Will Indian Scientific Temper Survive 2021?

Illustration: Satwik Gade for The Wire.

2020 was a disaster year for almost everyone – but it was a unique opportunity for Indian science. An oft-neglected enterprise, it received unprecedented attention as scientists tried to innovate in the diagnostics, treatment and vaccine spaces. Taken together, this was an opportunity to demonstrate India’s capabilities and expertise – not just for a domestic audience but the international one as well.

The obstacles 2020 brought were a ladder for Indian science to rise up to a leadership position and become a driver of the Indian economy.

But opacity, ambiguity and distrust have squandered this opportunity. Only two weeks into 2021 and India has claimed a major casualty – scientific temper – and the suspects are not the usual zealots or the so-called “lay people” but the very custodians of the ‘temple’ of science.

Article 51A of the Indian Constitution recommends scientific temper as a constitutional duty of India’s citizens. This clause by itself is confounding, as it seems to contravene another of the Constitution’s tenets. The Constitution bestows the liberty of faith and belief to Indian citizens, and asking people to shed this liberty is incorrect.

Yet we often like to see India’s citizens question their beliefs, and scientists and science enthusiasts have rallied to demand more scientific temper in the country. Irrespective of Constitutional entitlements, one expects scientists to be the custodians of the scientific temper and to practice what they preach. It is their responsibility to demonstrate the practice of scientific temper and scientific method for the people at large to imbibe.

Three incidents in the short span of 2021 have broken up this idea: approval for the Covaxin and Covishield vaccine candidates; the cow science examination; and the (draft) Science Technology and Innovation Policy 2020. Instead of using these opportunities to reaffirm faith in Indian science, the government and scientists have tried to impose their own will – without accountability – on the people. Doing so is a great disservice and, in my opinion, criminal — not just to the people but to science as well.

Also read: Dear Health Ministry – Do You Know What Good Science Is?

The COVID-19 vaccine approval process has been opaque, ambiguous and questionable. But the Drug Controller General of India refused to answer questions and the decision-making remains shrouded in secrecy. We don’t know who all constituted the subject expert committee that recommended the vaccine candidates for approval or the data that the candidates’ makers presented to secure it.

The process by itself has been shoddy – but well-educated experts labelling those demanding transparency as “anti-nationals” or “anti-vaxxers” has really hit the nail in the scientific temper coffin. Instead of building trust by releasing information about the approval process, the government and scientists have asked people to blindly trust them, and have been offended when that trust was not given.

If scientists can’t provide evidence for their claims, on what grounds do we expect the people to dismantle their faith in their rituals and traditions?

This communication debacle comes on the heels of other opaque approval processes for COVID-19 diagnostics and treatments, such as hydroxychloroquine and remdesivir. It is therefore not surprising that the Central Council for Research in Ayurvedic Sciences had written to the Indian Medical Association demanding why modern medicine can be allowed to employ drugs without providing necessary evidence, but AYUSH interventions get questioned.

The debate here is not whether one branch of medicine is better, but the fact that all claims – irrespective of their roots – need to provide evidence.

In another unscientific incident, the Kamadhenu Rashtriya Aayog has released information material for their proposed Cow Science Examination. The reading material has minimal actual data and references, but is sprinkled with claims and opinions without any evidentiary backing. This exam on cow “science” does not acknowledge the need to provide participants with references that can be used to verify the claims made in the document. Again, the dubious claims are one part of the problem, but the audacity to expect students to unflinchingly believe them without the need to provide data is another beast all together.

Finally, all through 2020 scientists and science enthusiasts huddled in groups to envision a future for Indian science. Their thoughts were condensed in the Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2020 – a draft vision document that has been released for public consultation.

In contrast to previous incidents, the STIP 2020 must be credited with making the contributors known and providing sufficient time for public comments. But a document of this nature has to be held to higher standards of scientific scrutiny. It presents a grand design of the future of Indian science but fails to give details about hurdles, implementation and funding. It doesn’t introspect on the failures of previous STIP documents or identify gaps that need immediate attention.

Also read: New Draft S&T Policy Overestimates India’s Aptitude, Potential for Science Success

And much like the other processes, it fails to provide data on the current landscape of Indian science or metrics that will be followed to gauge implementation of the current vision. STIP 2020 is utopian in its vision, but does disservice to the Indian people by foregoing details that would make its implementation and feasibility understandable.

So in the first fifteen days of 2021, Indian science has been let down by its stately custodians. A number of scientists have spoken up against this travesty – yet they remain in the minority. For Indian science to truly advance, we need more transparency, clarity and accountability from our science leaders. 2021 will see politicisation of scientific breakthroughs, vaccine nationalism and plenty of unfounded scientific claims. The question is – will scientific temper see through this deluge and make a comeback?

Shambhavi Naik is a research fellow at the Takshashila Institution. She has a PhD in cancer biology from the University of Leicester.

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