Science Conferences

Oh to be a scientist!

Print edition : July 31, 2020

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa and Union Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan at the inauguration of 107th Indian Science Congress in Bengaluru on January 3. Photo: K. MURALI_KUMAR

A demonstration by members of the Breakthrough Science Society outside the Indian Institute of Science campus against the unscientific claims made at the Indian Science Congress, in Bengaluru in January 2018. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Scientific conferences have become public relations exercises instead of functioning as spaces where scientific ideas are exchanged and new ideas encouraged.

As a teenager, when I had to make my career choices, science was a coveted stream. It did not promise a highly paid job then. A scientist was considered to be brilliant, hard-working, with no family time, and one who spent most of his time on the fields or in a dingy lab—definitely not a good choice for a groom. Things have definitely changed now, 80-odd years down the line. A scientist is a corporate man, especially if he heads a scientific organisation, with a plush office, a laptop, a state-of-the-art boardroom where he spends his time conducting meetings, and a liveried man to carry his briefcase around. He is the protagonist in an act called SCIENCE.

The present-day scientist is a rather impressive personality and demands respect. He is a busy man who has no time. He churns out “research” papers with the aid of a computer (remember the cut-copy-paste culture from the World Health Organisation) from the comfort of his air-conditioned office with data and information, which do not have much scientific backing, perhaps entailing the efforts of ghost writers who are young entrants in the scientific arena, more out of chance than by choice. These are mostly reviews of papers published by others. Awards galore, with foreign visits in tow, follow him. There is an aura around him, and one wonders if he is the Einstein or the Newton of today! Only, these two men would turn and fume in their graves to hear of the comparison. Our man has no time to read papers or journals, or to learn the basics of research. All his “data” is only re-searched from somewhere and re-presented. Even after formal retirement from service, he invariably lands up with a job as a consultant! Well, in the 21st century, all are compulsive and compulsory members of MAS (Mutual Admiration Scientist). You scratch my back and I shall scratch yours. Live and let live is the policy.

The conferences and meetings that are organised are usually on a large scale. They are on a par with political meetings that are attended by world leaders. Technology is put to full use. Enterprising people form Indian chapters for some international organisations, just to have big meetings, aided by foreign organisations. These meeting are held with large LCD screens and there are power point presentations that are as confusing and intriguing as science itself. The chief guest is always a man of more importance than our protagonist: a politician or a bureaucrat who has a line of meetings and functions lined up to attend on the same day. The guest of honour breezes in and breezes out, surrounded by a host of attendants, secretaries, and followers. One’s importance is gauged by the size of one’s entourage these days. He delivers a short and terse speech, which has no connection with the meeting’s agenda. The audience, too, is quite cool, busy with WhatsApp or Facebook on equally cool smartphones. Like robots, members of the audience stand or clap when required. Sometimes, a “lifetime achievement” award is presented by the VIP to an old stalwart in the field, who is hosted in a five star-hotel (a luxury to him), with a citation. Everyone is happy. The photographs and the banners say it all. There is also a souvenir issued. In all this excitement, where is the time for science?

The venue and arrangements for these scientific meets and conferences make them look like seven-star filmy parties. There is wining and dining. The cost is recovered through exorbitant registration fees and from sponsors who sell their wares. Most of the attendees are paid for, by their respective organisations. Even here, it is not the genuine scientist who gets to attend the conference. The preferences are decided by how close one is to one’s boss.

We talk of protecting the environment and saving paper. Yet, even “low-key” conferences use stationery and waste paper on a grand scale. Banners, posters, leather bags, pens and paper, printed matter of no consequence to anyone. It is a show, like the annual-day celebration of a public school. “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

When did scientific discoveries and inventions spring from the click of a mouse on a machine? It makes Newton look like a fool sitting under the apple tree, trying to figure out the Law of Gravitation. Archimedes would definitely have been confined to an asylum for running out of his swimming pool naked, having figured out the law of buoyancy. Mary Curie and her husband had sleepless nights, risking personal health to isolate radium from radioactive residues. These were great scientists, who ate, drank and lived science and who, with limited, or no resources, expecting no gain in return, worked for the benefit of humankind. There were also some Indian greats such as C.V. Raman, Ramanujam and J.C. Bose.

A commercial commodity

It is indeed a sad state of affairs. As man is progressing, science is regressing. It has become a commercial commodity now and is used more for the destruction of humanity through biological and chemical wars. What to talk of science for the benefit of mankind! The scientific conferences and meetings stink of hypocrisy and falsity, especially in India – the land of mathematicians and Vedic scholars. Everything is predictable. Truth is suppressed invariably and the honest is punished as well. There is no system of honest peer review or learning through experiments. Plagiarism is rampant. New ideas are killed even before they are born. Science has become yet another nine-to-five job with the requisite perks. The few papers presented at the so-called conferences are likely to have been cited in published studies (impact factor?).

Let us pause a bit and reflect on why the scientific community has been reluctant to change. It is so much easier to let things be the way they are. That way, there are no real consequences for failure. You gain nothing, you lose nothing. We lack the courage to subject our work to scrutiny. We have advanced technology at hand, which can be used and misused whichever way we want. Coming to the point of scientific conferences, it has become mandatory to host and attend conferences. It is a point of reference on your resume, like marking your attendance. The present-day conferences are no longer productive. Relatively recent innovations such as social media, videoconferencing, and other relevant technology are superseding the traditional conferences but not adding leverage to scientific discussions. Anyone who matters to the organiser, whether he has the scientific calibre or not, is invited to be a speaker. The credentials are either unknown or cooked up. The stage is cluttered with these so-called scholars who define science and pontify.

