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Inaugural Address by Ambassador Nirupama Rao at the Indian Women Science Congress at Bhubaneshwar (5 January 2012)

Hon’ble Dr. D. Purandeswari, 
Dr. Gretchen Kalonji,
Prof. Geetha Bali,
Prof. Vijay Lakshmi Saxena

It is a great privilege for me to address the “First Women’s Science Congress" as part of the 99th Indian Science Congress being jointly hosted by the KIIT University and the National Institute of Science Education and Research, in Bhubaneswar. I am very happy to visit fascinating Odisha for the first time.

I am  honoured to have been invited by Professor Geetha Bali to deliver the inaugural address here this morning. I compliment the organizers of the  Congress for choosing the evocative theme of ‘Science and Technology for Inclusive Innovation- Role of Women’ for this year’s deliberations. I also appreciate the fact that the organizers have brought together so many talented women scientists who are to be congratulated for their achievements, and who, I am sure, will inspire younger members of their cohort to attain even higher pinnacles of  success.

Human inquisitiveness and the  quest for comprehending the nature of the universe around us have engendered science or the study of the unknown. Our very own Indian civilization has always celebrated the spirit of inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge for the advancement of humankind. It was our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru who said in 1947 that the "future belongs to science and those who make friendship with science". Today, more than ever before, there is need to revisit the concept of the "scientific temper" envisioned by Prime Minister Nehru.

Our founding fathers recognized the need for promoting the scientific temper and the crucial role of science and technology in building a modern, strong and vibrant India. Their vision laid a new basis, a renewed commitment to re-igniting the spirit of scientific inquiry, rational thinking, innovation and channeling all this into the making of a modern country.

Women, as the popular saying goes, "hold up half the sky". The Indian sky still needs many more skilled and qualified women to sustain it, and to disseminate the fruits of progress throughout the country. The number of women scientists in our country is still too few - in fact, this paucity in numbers is a world- wide phenomenon. The question we must ask ourselves is why is there a relative absence of women in science. It cannot be due to the women themselves. Is it because of the institutions to which they belong? This is the question to which I found myself constantly returning as I wrote my speech.

The involvement of women in the field of science is as old as human civilization. An ancient Egyptian, Merit-Ptah (c. 2700 BCE), is the earliest known female scientist named in the history of science. Indian history celebrates the scientific pursuits of its illustrious daughter, Lilavati – a renowned mathematician of the 12th century. In 1935, the year of the founding of the Indian Academy of Sciences, one of our pioneering women scientists, E.K Janaki Ammal became a Fellow of the Academy, and of the Indian National Science Academy in 1957.  The image of the wise woman, the healer and nurturer who has access to the ocean of knowledge is common to many cultures.

Historical evidence and scientific research show that the pursuit of science is gender neutral. Yet, the contribution of women to technology is hidden from history.  The moot point is why scientific streams remained largely male-dominated or why there are very few women members in various national science academies or in decision-making positions in scientific establishments. This also begs a question whether we are doing enough in India to encourage the participation of women in Indian science, or more importantly, what more should we be doing to make science more inclusive. We cannot afford to be charged with gender blindness in this crucial field that is so vital for India's development.

In a recent talk, Dr. Subra Suresh, Director of the US National Science Foundation reported that the increase in PhDs in science and engineering in the  US over the last 20 years or so is primarily because of an  increase in women PhDs.  It is wonderful news with respect to entry. But the real problem perhaps lies in retention; women leave the scientific work force in large numbers owing to several factors, ranging from societal values to work-home balance. This is a huge issue for the US national workforce as in many other countries. Similar findings have been highlighted in a report on “Status of women scientists in R&D in Delhi” submitted to the National Commission for Women. In fact, several countries continue to seek policy solutions to address the problem of “leaky pipeline” insofar as retention of women in science is concerned. These challenges are not exclusive to just science, but cut across many professions.

It is rightly said that the absence of women from science implies a formidable underused human resource. Gender based disparities have remained the most prevalent form of exclusion globally and perhaps more so in the developing world. The Indian experience is no exception to this state of affairs. Despite global economic turbulence, our country has done well in terms of economic growth. However, for growth to be meaningful, it must be inclusive and benefit all sections of society. Indeed, no society can claim to be a part of the modern civilized world unless it provides an enabling environment for empowering women and provides them equal opportunities. And, in general, we have to create a culture of science in our country, attain a high scientific literacy rate, empower men and women with the ability to understand scientific terms, concepts and methods and the impact of science on society. Our citizens must be imbued with the spirit of enquiry. Today, we in India have given the world such concepts as frugal innovation, reverse innovation, Gandhian innovation, about getting more from less for more people -"more from less for more" as Dr RA Mashelkar and the late Dr CK Prahalad termed it. We must become leaders in innovation for the whole world - innovation with equity and sustainability, as Dr Mashelkar puts it. And in this enterprise, women must play a role commensurate with their proven intellectual capacities.

