Recently, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) of the Government of India initiated consultations to formulate the Science Technology and Innovation Plan (STIP) 2020. The DST has said the process will be wide-ranging and split into four ‘interrelated tracks’.
The consultations began with track 1 ‘public and expert’ meetings organised through the Science Policy Forum. DST organised 16 panels on science communication, climate change, ethics, etc. The experts invited onto the panels were well-known scientists, bureaucrats, corporate leaders, heads of educational institutions and journalists.
These discussions and consultations are no doubt important considering India is attempting to draft a new science policy within seven years. The last one was adopted in 2013.
However, there is one group that studies and ‘follows’ science but has been conspicuous by absence from all panels – even from those that really merited their presence. Specifically, it is quite disappointing that not a single historian, philosopher and sociologist of science, and members of social and ecological movements or even social scientists was involved in any of the Science Policy Forum’s 16 panel discussions.
This is not the place to elaborate the reasons for including historians, philosophers and sociologists. But it should suffice to say that any serious science policy consultations process must engage with the ideas of those who offer a critical view on the workings of science and technology, and their interaction with society.
It’s also quite reasonable to suggest that a philosopher of science should be part of a discussion on ethics, or that a sociologist should be part of a discussion on diversity. There are many scholars – both young and more experienced – involved in ‘science studies’ who have much to offer to a new science policy. But by not engaging with them, India’s science establishment is skipping an opportunity to make the consultative process epistemologically inclusive.
A method of this nature is not without precedence. In Germany, for example, multiple stakeholders – including the public – are active participants in science policymaking. Even the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic allows us an opportunity to highlight a few issues concerning science policy that will benefit from a perspective from social and historical studies of the sciences.
As the pandemic got worse in India, we saw governments hurrying to hire epidemiologists – pointing to an acute shortage of trained personnel to handle the epidemic. At that time, questions were asked as to why governments hadn’t recruited epidemiologists in the ordinary course of things and needed a pandemic to force their hands. It was a planning failure for public health by policymakers and political leaders.
But then, why did policymakers ignore epidemiology as an area at all? Why don’t governments focus on hiring epidemiologists in the way they do for defence research? Could it be because epidemiology is less ‘sexy’ than, say, space science? Do governments feel that spending on public health would accrue to itself much less prestige than developing a missile? Considering the unsaid hierarchy in research areas within science, will funding in the post-pandemic world be disproportionately allocated to building more accurate mathematical models of disease spread, against the interests of epidemiology research?
These are just some questions that social scientists have been asking, and could have at the consultations as well.
Many observers have hailed the Kerala model as a success in dealing with a pandemic. This model is an example of successful public-funded healthcare as well as of social solidarity and political decentralisation. And it offers simple lessons for policymakers: citizens need to be empowered and informed for better and more effective implementation of policy.
Indeed, the nature of society itself makes a big difference in whether a policy will succeed or fail. So if the views of those who are engaged in the study of society and science, technology and policymaking are ignored, we only undermine science, technology and innovation policy.
Even when a vaccine comes along for the novel coronavirus, we are not sure the people at large will widely accept it. Will everyone see it as a magic pill? Or what if it prompts an anti-vaccine movement in India? Where do anti-vaccine beliefs come from? We must turn to the sociologists of science for answers.
The exclusion of this group of scholars is hard to justify as an accident. The reasons are likelier to lie in the realm of under-confidence in the science establishment of our country to engage with views critical of science and how scientists think about science.
In the 1930s, when scientists in the UK – like Joseph Needham, J.D. Bernal and others – were setting up the discipline of ‘history of science’, they believed studying it is essential to understanding the contemporary practice of science. This legacy and thinking was brought into Indian science policy thinking by A. Rahman, who tried to institutionalise it by establishing the National Institute Science Technology and Development Studies.
Current members of India’s science establishment would do well, in turn, to take a leaf out of the book of this chapter in history. A crisis that seeks a solution from science is a social crisis – so solutions that science will provide will inevitably become complexly entangled with society. Involving those who study such relationships will only make STIP 2020 more robust and egalitarian.
Note: This article’s headline was changed at 8 am on July 15, 2020, from ‘Why Have the Govt’s S&T Innovation Plan Consultations Left Out Social Scientists?’.
Omprasad is a researcher in history of science and science and politics. He did his PhD in the history of science from JNU. He tweets at @omprasad_14.