On November 20, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) tweeted via its official handle about a project involving researchers from one of its 38 constituent laboratories: using a system of mirrors and lenses to s to ensure that sunlight falls on the forehead of the Aries statue being erected at the temple under construction at Ayodhya on Ram Navami every year.
The announcement sparked controversy. Mahua Moitra, MP for Trinamool tweeted November 21 that a senior scientist had told him they were “embarrassed to identify [themselves] as a scientist”. On November 22, a small group of scientists published an open letter protesting the scientists’ involvement in the project and asking them to clarify their roles in it. By the morning of November 23, the total list of signatories was nearly 200.
The government had requested assistance from the Central Building Research Institute (CBRI), Roorkee, a CSIR facility, to ensure that “sunrays will fall on Ramlala’s head at Ram Mandir on Ram Navami 2024”. The CBRI solution is an apparatus of mirrors, lenses, and motors to follow the path of the Sun across the sky and to reflect and focus incident sunlight onto the idol. The main challenge is to predict the position of the Sun in the sky on Ram Navami, the date of which is determined by both the lunar and solar calendars, involving more complex calculations than if engineers had to work solely on the basis of the solar calendar. .
The telegraph quoted an anonymous person ‘involved in the project’ saying that the CBRI also brought in researchers from the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), Bengaluru, and the Inter-University Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) , Pune.
Should scientists get involved?
When non-scientists ask whether certain work is the best use of scientists’ time and/or taxes, the presumption is that there is a better use to which money and time can be applied. But what is it exactly? Most of us (non-scientists) would struggle to find answers. This question raises two others. First: Can the general public decide what scientists should be working on? Answering “yes” would be a recipe for disaster. Surely only scientists can decide this, in consultation with their colleagues/peers, policy makers/donors and, if they are government scientists, legislators as well.
(On a related note, the fixation on “taxpayer funds” seems precarious. It’s okay to want a say in how the government spends tax dollars – but the best way we have that word to say is through political commitment, not isolated requests to spend a little money on something else.)
Also, are we aware of what our scientists are working on most, if not all of the time? Most of us are not. This is not a suggestion to make the perfect the enemy of the good, but to reconsider the assumption that a CSIR facility roped in to work on supposedly “inappropriate” work is an outlier in a sea of ”appropriate” work. “. We will all benefit if we pay more attention to what scientists at our publicly funded research centers are working on.
The group of scientists also wrote in their statement: “The [CBRI’s] the chosen approach in no way advances our scientific or technological understanding. Designing such a device can be a good learning exercise for an undergraduate student, but researchers are expected to focus on quests that advance human knowledge.
This is a curious position for several reasons. First, the fundamental premise of CSIR was not to advance human knowledge, but to apply scientific knowledge to advance industry. The CBRI, for example, also undertakes work at the request of external sponsoring bodies. In 2021-2022, he was contracted separately by CB Sompura, the architect, and by Larsen & Toubro to inspect the structural features and construction integrity of the temple. The temple is likely to be visited by thousands of pilgrims in the future, and while the institute may not be advancing human knowledge here, its involvement in verifying the safety of pilgrims is certainly a good thing.
More broadly, and this is the second question, scientists and non-scientists alike judging certain works more appropriate than others for non-scientific reasons is an elitist approach to the application of critical thinking that we can do without. It should be applied as each scientist and engineer deems appropriate, and they should have the freedom to make or refuse those decisions with both their interests and the public interest in mind. It’s a different matter, of course, if the scientists at the CBRI, and those at the IIA and IUCAA, were squeezed into the Temple of Ram project.
Effects of underfunding
The group of scientists also denounced the “criminal waste of … public money” at a time when “young scientific researchers are facing horrific and demoralizing delays in the payment of research grants and scholarships allocated to them”. As a critique of priorities and a reminder to the government to act with as much determination as it did in the temple case, the group’s statement is accurate. But there is also the assumption here that money not spent on one activity will automatically be available for another.
Young researchers are not being paid not because there is no money, but because the government has not given them priority. Consider the skewed distribution of the 0.69% of GDP that the government has allocated to R&D for many years now. An analysis found that in 2014, two-thirds of government R&D expenditure was undertaken by just three ministries: defense R&D, space and atomic energy. ICAR, CSIR, DST, DBT and ICMR made do with the rest. This cast hasn’t changed much since then.
More money does not mean more money for everything. The CSIR was just 9.5% in 2014 – a figure that has fallen further since the ill-conceived “Dehradun declaration” in 2015. By 2017 it was on the verge of bankruptcy. In 2018, it received a small increase of 3.3% in the Union budget, while the defense R&D budget was increased by 29%.
Underfunding creates a situation in which scientists are forced to make do with the resources the government makes available to them, and the popular idea is that they must use those resources wisely. But what makes sense? The problem here is not that the folks at CBRI choose to presumably spend what little they have on “trivial activities”, but that CSIR as a whole, and other departments that support research, are under-resourced. financed.
When over-resolution serves a purpose
All this is only one side of the coin. The other part concerns the government itself.
As the group of scientists noted in their letter, the CBRI et al. have designed is over-engineered – but maybe that’s the point. Imagine the mechanism, if and when it is put in place and becomes operational, at the temple, surrounded by Nagara architecture, prayers, an excess of Hindu symbolism and an unmistakable expression of political power.
At the temple of Ayodhya Ram, a device for following a star and focusing its light on the head of the deity will be as much a gimmick as a symbol of the Hindutva program which has succeeded in subsuming scientific thought and the forces of work and nature to its purposes. (He has already done this in a modest way by having the @CSIR_IND Twitter account tweet an image of the planned temple and a Zee News link to the solution provided by the CBRI. The tweet had been deleted when the author checked back at 12:45 p.m. on November 23. A cached version of the timeline is available for viewing. here.)
Compare this to the band’s alternative – having someone at the temple just point the machine’s lenses at the Sun on Ram Navami day. It is hard to imagine that the BJP governments of Uttar Pradesh and India would agree to such a simple contraption, which does not evoke the modern character of the temple, which they can combine favorably with their claims. to ancient Indian supremacy, nor which contributes to what the temple itself signifies: sophism disguised as sophistication.
The national government made its priorities for the temple equally clear when the Ministry of Environment decided to denotify part of a wildlife sanctuary in Rajasthan for pink sandstone to be quarried for the temple, and to “compensate” by adding forest blocks in another area.
The entire incident, from the government engaging in the CBRI to the over-engineered solution, is a reminder of the fact that the compass of the current Indian government is aligned not with what is constitutionally right, but with whatever is right. will keep him in power. It has achieved this, among other things, by making some fields of scientific and technological research more lucrative than others and by exploiting the knowledge and, more and more recently, the reputation of research institutions.
In this milieu, to criticize the issues that scientists choose (again, if they had a choice) to work on would miss the mark – that the Indian government’s actions here are consistent with its conduct since 2014, where its treatment of science as well as that of the temples were driven by a common vision: empty the well, then poison what remains.
Note: This article was updated at 1:05 p.m. on November 23, 2022, to note that @CSIR_IND’s tweet had been deleted.