Opinion | Science and freedom

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Should science be political? The belief that the practice of science is never entirely free of politics has been a steady theme of historical scholarship. After all, scientific advancements only happen when thinkers are free to think, question popular beliefs, put various hypotheses to the test of evidence, and reject what’s false in their pursuit of knowledge. Scientists don’t need to be reminded of this, but others seem to. The very fact that the UK-based Nobel-prize winning biologist Venki Ramakrishnan, current president of the esteemed Royal Society, thought it fit to issue such a reminder on Wednesday in an interactive session at the Bangalore International Centre suggests as much. For science to flourish, he said, we need “real freedom of thought, opinion and minimal ideological interference”.

As examples of ideology posing a menace, the renowned scientist cited Nazi Germany and the Soviet project. Both had the state dictating what had to be studied and to what end, thus subverting the whole point of open enquiry. For a country that has a scientific temper assured by its constitution, he added that India needed to perform better on research.

Indeed, while India does have a highly respectable scientific establishment—think of our space success—the country seems at some risk of veering off its original trajectory, possibly the result of rapidly shifting attitudes to intellectual openness as a virtue, and the political pressures this generates. Ramakrishnan would like the government to limit its role to setting national priorities for funding, and let scientific autonomy do the rest. Good advice, his.

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