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Intolerance and funding concern Indian scientists ahead of election

Researchers are troubled by a flat budget, and a rise in extremism and pseudoscience.

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi onstage at an election campaign rally in Kathua district

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an election rally.Credit: Xinhua/Avalon.red

A rising intolerance towards intellectuals and minority groups in India has prompted scientists there to speak out ahead of the country’s mammoth general election. More than 200 scientists have signed an open letter appealing to citizens to reject the discrimination and violence being promoted by some extremist groups.

The election is a contest between the ruling Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the main opposition, the secular Indian National Congress — the Congress party. Nearly 900 million people are eligible to vote in this election, which began on 11 April and is being held in several phases, ending on 19 May.

The letter, posted online last month, is an unusual move for India’s research community, who rarely comment on political or social issues. It calls on voters to “reject those who lynch or assault people, those who discriminate against people because of religion, caste, gender, language or region”.

The letter does not mention any political party. But since the BJP formed a government in 2014, there has been a rise in attacks by Hindu right-wing groups against Muslims and other minority groups that eat beef — Hindus consider cows sacred. Extreme right-wing groups were also blamed for the deaths of three prominent intellectuals, between 2013 and 2015, who campaigned for scientific reasoning.

Against this backdrop of intolerance, some scientists say they also face flat investment in science and a rise in politicians and public figures making unscientific claims. The BJP includes new technology in its manifesto but some worry that it prioritizes technology ahead of basic science. The Congress party has promised to boost spending on science, but there are doubts over whether it can deliver on this.

Election promises

The BJP’s election manifesto states that it will launch major programmes in artificial intelligence, robotics, supercomputers and genomics for human health, but the manifesto does not mention how much it will spend on these endeavours. Last year, Modi also announced an ambitious mission to send humans to space by 2022.

The proposal could improve technological capabilities to advance the country, says cell biologist Satyajit Mayor, director of the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore. But he fears that if these missions are pursued in lieu of promoting basic and fundamental science, that could weaken the country’s scientific base.

The Congress party, meanwhile, has promised to raise science spending to 2% of the country’s gross domestic product, up from between 0.7% and 0.8% over the past decade, a pledge that has been welcomed by some scientists, including Mayor.

But others are sceptical that the plan will pan out because the party has not explained where the money to fund it will come from. “BJP's plan seems to do better in trying to boost the economy through encouraging technology,” says geneticist Tapasya Srivastava at Delhi University.

Irrespective of party promises, Amitabh Joshi, an evolutionary biologist at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bangalore, would like to see a greater balance between investment in basic and applied research. In the biological sciences, for example, molecular and cell biology get vastly more money than ecology or evolution, he says. The imbalance runs through into the education system; there are no postgraduate courses in evolutionary biology offered at Indian universities, says Joshi.

As a consequence, scientists working on emerging infections such as dengue fever and Nipah virus, and on antimicrobial resistance, have limited training in evolution at the university level, which is important to understand how host–pathogen relationships evolve and develop drug resistance, says Joshi.

Pseudoscience on the rise

Neither Congress nor the BJP has addressed another ongoing concern for scientists in India: the promotion of ‘unscientific' ideas by public figures.

The most recent case occurred at the 2019 Indian Science Congress in Jalandhar in January. Gollapalli Nageswara Rao, the vice-chancellor of Andhra University in Visakhapatnam, cited an ancient Indian text as proof that knowledge of in vitro fertilization and stem cells existed in India thousands of years ago. Another speaker contested Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Last year, a higher-education minister also questioned the scientific validity of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution while talking to reporters. Indian scientists posted an online petition condemning the minister’s statement.

“Those who care about science are certainly very distressed by the gratuitous claims of our politicians about pseudoscience without regard to any evidence,” says Mayor. Promotion of pseudoscience is detrimental in the long run for this country, adds immunologist Vineeta Bal at the Indian Institute for Science Education and Research, Pune.

All parties are guilty of talking pseudoscience, says physicist Gautam Menon, from the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. But he says the party in power carries special responsibility because their words and actions will determine policy. He cites the government’s push in 2016 for a national research programme on the health and other benefits of a combination of cow products, called panchgavya, which has not been scientifically validated.

The national programme did not amount to much, but individual research institutes initiated their own projects on cow products, and science minister Harsh Vardhan set up a panel to carry out research to validate the benefits of these products. “It is an example of money being spent on something that scientists can agree is likely a dead end. And this spending is only for ideological reasons,” says Menon.

Nature 569, 317-318 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01465-3

Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 15 May 2019: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect name for The Institute of Mathematics in Chennai.

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