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Missing: Scientific temper, more than Chandrayaan


The lasting image related to Chandrayaan-2 that we are going to see repeatedly for some time,  will perhaps not be of the orbiter or the lander,  but the one of prime minister Narendra Modi consoling ISRO chairman Dr Sivan.   When in 2014 India's satellite Mangalyan was launched to an orbit close to Mars,  the prime minister was present to celebrate that too.  It is quite natural for a head of government to be present for the ups and downs of the country.   But the larger messages given by a government to the scientific world,  have great significance. 

Space mission can be seen as events commanding ample news value;  at the same time they can also be seen as parts of a big stream of knowledge where success and failure are equally possible.  From that angle,  equally important as the presence of the prime minister at Bengaluru - or even more important than that - was ensuring fair terms and remuneration of employment for the scientists.  The distinct feature of scientific research and exploration is that both failure and success will become a gain.  Although ISRO scientists would attract huge public attention on certain dramatic occasions like that of Mangalyan and Chandrayaan,  we have to give due recognition to their dedication displayed during hours and moments of extreme concentration, hard work and studies.   We are prompted to point this out by reports about the central government reducing the compensation of ISRO scientists.   The incentive wages,  being given to them since 1996 as per Supreme Court's special directives,  are reported to have been stopped since 12 June.   Even if so,  how laudable it would have been if that was restored, before embracing the scientists who toiled for the success of the mission of Chandrayaan-2!

It is not only this that needs to be restored.  Chandrayaan mission also emphasises the need to fast regain the scientific awareness and temper that is gradually disappearing from the country.   It should become an opportunity to bring back science and scientific work to the common narrative.   The essence of being scientific is proof tied to causation,  or the inter-relation of fact and cause,  rather than belief.  Its core lies not in emotionalism but in objectivity.  And its measure is not success or failure,  but enquiry.  For this very reason,  it is, and should be able to not only celebrate success,  but also accept failure.   The reason why the scientific community could not show enough fortitude to face the setback in the mission of Chandrayaan-2,  may be because of the pressure created by media attention and the unecessary anxiety created by overzealous nationalism.   It was quite justifiable that the launch that was scheduled for 15 was put off at the last minute to 22 July.   But then,  it would have been in line with scientific approach to explain precisely what fault happened and when.  Such a disclosure did not happen.   The scientific world knows that a soft landing on moon is a very challenging and difficult goal, one that might not happen as planned.  But when that got reduced to a succes-failure issue, it appeared that the scientists got under pressure and into defensive mode.   We have accomplished lunar missions earlier.  But this time if we could not achieve the chief objective of making a soft-landing instead of hard landing,   that is no reason for us to feel inferior.  But when ISRO claims that it achieved 90-95 per cent of the goals,  would it not amount to diluting the scientific temper?    Doesn't it imply then that even a celebrated scientific organization is forsaking scientific awareness for propagandism?  Tall claims may fit politicians,  but what scientific entities should do is to see facts as they are.

This is an ill effect of politicisation of the scientific field.   During his time as prime minister, Jawaharlal used to post only scientists at the top of scientific institutions and gave them functional autonomy without political inteference.    And Nehru and his team used to see  the successes of ISRO as the triumph of scientists like Vikram Sarabhai.   When the wholly indiginous made 'Arya Bhatta'  was launched in 1975,  its parentage was given to scientists.  But of late,  this courtesy has been disappearing from us.  Everything is coming under the grip of politics and inturn, politics in the grip of ultra-nationalism.  In the design of grand projects like the bullet train,  smart city and Make-in-India,  prominence is given  not to those who have knowledge and expertise in them,  but to politicians who lack that.  What we saw in demonetisation was the authoritarianism of ignorance.  Our prime minister is one who stated at a scientific conference that organ donation and genetic engineering had existed in ancient times.   There can be such beliefs about gravitational force,  stem cells and cancer treatment.  But when they are imposed above scientific methods,  we will be pushing ourselves back.  Interestingly enough,  there is a research going on in ICMR (Indian Council of Scientific Research) with government grant whether chanting mritunjaya mantra will work on  those afflicted with cerebral palsy.   The setback in Chanrayaa-2 is not an issue,  but losing our scientific sense is a real problem indeed.

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