rarely articulated positions over social issues.

"What has been happening is extremely disturbing - the killings of rationalists, the spread of unfounded rumours," said Indira Nath, a panel member and a senior immunologist, formerly with the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi.

"Our statement is not intended to be against any political party or against any government, it is intended to remind everyone that it is important to adopt a scientific temper and engage in rational thinking," Nath told The Telegraph.

In another initiative, several senior scientists, some of whom are fellows of the academies, have circulated among themselves a draft statement to protest against the "climate of intolerance" and the erosion of science and reason in the country.

The draft, shared with this newspaper, condemns the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaque in Dadri and the murders of rationalists M.M. Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare. It describes the incidents as signals of "rejection of reason".

The draft, prepared by the scientists but not released yet, says: "We scientists now join our voices (with those of writers and others) to assert that the Indian people will not accept such attacks on reason, science, and our plural culture. We reject the destructive narrow view of India that seeks to dictate what people will wear, think, eat, and who they will love."

The draft has described Indian civilisation as truly plural. "We have always had many practices and communities that have allowed space for each other, we celebrate the festivals and anniversaries of all faiths. This unity and peace has now been disturbed by a rash of bigoted acts that show no signs of abating," it said.

A member of the three-academy panel said the decision to issue a statement stemmed from discussions among the members. "We're all very concerned about what is going on," Mamannamana Vijayan, a molecular biophysicist at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, said. "We felt this has to be done, we have to say what we feel."

The three scientific academies have over the past decade collaborated on issues primarily related to science and education. Six years ago, an inter-academy panel had proposed the introduction of flexible, four-year college undergraduate courses to allow students to choose from a bouquet of subjects. But senior scientists do not recall the three academies - even through an inter-academy panel - uniting to articulate an issue connected to societal thinking.

The academies had remained silent in 2001 when the University Grants Commission - the National Democratic Alliance was in power at the Centre then - proposed the introduction of astrology as an undergraduate course in Indian universities.

Pushpa Bhargava, a senior biologist and former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, had filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the UGC's proposal on astrology. "But I did it alone, although some scientists had similar concerns, the academies did not speak out," Bhargava said today.

Dorairajan Balasubramanian, the chair of the inter-academy panel on ethics and a biologist, said: "We've selected Tagore's poem because it beautifully captures the essence of scientific temper."

Members of the scientific community have also launched an online petition articulating similar concerns. "A highly polarised community is like a nuclear bomb close to criticality. It can explode any time and drive the nation to utter chaos," the petition already signed by over 130 scientists has said.