Need for Science-Society Symbiosis

“Remember your humanity’, said Dr MS Swaminanthan, the green revolution veteran and eminent agricultural scientist, quoting the Pugwash Conference motto. He was in Bangalore for a panel discussion on ‘Science in the Service of Society’ held at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) on 24th evening. The topic ‘Science in the Service of Society’ was meant to initiate self-examination within the largely academic audience, and industry leaders, over the utilization of knowledge to address societal problems. Complex societal problems need the integration of social, economic and ecological dimensions at various levels from the local, national to global scales. Mentioning how ATREE was rooted in this humanist tradition, Dr. Swaminathan said that science should back inclusive development. There was a ‘symbiotic relationship between science and society’, wherein science ‘receives, gives, learns and unlearns’. Working with society is an ‘enriching experience for scientists’ he quipped. Speaking about the some positive impacts of technology, Dr. Swaminathan mentioned how mobile technology provided last man and last mile connectivity as with tsunami-traumatized fishermen who now benefit from mid-sea information they receive on their mobiles on wave height.

Sharing the panel with him were Dr Amita Baviskar of the Institute of Economic Growth (IEG), New Delhi and Dr VijayRaghavan, National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore. Dr. VijayRaghavan, differentiating the practice of science in colonial and post colonial times, said that in the former period there were few and qualified Indian scientists scattered around the world and excellence in science was ‘driven by individual successes’ outside the establishment. In the post independent period, there was the Nehruvian impetus to tame nature. He spoke of how science’s effects on society were ‘accidental’. The agenda of some premier science institutions at the time of their inception was a consequence of international partnership with specific developed nations that scientists at the helm preferred. Dr. VijayRaghavan mentioned how agricultural science flourished due to the political and scientific consensus on food security, but medical sciences did not progress to due to an absence of such impetus. New generation of scientific institutions in India were more sensitive to environmental problems, he concluded.

The environmental sociologist, Dr. Amita Baviskar approached the role of science from a critical perspective. She said that science did not emerge from any ‘pristine space’ but was a matter of societal dynamics. Science is ‘shaped by society and scientists are affected by politics and values’ she said. Further, it is simplistic for society to assume that science and technology are magic bullets to solve poverty and resource degradation. Dr. Baviskar also differentiated colonial science from its post-independence avatar. She stated that during the former period, ‘royal’ science that was at the service of the colonial powers enabled cutting-edge scientific forestry to deplete our forests of its biodiversity in favour of monocultures for sustained yields of timber and for profit. After independence, the focus was on rational order and planning and knowledge was largely technocratic. Contemporary environmental issues, especially climate change highlight uncertainty, concluded Dr. Baviskar. ‘Science can only say provisional things’.

Among the audience who participated in the discussion were key corporate heads and ATREE donors, Ms. Rohini Nilekani, Dr. Suri Sehgal, Mrs. Edda G Sehgal and Dr. Balachandar Ganesan. Dr. Kamal Bawa, founder trustee and President of ATREE moderated the panel discussion.