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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 January, 2004, 12:03 GMT
Science, roti and paneer
Richard Black, BBC
By Richard Black
BBC science correspondent, in Chandigarh

Fed up with going to endless science meetings at the Enormoconf Center, Anonymousville? Left cold by the Plushhotel Ballroom and the streetfuls of Identilatte cafes outside?

Indian Science Congress, BBC
The congress always attracts big names
The Indian Science Congress offers a conference experience with a difference.

No endless corridors of bossed beige wallpaper and vomit-inducing carpet patterns here.

No decaf quesadillas or low-fat brown-bag meals. No smart-suited drug industry reps or trim PR girls making you feel special with a tip-off on their new product.

Plenary sessions at the congress, hosted this year by Punjab University in Chandigarh, take place in a giant blue marquee on the University's main sports ground.

A hundred metres across the grass is another equally large and equally blue marquee for eating - and the food is delicious.

Different feel

I have never met an Indian yet who does not appreciate good food; and judging by the way the Manchurian Cauliflower and Channa Dhal disappears each lunchtime, Indian scientists are no exception.

The other feel-good factor is the cricket updates coming in regularly from Sydney.

The news of India's highest-ever Test score, and national hero Sachin Tendulkar's double century, raised comfortably the biggest cheer of the meeting so far.

It's grown so big; and how it works now is open to question
Prof Amit Ghosh
The congress is loosely modelled on the annual meetings of the British and American Associations for the Advancement of Science. The first took place in 1914 in Calcutta and they have been held every year since.

That first congress brought only 105 delegates; but in modern times numbers are up to several thousand, making it roughly the same size as the American meeting, and considerably bigger than the British.

Science is now so specialised and academic meetings so plentiful that, as with its western counterparts, there is some doubt as to what the congress is actually for.

The British and American meetings were supposed to be for the public, but have turned into media-fests, largely because the public declines to turn up in significant numbers.

Well, would you choose to sit in a room all day listening to a stream of burbling academics when you can get all the science you need through TV astrologers and the Harry Potter books?

Chilly welcome

"It was supposed to be a place where scientists could exchange ideas with each other," says Professor Amit Ghosh, from the Institute of Microbial Technology in Chandigarh, one of this year's congress organisers.

"But it's grown so big; and how it works now is open to question."

Professor Ghosh spends much of his time dealing with the basic needs of delegates; the rooms which were not booked, the transport which did not arrive.

It is difficult to see western dons not delegating this stuff.

The main complaint though is the cold. "Why are they having this in January in one of the coldest cities in India?" is a common complaint during the half-hour registration process, conducted in open canvas booths through which the wind cuts like an icy blade.

Cricket game, BBC
On the fringe: Cricket is never far away
It is bearable during the day, when the sickly Sun peers through the mist and would-be Tendulkars practice their shots in the cricket nets next door.

But the evenings are seriously chilly, and delegates top off their smartest jackets and ties with a neat blanket-over-the-head combo in a vain attempt to keep their brains warm.

The cold did not deter students like Preeti Dave, from Saurastra University in Gujarat, who came principally because she wanted to see how her seniors handle themselves at such gatherings.

"I'm giving a paper and I wanted to get here early to see how the geniuses do it," she said.

Her friend Janki Gohed said such gatherings were useful because junior researchers could meet professors who might one day give them a job. "And we get a certificate for presenting at the congress, which is important," she said.

National advancement

Traditionally the prime minister opens the congress; food for thought, perhaps, for Tony Blair.

He has often said he would like Britons to become more scientifically literate, but he has yet to give science a significant presence in his government, and has not recently been spotted at any British Association meetings.

That said, Mr Vajpayee was forced this year to call off his visit, as the congress opening clashed with the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation ) summit in Islamabad.

Nevertheless his address extolling the many virtues of Indian science was read out to the assembled throng.

Many western scientists believe they have to speak in user-friendly soundbites because otherwise the media will not report them, and the world-weary public will not be interested
"Our scientists are exploring the heights of space and the depths of the oceans," he said. "India now ranks the highest among all countries in the rate of growth of patent filings.

"The results of our R&D in the medical and pharmaceutical fields are attracting international attention and acclaim."

Five other political dignitaries gave their speeches - in similar vein - in person.

They were reported with much faith by the local media, though one paper spoiled its overwhelmingly positive copy with a picture showing the front row of VIPs all asleep.

Many scientists speaking subsequently, on issues like using the internet for rural development, or malaria control, said they wanted to influence the political agenda.

But by the time they spoke, the politicians they wanted to influence - those who had earlier lauded the importance of Indian science - had already left.

Usual form

The agenda covers pretty much every area of research, but there is a strong theme of Indian science for Indian advancement.

India wants to make the vaccines it needs, send up the satellites it needs, develop the GM crops it needs.

The government is simultaneously praised for giving prominence to science, and damned for hindering innovation by being too bureaucratic.

Indian Science Congress tent sign, BBC
Some think the congress will introduce them to new collaborators
When gathered together, Indian scientists show many of the characteristics - endearing and infuriating - of their western counterparts.

Academics painstakingly praise and honour each other, over-conscious like a prim courting couple of good manners and niceties.

Every eminent speaker is greeted off the podium by their peers, who praise the presentation to the skies before slipping in a question which basically suggests the speaker made at least one major omission.

One of the few foreign delegates is Professor Eugene Nester, from the University of Washington in Seattle, who is speaking on biotechnology - one of the principal themes of the congress.

"It's a broadly-based meeting, much more so than those I usually attend," he said.

"One of the organisers used to work in my lab which is how I was invited. It's a good opportunity to meet people that you might be able to collaborate with in the future."

Real enthusiasm

From the journalist's perspective, the Indian Science Congress differs in one major way from western science meetings. There is no press operation.

That's right. No press releases; no press conferences. No gaggle of attendant flunkies to get you your interviewee right here right now, or supply the details you missed in the press conference because you were too hungover, fielding too many calls on your mobile, or just too stupid.

It is refreshing. Many western scientists believe they have to speak in user-friendly soundbites because otherwise the media will not report them, and the world-weary public will not be interested.

The disturbing thing is they are probably right. But in countries like India there is a hunger for science, because it promises a good career to the individual and economic growth to the nation.

As I write this, I am looking forward to seeing the Indian President - a distinguished former scientist - trying to spread enthusiasm about research among schoolchildren.

I am looking forward to finding out more on the Green Revolution, that startling agricultural transformation which suddenly enabled India to feed itself.

Above all, I am looking forward to my next plate of roti and paneer, some more chats over tea on the sports ground, and the news that India have spanked the Aussies rotten in Sydney.

Fish eat away at malaria in India
05 Jan 04  |  Science/Nature
India unveils six-year GM plan
05 Jan 04  |  Science/Nature
India tackles adult illiteracy
03 Jan 04  |  Science/Nature

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