Two British chemists, J.L. Simonsen and P.S. MacMahon, were the driving force behind the first Indian Science Congress that was held from January 15 to 17, 1914 at the Asiatic Society, Calcutta. “One hundred and five scientists from different parts of India and abroad attended and the papers numbering 35 were divided into six sections — botany, chemistry, ethnography, geology, physics, zoology under six sectional presidents,” the website of the association informs us.
C.V. Raman, Meghnad Saha, statistician P.C. Mahalanobis and engineer M. Visvesvaraya were among the Indian scientists who held forth at these early Congresses and were instrumental in shaping a vision for science that would be relevant to India as an independent nation.
Cut to 2013 when the organisers of the Congress were gearing up for the centenary edition, and a stinging editorial appeared in India’s most popular science journal. “Few practising scientists of note consider the Congress as an important event,” P. Balaram, then the director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, wrote in Current Science, which he edited. “Pomp and ceremony take precedence over substance. Over the years, the Congress has been reduced to an occasion where the inaugural session appears to be the raison d’être for the meeting.” This was particularly ironic considering that Current Science, started in 1932, was itself a brainchild of deliberations from an earlier Congress.