With sustained efforts in recent years, the science and technological base in India has broadened and S&T breakthroughs are improving the well being of our people. Look at game changers like the Akash computer tablet and Chhotukool, a refrigerator costing $ 70. At the same time, there is a recognition that we together – the government, our education and scientific institutions, the private sector and the scientific community - need to redouble national efforts to make science more inclusive, and in turn, harness its full potential to meet our development imperatives. As our  Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh has  said, and I quote, “If India has to re-emerge as a knowledge power in the 21st Century, then it can only be through developing a strong capability in science and technology.” (Unquote)

Despite several challenges, Indian women have been active participants in all disciplines of science & technology. In 1975 we had only 800 woman engineers, while the latest University Grants Commission statistics show that a total of 276,806 women were enrolled in engineering and technology courses at the start of the 2009-10 academic sessions. Similarly, the number of woman Ph.D. holders in science in 1950 was about 80 but today, this number is more than 6000. Women are faring better and better in the academic field. Yet, how many of them are Fellows of leading National Science Academies, or Vice Chancellors of Universities, or Directors of Scientific institutions? What is the reason for this dichotomy between what is called early promise and the  harnessing of capabilities honed over years of experience? Dr MS Swaminathan while referring to this problem spoke of how we need to creat mid career opportunities for women scientists who have had to quit their careers immediately after marriage, self employment opportunities in the area of science and technology for women professionals and entrepreneurs, create S&T parks in areas such as nutrition, food science, post harvest processing and value addition to primary agricultural products. An organic definition of a Science for Women concept is needed. This is especially in agriculture which in India is getting increasingly feminized, due to outmigration of men. Technological empowerment is the term applied to enabling women, particularly rural women to improve productivity, profitability and sustainability of crop and animal husbandry, marine and inland fisheries, forestry and agro forestry. In Dr Swaminathan's words, "The future of agriculture in our country will largely depend upon steps taken to empower rural women with new technical skills and scientific knowledge".

To respond to challenges of ensuring greater participation of Indian women into scientific streams, the Ministry of Science and Technology has proactively been taking enabling measures. The Department of Science and Technology (DST) launched the “Women Scientists Scheme” in 2002 for providing opportunities to women scientists and technologists who desired to return to mainstream science after a break in career. Over two thousand women scientists have benefited from the fellowship initiative. The special programme “CURIE” (Consolidation of University Research for Innovation and Excellence in Women Universities) was launched by the DST in 2009 specifically for the women universities to enhance their R&D infrastructure. I have learnt that six Women Universities have been supported for three years under CURIE programme. The DST was the first department to introduce Gender Budgeting in totality. Twenty Rural Women Technology parks have been established in various States to showcase technology options; provide training and also backward and forward linkages to rural women for undertaking income generation activities based on local resources.

It is a positive development that on the recommendation of the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, the Government of India set up a Task Force on Women in Science in 2005. The Task Force has recommended a series of measures for fostering and supporting women resources in S&T, attracting girls to science and new policies, rules and initiatives to enhance women’s participation in science. In order to implement its recommendations, a Standing Committee has been set up under the Chairmanship of the Hon’ble Minister of Science & Technology and Earth Sciences for creating a gender enabling environment in S&T institutions and organizations. These are indeed welcome steps.

It all begins with education - education that enhances the quality of a nation and in promoting gender equality, eliminating the gender gap in primary school enrollment, and in secondary, undergraduate and graduate education. I was so happy to visit the tribal school run by Dr Samanta at the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences this morning and meet with the children there. I was particularly struck by the fact that tribal girls constitute 50% of the enrollment in the school. This is wonderful. As one eminent woman Nobel Laureate, Rosalyn Yalow notes: "The world cannot afford the loss of the talents of half of it's people if we are to solve the many problems which beset us". The process of knowledge creation and generation has to include women. And when it comes to science, as one of our very eminent woman scientists, Dr Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath has said, " We need to develop a critical mass of women scientists in the decision making process to make a dent". I hope we will create more and more institutions of excellence that will foster such a spirit - institutions like Nalanda University where women and men students once debated the meaning of the universe and explored it with a sense of wonder and unquenchable thirst for answers to the mystery of life.

I am confident that the First Women Science Congress will provide an excellent platform to celebrate the achievements of Indian women in science and also deliberate on ways to enhance their participation in science, research and development and decision making processes relating to science. It is time to think out of the box and think big if we are to emerge as global leaders in science and harness the potential of science as an agent of transformation and development. Let us make a fresh beginning with new initiatives for encouraging the participation and retention of Indian women in science and technology and making them equal partners in all processes of development and governance. . This is not only desirable but essential for all round national development and progress.

I would like to end on a personal note. I know how an education in science can impact lives. I was inspired to be an independent, professional woman by my mother who, in the year India won it's independence, graduated from a college for girls in Mangalore with a first class degree in mathematics. I know 2012 is the Year of Mathematics. For me, as a little girl growing up in the fifties and sixties, mother was a fountain of knowledge and a go to person for all our math questions. And because math experts are also good at so much more, she was an expert on almost everything else we studied  from poetry to English writing style, geography, chemistry and current affairs. She taught us to appreciate the world with a keen, meticulous spirit of enquiry. And, that I believe, was result of her scientific education and the high standards it had set. She was the one who contextualized the story of Madame Curie for me when as a young nine year old, I read the Curie biography for the first time. Mother empowered us as a result of her own scientific temper and intellectual dimension. You educate a woman and she educates a family.

Once again, I would like to express my happiness for being here with all of you today. I wish the deliberations at the Congress all success. I also take this opportunity to wish all the participants a very happy and fulfilling New Year.

Thank you.