The academies of the indifferent

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The controversial Bt Brinjal report begs a question: are our science academies living up to their prestige, wonders Samrat Chakrabarti

Illustration: Samia Singh

EARLIER THIS month, six of India’s science and technology academies presented a joint report giving their verdict on Bt Brinjal, saying it is safe for human consumption. The report ran into major trouble, including accusations of blatant plagiarism (paragraphs copied from a pro-GM lobby’s report, for instance) and bias. But in the ensuing scandal, a larger issue was left unaddressed.

A science academy is a prestigious fellowship of scientists. To become a fellow of a science academy is a career highlight, much aspired for and rarely attained. One of the most important functions of an academy — if one were to take a cue from say the Royal Society in England or the US National Academy of Sciences — is to engage proactively in the public debates of the day. Debates in which a scientific perspective can steer the nation’s future.

But it took a government request for Indian science academies to offer an opinion on transgenic crops. They did not speak up when there were demonstrations, dharnas and bitter rhetoric surrounding Bt Brinjal in February this year. Or earlier when Murli Manohar Joshi, as education minister, introduced astrology as a BA and BSc course in our colleges. Or on Nuclear Energy or on the Bhopal gas verdict.

P Balram, director, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, perhaps is representative of those who have, startlingly, never even imagined such a role for the academies, “The Indian science academies have never traditionally played an advisory role to the government or been involved in contentious public debates. I cannot say why this is the case.” Syed Hasnain, member of the Scientific Advisory Council to the PM agrees with the need for the academies to take a more proactive role. He then goes on to say soothingly that he has no doubt that the best minds have applied themselves fully to the Bt Brinjal issue in the report, but contradicts himself when he adds “they should have given a hearing to the other view and responded to it based on objective scientific reasons.”

FACED WITH this lack of ambition and imagination, it is easy to empathise with the irritated Dr Bhargava, former founder director for the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad. He resigned from three science academies, finding them “undemocratic structures, intellectually and socially sterile”. He says, “If they haven’t engaged with the people all these years, what are they good for? What I didn’t expect when I resigned is the number of letters congratulating me for having taken a stand.” The latest Bt Brinjal report has enraged him afresh for its substandard quality. “I used to think the country would not lose anything if these academies disappeared. Now I think the people of India might actually gain from it.”

The culprit is a ‘chalta hai’ attitude. Scientists treat the academies as a part-time job, says KL Chopra of Society for Scientific Values

KL Chopra, president of the Society for Scientific Values (SSV) and also a fellow of Indian National Science Academy, tries to explain why our academies are so slack. “The academy has fellows who are as good as anyone else in the world. The major culprit is a‘chalta hai’ attitude. They treat it as a part-time honorary job. They’re not being scientists when they occupy that position.”

In the larger context of the role of the science academies, they should be reminded that a scientist is not an island circumscribed by the boundaries of his lab. His duties extend beyond, to the debates occurring in the street corners of the society of which he is both a part and a product. To fail to see this is to have reduced his position to that of a mere technician.

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