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Scientific Establishment

posted by Madhav Gadgil

Humans owe their dominance over the earth to their ability to elaborate mental models of the working of the world, or knowledge. Science, or knowledge that approximates objective reality fairly well, underpins technologies facilitating people manipulating the world around them more and more effectively. Knowledge, based largely on trial and error, and with no insistence on empirical validation progressed slowly. For centuries before medieval times its progress was halted by the insistence on accepting particular authorities, be they Vedas, Bible or teachings of Aristotle. During the medieval times Europeans, desperate for sound knowledge to support moving out of Europe where conditions had greatly deteriorated, fashioned the methodology of modern science that rejects all authority other than that of empirical facts and opens its doors to participation by all interested parties. This put knowledge on fast track and permitted development of many powerful technologies. Armed with these Europeans overwhelmed the rest of the world, including India. However, while progress in the sciences of simple physical and chemical systems has been rapid, scientific understanding of more complex systems such as ecological systems remains limited. As a result much experiential knowledge with the common people remains of value in understanding and managing such complex systems. Despite the limited scientific understanding of the complex systems, the British made totally unjustified claims of scientific management of natural resources, merely to appropriate and overuse such resources of their colonies like India. 

Taking advantage of its domination, the Western Capitalism has elaborated a capital-intensive economy highly wasteful of natural resources. This was possible because they had successfully accumulated large capital stocks through drain of their colonies, and had access to huge stocks of natural resources of whole continents like North and South America and Australia that they had taken over by largely eliminating the indigenous people. It was evident that on independence India did not enjoy that kind of access to capital and natural resources, but had to ensure that it did justice to its huge bank of human resources. This called for prudent use of natural resources, best accomplished by empowering local communities to safeguard them, and creation of productive employment on a very large scale. But India has failed to do this and fashioned an economy of violence on the Western model.

Science is a progressive democratic enterprise that ought to help India in working out an innovative Indian model of a symbiotic, rather than predatory development on the Western pattern.  However Indian science has so far failed in facing up to this challenge. But modern developments in information and communication technologies are now rapidly eliminating inequalities in access to information even as economic disparities are on the rise. This promises to usher in an era of true empowerment of people that would bring prosperity to the natural resource based, labour intensive sector of the economy. This will confer dignity and provide satisfying livelihoods to the bulk of Indias population. Indian scientific establishment must strive to assist in such a transformation.

I have worked extensively with Indian and international scientific establishment, for instance, as Secretary of the Indian Academy of Science, as member of Science Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India and as Chair of the Sceince and Technology Advisory Panel of Global Environment Facility. I have also worked actively with People’s Science Movements and written on such issues in newspapers and other media. I will attempt through this website to share much of the resultant material.