Conferences have been held since the early days of academia. But their size has changed dramatically. The intimate gatherings of academics from a specific field have now been replaced with mega conferences, frequently featuring 1,000 participants or more. The Indian Science Congress (ISC), an annual event every January inaugurated by the Prime Minister, has more attendees from all over India and brings together budding scholars and students. It is virtually an annual tamasha. I remember attending one such session held in Hyderabad in 1954 (?), when I was only 24 and at the start of my career as a scientist. It appeared glittering to me at that time. Over the years, the ISC has lost all its sheen and fame. Here is what the Nobel Laureate Venkataraman Ramakrishnan had to say after attending a session some years ago: “I attended one day the Congress session years ago, and very little science was discussed... I will never attend a science congress again in my life.”

What rattled Ramakrishnan, who is a structural biologist at Cambridge University and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2009, was a claim made by a “scientist” at the 102nd edition of the Science Congress in Mumbai. The scientist claimed “that Indians mastered aircraft technology thousands of years before the Wright Brothers developed the first aeroplane. He also claimed that unlike the modern aircraft and helicopters which can fly only in one direction, the aircraft Indians produced millennia ago could fly sideways and in the reverse direction too.”

Ramakrishnan said: “The idea that Indians had airplanes 2,000 years ago sounds almost essentially impossible to me. I don't believe it. The point is that if that technology was produced in a method so described that anybody could replicate it, then it becomes science.”

In recent years, there are many annual conferences on various subjects. Earlier, academic conferences used to be held in universities. Now they are held in five-star hotels. The expenditure is met partly by grants from science bodies such as the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) or the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), by international organisations such as WHO, industrialist sponsors, drug and pesticide companies, and grants from ministries of the government.

Many an aspiring young scientist who wishes to attend these conferences is forced to pay huge registration fees. Most of those who manage to attend academic conferences pay their own travel and other expenses. But many young people hope to find their next collaborators or to broaden their horizons to develop new research ideas. Conferences which mix practitioners with academics frequently also aspire to impact policies.

However, these conferences usually do not deliver on these promises. There are always the same old faces, with a few more wrinkles every year, using obfuscating jargon to present the same old stuff. We have seen papers featured at conferences in recent years that could have easily come from the 1960s or 1970s. This is not the research we think will solve our problems. Of course, our people are quite innovative these days. They now have videoconferences and even a new format called Webinar, whatever that means. In spite of everything, science certainly did not benefit!

Conference of the future

What about the future? The “unconference” (a term coined by a foreign critic) is one of the modern-day conferences that reflect a step in the right direction. In this format, delegates from diverse research fields set the agenda, not the conference organisers themselves. Also, because delegates set the agenda, everyone’s voice is included. Power point presentations are not going away, but they must build in feedback mechanisms within the talk. These mechanisms should encourage inclusive participation where ideas are heard, discussed, and ultimately remembered.

Audience participation will ensure each discussion is unique; otherwise a single speaker can easily parade the same canned talk to multiple conferences, to diminishing effect. At a recent Entomological Society of America meeting, for example, some presentations had built-in anonymous polls and questions that audience members were able to answer during the presentation. This encouraged participants to be alert and provide feedback to the presenter. This meant the audience helped to guide the presentation. Equally important is the need to give the audience the opportunity to give constructive criticism about the talk, which is totally absent in India.

A large number of scientists attending the meeting also teach, and, because they are evaluated, many tend to make the classrooms exciting, including incorporating several activities during the class. Presentations of the future should include anonymous evaluations. It is impressive that many professional societies have diversified presentation formats and are including more visual presentations, roundtables, and working groups to be inclusive while creating the environment that allows for more interactions and multidirectional communications. Formats can and should vary, depending on the conferences subject and the participants.

In a more perfect conference, in the future, things should go like this: From the start imagine not feeling anxious about how to pay for high registration fees, travel and accommodation upfront. Instead, universities and research institutions should have in place policies that cover these costs. Then you arrive at a conference where everyone’s voice and ideas were included in determining the agenda. And because you feel included you are motivated to actively participate. The presentations should be robust, interactive, and full of dialogue. Time slots are not organised by scientists but by scientific goals shared by interdisciplinary scientists. And because the presentation is interactive you come away from the presentation with new understanding of our momentum toward solving that societal problem. Much more can be done, and many more minds need to be thinking about modernising the scientific conference. We live in a world where technology and innovations happen every day. New technologies should allow us to change the frequency with which scientific conferences occur and the formats with which they should happen. Change won’t be easy. Perhaps it is time for a conference re-imagining the conference format for the new decade.

My English professor daughter sent a poem titled “The Seminar” written by Dr Karan Singh, a distinguished scholar and statesman, which I think applies to the present-day scientific scenario, and I end by quoting him:

There sat the learned, awaiting their turn to be drunk, like soda-water bottles’

One by one, they waddled to the mike and there unfolded their private prejudices

Garbed in the robe of reason; One, a jaunty little cockroach,

Leapt to and fro while speaking,

Another stood in solemn grandeur like a statue carved with moving lips

A third, bearded and grim and glaring like a hawk,

Bore down in garrulous ferocity upon the audience;

And thus it went on until, in God’s own time,

Their words sloshed all around the crowded hall,

They mercifully left for lunch.

Dr P.K. Rajagopalan is former Director, Vector Control Research Centre, Pondicherry, Indian Council of Medical Research.

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