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  • Indian Science Congress tries to go inclusive in its 100th year

As the annual Indian Science Congress marks its centenary this month (3–7 January) the relevance of its present 'inclusive' form is being questioned, reports Archita Bhatta.

[KOLKATA] "Few practising scientists of note consider the  (Indian science) Congress as an important event," Padmanabhan Balaram wrote in an editorial published in the 10 December issue of Current Science – conceived at the 1932 Congress and now India’s best-known scientific journal.

Pushp Mohan Bhargava, founder-director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, agrees: "I used to regularly attend the Congress. But now I rarely go. Few serious scientists attend the Congress because they do not get anything from it." 

Bhargava added that the technical sessions are poorly attended and authors presenting papers lose interest because of the lack of a serious audience.

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According to Mazhuvancherry Unnikrishnan, professor of pharmaceutical sciences, Manipal University, the congress was started at a time when there were few conferences, whereas today scientists can pick subject-specific meets where their papers get better audiences and response.

Geetha Bali, vice-chancellor, Karnataka State Women’s University, Bijapur, president of the 99th Congress, does not agree that interest in the event is waning. "It is attended by people who practice science for the larger good of society."

The shift in focus to inclusivity has direct bearing on the quality of papers presented at the congress in recent years.

Quality of papers overlooked

"There is a requirement for rigorous review of papers that are submitted at the congress," says Asis Dutta, professor of eminence at the National Institute of Plant Genomics, Delhi, and president of the 2004 Congress. "Quality has to be judged before they are accepted for presentation."

"Quality is overlooked because few high-quality papers are received," says Bhargava. "Authors are not keen on sending their papers to the conference because they feel that the papers will not get due recognition."

Unnikrishnan blames lack of specialised audiences for the poor quality of papers presented at the congress.

"Science can be discussed only between peers," says Unnikrishnan. "For example, it is almost impossible for a neurologist to talk about his work to an automobile engineer."

While each meet does have a focused theme, Unnikrishnan believes that they "do not seem to have an academic impact." 

Bali agrees that the meet does not showcase quality papers. "But then the congress aims to improve papers through discussions and deliberations and not exclude them by raising the quality bar too high."

Shift in target audience

Given the stress on inclusivity, the target of the congress seems to have shifted from the original objective of boosting research to popularising science.

The Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA) was originally conceived 'to advance and promote the cause of science in India' by British chemists J. L. Simonsen and P.S. MacMahon. They felt that an annual meeting of researchers, on the lines of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, could stimulate scientific research in India.

However, during the silver jubilee celebrations in 1988, the activities of ISCA were diversified to include the generation of scientific temper and popularisation of science.

In order to compensate for the flagging interest of scientists in India's only interdisciplinary science conference, organisers seem to be focusing on attracting more common people and school students.

At a regional science meet, organised 27–28 November 2012 in Delhi, most of the attendees were students who showed keen interest in learning about the latest developments in science.

"We get to know what has already been found through books. Here we expect to learn about ongoing research," said Pali Singh of Delhi Public School, Rajnagar, a school in the National Capital Region (NCR) of Delhi.

Balaram believes that the fact that the congress generates media interest reflects its popularity with ordinary people. "The science congress is the only congregation of scientists in India that attracts media attention," Balaram said in his editorial in Current Science.

So is the congress gradually turning into a science communication jamboree? "In order to do that, we need good communicators among scientists participating in the Congress," Bhargava says. "Unfortunately, that is also not happening."

Bhargava's frustration was echoed by a class 11 student of Ahlcon Public School in the NCR. "If the organisers are calling for the participation of school students, the papers should be presented in a manner in which we can understand them."

Forum for deliberating scientific decisions

Despite the lack of seriousness with which the scientific community sees the congress today, leaders in science are trying to preserve its role as a place to deliberate on science policies.

The congress had earlier deliberated crucial issues like setting up a department of biotechnology and the environment department, said a former officer of the department of science and technology.  

" (The Indian) science congress may not be an option for the serious scientist who wants to discuss his favourite theories," said Unnikrishnan. "Yet, it can be useful as a forum for hobnobbing with policy makers, getting to know the priorities of the government, the way funds are being allocated and trends in science administration." 

 "It is a forum for gleaning the 'big picture' which is important for emerging leaders in science," Unnikrishnan added.

Scientists concur that instances of fruitful discussions on science policy are becoming rare at the congresses. "This is mainly because the management of the congress usually does not fall into the most efficient hands," Bhargava says. 

Dutta agrees. "The quality of the congress largely depends on the quality of the organisers," he said.

Leaders in the scientific community are making their best efforts to preserve the role of the Congress as a place to deliberate on policy. "The first technical session of this year’s Congress is on science policy," Bali says.

A precedent is likely to be set at the present congress through the planned release of a new science, technology and innovation policy. 

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