The March for Science held on Earth Day on 22 April got wide coverage in the mainstream news media as well in prestigious scientific journals like Nature and Science. Some made the point that the 600-odd marches around the world were a challenge to US President Donald Trump's science-unfriendly policies.
So, is science under threat across the world? Does a country like India, which is trying to move full throttle towards economic development, really suffer from the distrust of science and scientists? Or is this a uniquely American issue? Perhaps the rise of populism across the globe—from Brexit to Trump to the unexpected swings towards the right in the Netherlands and France—are being felt in some form in most countries and the expressions of anxiety congealed into the widespread March for Science. Are the outcomes of recent state-level elections in India consistent with the apparent global rise of populism? Obviously things are never that simple when cultural and socioeconomic specificities of the countries are considered. And science is not really a liberal or conservative issue. Conservatives embrace science and can find a compromise between religion and science. Liberals love science but can struggle with advances like GMOs.
India must pay close attention to global science and technology issues—whether they arise from political machinations or societal misconceptions and push backs.
America remains unique in many aspects. It is starkly different from other developed countries in terms of the populist anti-immigrant message conflating with climate scepticism and the general conservative resistance towards government regulations. A common thread running across the US and Europe is the perceived threat of terrorism merging with the impacts of globalisation and the wave of immigrants and refugees. The US is also found to have a general disconnect between the education levels of its citizens and their religiosity. It has been argued that in most European countries churches remain nearly empty but since they are funded by the states, the clergy is not motivated to recruit members. Meanwhile, there's a separation of state and church in the US. Churches have tax-exempt status, and are funded by donations from the congregations which leads to membership drives and the spread of religion. The distrust and defunding of science is not completely explained by religiosity though.
In an article in Vox, Brad Plumer relies on Henry Lambright's 2008 paper to argue that the Cold War created an illusion of a golden age for science, but it was simply motivated by the technology needs to defeat the Soviet Union. Hence the divorce between politics and science is not anything new. Jason Lloyd of Slate is blunter in pointing out that scientists want to instruct people about science without involving them in science, and also want to exert higher influence on policymaking without any political responsibility. I myself did not participate in the march because I think politicising science is never a good idea. Also, science, especially climate change, needs to offer scalable solutions instead of offering incessant bad news topped with constant preaching by scientists who themselves are not leading by example as far as a low-carbon lifestyle is concerned.
India is a religious country but has no overt issues of large-scale immigration or refugees as of now, although the internal distrust among religions, decades of corruption and the promise of a no-corruption future may all be reflected in the recent swings in national and local elections. India has largely benefitted from globalisation by exploiting the outsourcing boom in IT and other sectors. There is no evidence of large-scale climate scepticism or a general distrust of science. If anything, the investment in new IITs and IISERs continue the tradition of relying on science and technology as a stairway to the heaven of economic growth. India has also been bold in signing on to the Paris Climate Agreement and promising impressive emission-reduction targets. Does that mean India can rest easy on the issues of societal and political perceptions of science and scientists? Hardly.
Routine adaptations of scientific and technological advances into daily life will not get daily praises but real and perceived negative impacts will be easily exploited by demagogues.
India needs to be proactive in tracking the interplay between religion, politics and science, as science and technology begin to play a growing role in everyday life from smartphones to TVs, washing machines and self-driving cars. While India remains committed to reducing its carbon footprint, looming problems of increasing demand for air conditioners and energy are going to be seriously exacerbated with continued global warming and it is only a matter of time before more regulations and maybe even rationing will be needed to keep India's commitments to global climate agreements.
India's vulnerability to climate variability and change remains high and the pursuit of economic development comes with a potential for serious negative impacts on the quality of air and water. India also cannot ignore the potential for a flood of climate refugees due to the vulnerability of its neighbours to climate impacts such as sea level rise, desiccation of the monsoons and melting of the Third Pole, i.e., the Himalayan glaciers. India's economic growth and the need to fortify its climate resilience should not be seen as separate or mutually exclusive goals. It is also important to recognise that the goals are inescapably tied to the fate of science and technology across the globe as well as the world's commitment to regular climate assessments such as the IPCC reports, climate and Earth System modelling, predictions and projections, climate agreements and emission reductions. India's economy will continue to get more intricately entangled with the global economy, even if it becomes a green economy and wants to sell its innovations to the rest of the world. India must then pay close attention to global science and technology issues—whether they arise from political machinations or societal misconceptions and push backs.
To ensure that science is resilient to politics, scientists must build support and buy-in from society...
As for scientists themselves, Jason Lloyd rightly points out in his Slate article that they need to guard against being a well-funded insular group that is seen as elitist and clueless about societal issues. This is especially critical if the potential negative outcomes of science and technology include reduced employment due to automation. It is unclear how the acceptance and perception of science, technology and climate change will evolve as India moves inexorably towards better standards of living for its citizens. While science has given us healthier and longer lives and unimaginable conveniences, routine adaptations of scientific and technological advances into daily life will not get daily praises but real and perceived negative impacts will be easily exploited by demagogues. So India needs to be ready to march for science if need arises. But to ensure that science is resilient to politics, scientists must build support and buy-in from society by involving other people in science at all possible levels including implementation of technological and scientific solutions. Only then can scientists be able to call on society when the need arises to march for science.