People hold signs to protest comments made at the Indian Science Congress

Protesters in Kolkata hold signs condemning unscientific claims that were made at a major Indian science conference. Credit: Reuters

Indian scientists have criticized two speakers at a major conference for making bizarre, unscientific claims, including that ancient Hindus invented stem-cell science. Groups of researchers held protests in Bangalore, Kochi, Kolkata and Thiruvananthapuram on 6 January, calling for an end to presentations at the Indian Science Congress that promote unscientific personal beliefs.

“Any theory based on personal beliefs and not verified by science should not have any place in a science congress,” says physicist Soumitro Banerjee, general secretary of the non-profit Breakthrough Science Society in Kolkata, which promotes science and organized the protests.

In response to the outcry, congress organizers say that from next year, they will require speakers to submit abstracts of their talks. “We will also ensure moderators for all sessions who can ensure that the content is scientific,” says biochemist Premendu Mathur, general secretary of the Indian Science Congress Association in Kolkata.

The congress is the country’s largest annual gathering of scientists. This year, it was held in Jalandhar in northern India from 3 to 7 January. It is the second time in four years that the conference has been condemned for giving a platform to people promoting unscientific ideas: in 2015, a symposium speaker claimed that ancient Indians were the first to build aeroplanes.

During a talk at the congress on 4 January, chemist Gollapalli Nageswara Rao, vice-chancellor of Andhra University in Visakhapatnam, cited an ancient Indian poem, the Mahabharata, as proof that knowledge of in vitro fertilization and stem cells existed in India thousands of years ago. Rao did not respond to Nature’s questions about the incident.

Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan, principal scientific adviser to the Indian government, wrote in a blogpost that it is unfortunate that a vice-chancellor of a state university says something that is "scientifically completely untenable”.

Another speaker contested Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity and Isaac Newton’s theories of gravity during the children’s section of the science congress.