Has Indian Science Congress become a shadow of its glorious past?

ISC has been increasingly making headlines for speakers' controversial remarks

harsh-vardhan-isc-hawking Dr Harsh Vardhan [left] said Stephen Hawking had said the Vedas have a theory that is superior to Albert Einstein's famous equation E = mc^2 | File

Did Dr Harsh Vardhan, Union minister for Science and Technology, commit a faux pas at the ongoing Indian Science Congress on Friday? Or were his comments a deliberate attempt at drawing some eyeballs to an event that has had no star attraction this year?

The minister, at the inauguration of the conference, said Stephen Hawking, the science genius who passed away a few days earlier, had said the Vedas have a theory that is superior to Albert Einstein's famous equation E = mc^2. Later, at an interaction with the press, when the minister was asked for the source of his Hawking remark, he remained cryptic.

The minister also tweeted in a similar vein, saying every custom and ritual of Hinduism is steeped in science, every modern Indian achievement is continuation of our ancient scientific achievement. It didn't take long for people to hit Google search, and conclude the minister's nugget can be traced to a site—

The remark, however, resulted in garnering the much needed attention to the 105th chapter of the Indian Science Congress that was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Imphal on Friday. The ISC is usually inaugurated on January 3 by the prime minister, and is traditionally, the first official engagement of the PM in the new year. Though the congress itself goes back to pre-independent days, the PM's association with the event harkens back to the Nehruvian ideal of using science as a development tool.

In the years since Independence, Indian science, and more importantly, technology, has progressed. In fact, India is a world leader in affordable technology, and its low cost but effective missions to the Moon and Mars have received much appreciation. India made advances in disease control, developing vaccines for rota virus, and even the low cost Jaipur foot prosthesis. Agriculture scientists are researching on developing lines of crops that are resistant to changing climate and soil patterns. Indian scientists have found superconductivity in substances not known to be traditional superconductivity candidates. They have probed the planets, understanding why the sunspots disappear occasionally.

Rarely, if at all, do these achievements find mention in the speeches of ministers. The present lot of ministers, in particular, are so busy finding Vedic links to any development that they have totally overlooked the achievements of the scientists around us. Many of these scientists have chosen to return to India, leaving behind better prospects abroad. But they remain largely unsung.

Occasionally, there pops up on the scene someone like Manjul Bhargava, who gives a rockstar appeal to his speciality. (Bhargava is a Fields Medal winner, the highest laurel for mathematics). Bhargava, once while speaking to this correspondent, himself rued the attention he got in India while there were so many mathematicians in Indian institutes who had solved complex mathematical problems, but were little known beyond their own circle.

Nevertheless, the ISC is increasingly proving to be an event that is losing relevance, and it is only some shocking remark that draws any kind of attention to its existence. This year, the congress first made news when its venue and schedule were changed at the eleventh hour. It was to be held in Hyderabad, but because of several reasons, the organisers could not hold it there. Imphal was chosen as the next venue, and the timing shifted to March.

If the aim was to bring in leading names in sciences to the cut-off north eastern state capital, that was not to be. Most Nobel laureates and star speakers plan their schedules at least six months in advance. January is the time they have their semester breaks, also a time when they plan India tours. This year's congress is marked by the absence of any star speaker. Neither is there a single plenary sessions. These two were the big draws at the conference, the rest of which is the reading out of papers within their own communities.

At plenary sessions, students often get to interact with scientists from ISRO and the atomic energy department. These were jam packed sessions, the one true way of breaking barriers between scientists and the general public. Similarly, the talks by Nobel laureates, usually in the evenings, at the grand open air theatres, were lively events, with lots of question-answers being volleyed between audience and speaker.

The Imphal session, however, did not even get a sampling of this. Instead, it had the science and technology minister making strange utterances.

The first science congress under the present NDA government, held in 2015, is only remembered for the controversies it raked. There was a man called Anand Bodas, who popped up suddenly before the conference, and has disappeared without a trace since. Bodas gave a talk on aviation in the Vedic period. He showed a drawing of aircraft that looked like castles, and followed no rules of aerodynamics. He also suggested that over 9,000 years ago, ancient Indians were space farers, and even did interplanetary travels in suits that were not just suited to all these conditions, but were virus proof as a bonus.

Harsh Vardhan, who had taken charge of the ministry only days earlier back then, said ancient Indians had developed the Pythagoras theorem and algebra and very “sophisticatedly given them away to the Greeks and Arabs”. Though not entirely wrong, the minister's comments diluted the scientific temper of a meet that would anyway progress onto bizarre flights of fancy with the entry of Bodas.

Modi, just weeks before that particular event, had remarked that Indians pioneered reconstructive surgery, citing Ganesha's example, and drew much ridicule. The prime minister has since learnt to be a little more careful with his words in scientific circles at least.

With the latest turn of events, his science and technology minister, too, needs to understand that if you have nothing to say, it is better not to.