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Why Govt Must Do Away With New Webinar Rules & Trust Academics

The establishment needs to trust the judgement of their academic community rather than making complicated rules.

Updated
Opinion
6 min read
Guidelines state that virtual events on topics pertaining to India’s ‘internal matters’ need clearance from the MEA. Image used for representation. 
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“Science is a collaborative effort. It is truly international in scope. The combined results of several people working together is often much more effective than that of an individual scientist working alone,” said John Bardeen, the only person to win the Nobel Prize for Physics twice.

Modern science thrives on collaborations — both national and international. As a general thumb rule, anything negatively affecting free exchange of ideas between international researchers is detrimental to the growth of modern science and research. This will decelerate the progress of any scientifically advanced nation.

MoE’s New Circular To Academic Institutions

In January 2021, the Indian Ministry of Education’s new guidelines were sent to all academic/research institutions in the country stating that a prior clearance is required for any virtual meeting/seminar/conference/workshop involving foreign scientists/academics.

Since the lockdown due to the COVID-19 health crisis, at a time when all collaborative exchanges are mostly done through virtual platforms online, this circular came as a real shock to academics mainly because of two reasons.

A Shock for Scientists & Other Academics

Firstly, this is the time when researchers need maximum freedom and independence to participate and host online events as frequently as possible. Most of the scientifically active countries are still in lockdown and practice ‘work from home’, making virtual collaborations the only possible way to work together on joint research projects.

Secondly, new guidelines state that any virtual event on topics pertaining to ‘India’s internal matters’ need clearance from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). This choice of words is needlessly ambiguous and there is no clarity as to what is excluded/included in its ambit.

Technically speaking, this is open to interpretation in any shape or form. There is no objective way of defining it.

‘India’s internal matter’ can be subjective depending on the official or committee who approve these sort of clearance applications.

One official could easily argue that anything to do with India-based space science, nuclear physics, geography, wildlife, geology, genetics, encryption, and the likes, are matters of national security and sensitive ‘internal matters’. Another official could be more relaxed and argue that only matters of defence, diplomacy and politics are sensitive ‘internal matters’.

There is simply no way of objectively defining these boundaries using the information given in this new governement guideline. Hence, it is prone to misusage and harassment if the decision-making officials happen to be capricious, rigid or paranoid.

“The new restrictions make academic freedom and democratic discourse impossible by diminishing any potential avenues for criticism or thought different from the arguments the government approves of. I believe the nation recognises the merit of cultivating a scientific temper and offers a conducive space for academia, which ultimately can happen only if we cherish and accept our differences of opinion, approach and philosophy. The government’s attempt to delegitimise free expression is bound to fail.”
Dr Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP & Author to Dr Aswin Sekhar for The Quint
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Global Collaboration Amid COVID-19

It is ironic that the Indian establishment chose to bring in these new restrictions, especially when the pandemic clearly demonstrated how useful and effective global research collaborations are, when it comes to COVID-19 testing mechanisms and vaccine development.

“While India’s security is of utmost importance, such blanket restrictions on academic freedom online could halt the possibility of all international scientific discussions. The COVID-19 pandemic has been an excellent example of how unrestricted collaborations and open discussions among various stakeholders across the globe is a key factor in scientific advancement and emergency response. In the age of rapid advancements in research and development, such restrictions could be detrimental for India’s scientific progress.”
Dr Lekshmi Rita Venugopal, Epidemiologist, Department of Health and Welfare, Idaho State, USA to Dr Aswin Sekhar for The Quint

'National Security Matters' Are Taken Seriously

It goes beyond saying that Indian scholars/academics and researchers value and respect matters of national security.

The establishment needs to trust the judgement of their academic community more on this matter, rather than making complicated rules and roadblocks at every step.

It has to be understood that there are tens of thousands of academics and scholars who research on totally harmless subjects, which are light-years away from topics connected to national security.

The new guidelines should be sensible and logical enough to exclude such a large majority of researchers who have nothing to do with security risks whatsoever.
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Making them go through this ambiguous jargon and rounds of red tape does nothing but kill morale.

Making the Indian system robust enough to detect possible espionage or track miscreants (a tiny minority), who work in topics directly related to national security should not be at the expense of inconveniencing and doubting every other dignified academic in the country.

Definition of 'Internal Matters' Needs Clarity

Some officials tend to use blanket words like 'borders', 'Jammu', 'Kashmir', 'Northeast' etc (given in guidelines) to classify subjects as sensitive 'internal matters'. This directly implies that any research or event or discussion connected with these words alone can be interpreted as ‘sensitive’ or a ‘security’ threat.

To give a counterexample on this matter, you just have to look at innocuous research projects in geography, geology and so on.

“It is very important to define clearly what India’s internal matters pertain to, especially when it comes to research. Because sometimes being geologists we need to discuss the impact of trans-Himalayan ranges across STEM areas of research. Then all the areas named by MEA fall under this, say Jammu, Kashmir. They host most spectacular geodynamic couplings of Indian plate, focusing on both climate change and implication to planetary science. Then how would one avoid using the so-called places in discussion? And researchers like me would absolutely feel limited or restricted from collaborative working in this from any potential international network. Hope MEA revises these rules and moves away from making such arbitrary rulings.”
Dr Sruthi Uppalapati, Geologist, University of Oslo, Norway to Dr Aswin Sekhar for The Quint
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The Consequences for Research

Making Indian academics apply for clearances every single time for each and every virtual meeting involving foreign scientists is going to drastically reduce their motivation and morale for high-quality international research projects.

Prof Gautam Menon, a top physicist at The Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai, enlists some key concerns:

“These new rules:

  1. Stifle academic research
  2. Reduce India's ability to make a difference to international discourse
  3. Prevent government from getting useful and critical input regarding its policies
  4. Hamper student and researcher training
  5. Attack the core sources of India's soft power
  6. Prevent us from profiting from being equal partners in the creation of knowledge
  7. Discourage international collaboration
  8. Cut us off from the Indian diaspora who have a special interest in working with India
  9. Promote self-censorship”

As it goes without saying, this is an undesirable outcome for any evolved civilisation.

The detrimental effect of this new rule is not just restricted to evolution of natural sciences alone. Whatever has been listed above applies (in varying degrees) to fields of technology, social sciences, arts, and humanities as well.

Paranoia, Surveillance Tarnishes Spirit of Research

If such rules get implemented without any proper checks and balances, other progressive nations will start finding us too complicated, slow, and bureaucratic to collaborate with. This is not going to boost the intellectual image of our nation globally.

If investor-confidence is important for our nation, then it is high time we become more open to foreign research collaborations.

A less conservative attitude needs to percolate to both virtual events, as well as issuing visas to foreign collaborators for in-person conferences as well.
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If academics from multiple countries do not have the freedom to meet, learn, and exchange ideas freely in our society, then we are doing a huge injustice to our own rich intellectual legacy and heritage in the world of knowledge.

After all, our own wise sages and travellers encouraged this mantra through knowledge — Tamaso mā jyotir gamaya (From darkness, lead me to light).’

(The author, Dr Aswin Sekhar, is an Indian astronomer affiliated to the Paris Observatory, France. He tweets @aswinsek. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

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