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Sciences to the fore!

Review of the many seminal addresses delivered over the years on the occasion of Uttrakhand Science Congress, reflecting on changing problems and seeking common solutions

Sciences to the fore!

Privileges and challenges go together. One advantage of being the Director of the Academy is the number of invites to deliver inaugural and valedictory addresses across the country on a range of issues – for administration and governance is connected to everything. In recent weeks, for example, yours truly has been invited to seminars ranging from India's 'Look East Policy' to 'Technology in Governance' and 'Remembering our Grandmothers in the age of Patriarchy' and the Valedictory address to the 14th edition of the Uttarakhand State Science and Technology Congress.

Let me also confess candidly that I enjoy preparing for these, as each subject gives me an opportunity to connect the dots, reflect on whatever I have read on this issue in the recent past, looking up the contemporary writings and discussions on the subject. The very eclectic range of books, journals and online resources at the Academy Library is a great advantage for whatever is legally accessible is now quite easy to access. However, the challenge is to find information that is relevant and contextualizing it.

Last week, our library downloaded over sixty Presidential addresses delivered on the occasion of the Indian Science Congress, usually in the presence of the Prime Minister. Others are not readily available but we have established contact with the National Library and the Indian National Science Association office in Kolkata to place them all in one e-folder. What struck me is that the theme of each year's address reflects the dominant concern of the times, as well as the personality of the speaker. In themselves, themes have varied, from explorations in the world of space to health systems, excellence in science education, etc., but most of the session Presidents have addressed issues relating to agriculture, food systems, nutrition and of course, rural development. The one thing that stands out in most of the addresses is the frequent reference to quotations from the Upanishads, Vedas, Geeta and Tirrukal (if the conference is being held in the South). There is also a reference to the great achievements in sciences, arts, languages and philosophies at different times of our history. Others who are quoted very often are Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russel.

Let me dwell on some of these addresses. Addressing the 47th session of the Indian Science Congress in Bombay in 1960, Professor Parija chose to speak on the 'Impact of society on science' in his Presidential address: the implication being that whether we like it or not, political economy drives the way governments set their priorities and that a society cannot produce science in isolation. He drew our attention to the fact that while the potential of science is never in doubt, the decisions on where and how it is deployed makes all the difference.

In 1961, the Presidential address of Dr RN Dhar was on the nitrogen problem and it reflects how the Green Revolution technologies were moving into the country to address issues of agricultural production and productivity. The next session was held in Cuttack and Dr B Mukerji spoke about the 'Impact of life sciences on Man', but started by offering his tribute to Emperor Ashoka and the living tradition of Atharva Veda in Kalinga. A few years later, Professor Kothari spoke on 'Science and the Universities' and cautioned against the 'arrogance of knowledge' and suggested that a little humility and uncertainty would help science and scientists.

The next seminal address was given by then Education Minister, Hamayun Kabir, who did not have a degree in science but was a member of the committee which drafted the Preamble to the Constitution. He is also known to have steered the UDHR in 1948. In his address, 'Science and the State in India', he made two crucial points. The first was that the universities and research institutions did not speak to each other and the best of our scientists were migrating to the US and Europe, where the ecosystem was perhaps better. This calls for serious reflection, even in these days!

In the Diamond Jubilee year of the Association in 1973, the presidential address was on 'Sixty years of Science and Technology' and Dr Bhagvantam drew attention to work done by the various surveys – the Botanical Survey, the Zoological Survey, the Geological Survey, the Anthropological Survey. These were the first 'knowledge organisations' of India and collected all the data and base materials on which the universities could then build on. He also cautioned against following the US or the USSR model blindly. He asserted that "Our resources and traditions are different. Perhaps we can afford to be a little more Indian in identifying the solutions to our problems using the resources we have at hand."

Eleven years later, Dr Bambah's speech was on 'Quality Science in India'. By then, we had many universities and departments of science, besides of course IITs but somewhere along the line, the question remained, "Why are we not producing quality science and scientists?" The concern was that mediocrity was getting entrenched on account of the examination system. Fortunately, most institutors have moved on to a semester system and with online learning and project-based assessment, things are better.

At the turn of the century, Dr Manju Sharma, who later became the Secretary to the Government of India, addressed the Chennai edition of the Science Congress and invoked Sir CV Raman and quoted from his inaugural address at the Presidency College Madras in 1941, "History of science has shown that real, fundamental progress is always due to those who ignore the boundaries of science and had treated science as a whole". She spoke on the new Biosciences and the opportunities they afforded for the next century. In fact, she pioneered the positive partnerships between industry, research institutions and government.

She ended her address with two quotes from the Rig Veda:

….Suvigyanam chikiteshu janaya(the science of the highest quality is done by the learned and knowledgeable) and Vigyan va dhyanaad bhuyo (the work of science is more sacred than mediation).

The writer is the Director of LBSNAA and Honorary Curator, Valley of Words: Literature and Arts Festival, Dehradun. Views expressed are strictly personal

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