Saturday, February 25, 2006

Science in a straitjacket

It's simple. If countries want scientific collaboration with other countries, they have to learn to empathize with the whole global enterprise of science and scientists, and understand its nature. If they really do, then they would understand that asking questions like the ones they asked to Prof. Goverdhan Mehta of IISc. before rejecting his visa application for attending a scientific conference in Florida, are not consequential, even if they are necessary as a formality. Asking a chemist "Can your work be used for making chemical weapons?", is like asking Isaac Newton, "Can your calculus be used for making missiles?". Although the answer to both questions is a resounding yes in principle, both the question and the answer don't make sense at all, because then that means that every scientist (or engineer for that matter) should in theory be considered a security risk. Dr. Mehta, an internationally recognised organic chemist and former director of the Indian Institute of Science, has said that he felt humiliated by the questioning at the US consulate, which seemed to hint that he was actually hiding information from them. On the other hand, this is not a new incident, and has happened scores of times before with lesser known scientists.

Almost any competent scientist, given enough time and resources, can harness his expertise for making weapons of mass destruction in one way or the other. Another trivial point is that you don't need to be a scientist in order to "work on WMDs". Even the most mundane technician at Los Alamos, for example, could be said to have "worked on the atomic bomb". So that's another inconsequential point. And the general point was already driven home more than enough during the Manhattan project, when the most "pure" of scientists built the atomic bomb. Science can of course, always be used for good and bad. But governments have to understand that by stifling the flow of scientific information because of the tenuous possibility that it may be used for dangerous purposes, they are stifling the much larger amount of good that can arise from the flow of that information. Of course, there do have been cases like the infamous A Q Khan case, where high profile top scientists have engaged in unethical and terrorist like acts. But one sparrow cannot make a bird, especially when the scientist in question has an unusually clean track record of being not just the leading organic chemist in his country, but also one who has done more than many others to further the national and international cause of science in peace. It's not surprising that many Indian scientists think that we should just stop all scientific collaboration with the US. In this age when national priorities have become particularly complicated, governments should put in extra efforts to separate the wheat of honest efforts and collaborations from the chaff of underhanded aims and insidious objectives, without colouring these issues with their own prejudices in the first place. Should we stop collaborating with all scientists because in theory, they can put their expertise to malicious use? There is a big difference between perceived and real threats, and now more than ever, we really need to weed out the differences between them.

Also, I do think that just like in other matters, there is bias based on nationality involved here too. A couple of years ago, there was a story about a well-known US chemist, who had wanted to demonstrate how easy it is for terrorists to order the chemicals necessary for making chemical weapons. To this end, he ordered a dozen or so of the basic chemical ingredients of nerve gases from Aldrich, the leading producer of laboratory chemicals in the world. Within a few weeks, he photographed himself sitting in his office, surrounded by canisters containing chemicals that would make enough nerve gas to wipe out a big city. While he obviously did this to make a point and in good faith, I did not hear about him being rejected a passport by the US State Department, or a visa by any other country. If an Indian scientist had done this, would he ever have received a US visa in his life?

Science has the potential to do many things, and politicians would do well not to interfere in the normal spread of pure knowledge that is necessary for progress in science. Governments are looking for completely risk free scenarios, and within that narrow and naive definition, no scientist is 'risk free'. But by imposing their own convenient norms and ignoring the big picture where pure and general scientific knowledge brings about much good, they are actually putting society at much greater risk in the future. Especially the current administration, with its false tunnel vision of pseudo pious motives (like their ludicrous and objectionable handling of the morning after pill related 'Plan B'), should take note. It's them who have to lose the most. And if you really want to shoot yourself in the foot, at least don't stand on someone else's feet.

P.S: Thanks for the previous good wishes by the way. The report went OK, and I stay alive for at least another year.


Blogger Saket said...

Brilliant post as usual. Did the consuls at the Saudi and Egypt consulates get fired because of 9/11 or something? I can't understand why they would label "every bird a sparrow" regardless? If that's the fear stop holding conferences in the US as a policy I say.

1:33 AM  
Anonymous anya said...

Well summed up post.
The key, I think lies in the way the US views parts of the rest of the world. Would a scientist from France of similar stature be denied a visa? Or maybe from the Phillipines? Remember that it is not the scientific comunity which decides whether a scientist gets a visa or not .. but the administrative babus of the US. The difference is in their perspective ..


I have been visiting on and off when I do remember to visit. I'll add your link to my blogroll to make my visits more regular now.

12:33 PM  
Blogger Sumedha said...

Congratulations on surviving your trial by fire :)
I saw a telling comment on the current administration on a bumper sticker recently:
'49% of America agrees with 99% of the rest of the world.'

7:40 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Thanks. Politicians really have to exercise prudent decision making to an unusual extent in these times...but for that, one needs to have a brain. That's the real issue. :)

I heard that something like only 5 or 6 out of the hundreds of congressmen, have degrees in science and engineering. Throw in their penchant for pleasing the conservatives, and that speaks volumes about their decision making abilities. It's not just about getting technical knowledge, but about acquiring the ability for critical and unbiased thought; that's what you really get out of a science or engineering education, or at least what you should.

7:46 AM  
Blogger Hirak said...

It is even more ironic when he is the president of the International Council for Science in Paris which campaigns for free movement of scientists.
(see p.1531 in Science, 10th September, 2004)

12:26 PM  
Blogger SN said...

Hey AJ, good to see you back. And a great post. Disturbed as I am about such recent happenings, I believe these actions will come to haunt the US someday. Other countries are slowly but surely offering to the world what this "land of opportunity" once did. Soon, there will be no incentive for scientists and researchers to come to the US. Couple that with the pathetic state of school education in this country, one does not have to be a rocket scientist to figure out where it all is headed.

6:33 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Thanks SN! You are right...and as you know, it's already happening. Countries like China and South Korea are luring top scientists and engineers back with lucrative facilities and funds. India is also on its way, but I think that because of our perpetual bureaucratic games (not to mention reservation quotas), we are lagging well behind these other two nations. Hope we start sprinting soon.

Hirak: Yes. I believe he was elected quite recently.

8:03 PM  
Blogger Hirak said...

Ashujo: Well said. Compare that with China where scientists are committing suicide because of the pressure.

3:44 PM  

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