The Progress of Science | Jawaharlal Nehru

Nehru’s address to the National Academy of Sciences at their annual meeting held at Allahabad on March 05, 1938.

You are men of learning and many of you have distinguished records in the realm of science. Yet you have honoured me, an outsider, with an inivitation to participate in this annual gathering of yours and I have most willingly accepted that invitation. Science and academic halls have not known me for many a long year, and fate and circumstances have led me to the dust and din of the market-place and the field and the factory, where men live and toil and suffer. I have become involved in the great human upheavals that have shaken this land of ours in recent years. Yet in spite of the tumult and movement that have surrounded me, I do not come to you wholly as stranger. For I too have worshiped at the shrines of science and counted myself as one of its votaries.

Who indeed can afford to ignore science today? At every turn we have to seek its aid and the whole fabric of the world today is of its making. During the ten thousand years of human civilisation, science came in with one vast sweep a century and half ago, and during these 150 years it proved more revolutionary and explosive than anything that had gone before. We who live in this age of science live in an environment and under conditions which are totally different from those of pre-scientific age. But few realize this in its completeness, and they seek to understand the problems of today by a reference to a yesterday that is dead and gone.

Science has brought all these mighty changes and not all of them have been for the good of humanity. But the most vital and hopeful of the changes that it has brought has been the development of the scientific outlook in man. It is true that even today vast numbers of people still live mentally in the pre-scientific age, and that most of us, even when we talk glibly of science, betray it in our thought and action. Even scientists, learned in their particular subjects, often forget to apply the scientific method outside that charmed sphere. And yet it is the scientific method alone that offers hope to mankind and an ending of the agony of the world. This world is racked by fierce conflicts and they are analysed and called by human names. But essentially the major conflict is between the methods of science and the methods opposed to science.

In the early days of science there was much talk of a conflict between religion and science, and science was called materialistic and religion spiritual. That conflict hardly seems real today when science has spread out its wings and ventured to make the whole universe its field of action, and converted solid matter itself in to airy nothing. Yet the conflict was real, for it was conflict between the intellectual tyranny imposed by what was deemed to be religion and the free spirit of man nurtured by the scientific method. Between the two there can be no compromise. For science cannot accept the closing of the windows of mind, by whatever pleasant name this might be called; it cannot encourage blind faith in someone else’s faith. Science therefore must be prepared not only to look up to heavens and seek to bring them under its control, but also to look down, unafraid, in to the pit of hell. To seek to avoid either is not the way of science. The true scientist is the sage unattached to life and the fruit of action, ever seeking the truth wheresoever this quest might lead him. To tie himself to a fixed anchorage, from which there is no moving, is to give up that search and to become static in a dynamic world.

Perhaps there is no real conflict between true religion and science, but, if so, religion must put on the garb of science and approach all its problems in the spirit of science. A purely secular philosophy of life may be considered enough by most of us. Why should we trouble ourselves about matters beyond our ken when the problems of world insistently demand solution? And yet that secular philosophy itself must have some background, some objective, other than merely material well-being. It must essentially have spiritual values and certain standards of behaviour, and, when we consider these, we enter immediately in to the realm of what has been called religion.

But science has invaded this realm from many fronts. It has removed the line that was supposed to separate the world of things from the world of thoughts, matter from mind; it has peeped in to the mind and even the unconscious self of man and sought the inner motives that move him; it has even dared to discuss the nature of ultimate reality. The reality of even a particle of matter, we are told, is not its actuality but its potentiality. Matter becomes just a “group agitation” and nature a theatre for such agitation or “for the inter-relations of activities”. Everywhere there is motion, change, and the only unit of things real is the “event” which is, and instantaneously is no more. Nothing is except a happening. If this is the fate of the solid matter, what then are the things of the spirit?

How futile the old arguments seem in views of these astonishing developments in scientific thought. It is time we brought our minds in to line with the progress of science and gave up the meaningless controversies of an age gone by. It is true that science changes, and there is nothing dogmatic or final about it. But the method of science does not change, and it is to that we must adhere in our thought and activities, in research, in social life, in political and economic life, in religion. We may be specks of dust on a soap-bubble universe, but that speck of dust contained something that was the mind and spirit of man. Through the ages this has grown and made itself master of this earth and drawn power from its innermost bowels as well as thunderbolt in the sky. It has tried to fathom the secrets of the universe and brought the vagaries of nature itself to its use. More wonderful than the earth and the heavens is this mind and spirit of man which grows ever mightier and seeks fresh worlds to conquer.

That is the task of the scientist, but we know that all scientists are not fashioned in the heroic mould, nor are the philosopher-kings of whom Plato told us in the days of old. Kingliness might not be theirs, but even philosophizing is lacking, and the day’s task follows a narrow sphere and a dull routine. As they specialize, and specialize they must, they lose sight of the larger picture and becomes pedants out of touch with reality. In India the political conditions under which we have had the misfortune to live have further stunted their growth and prevented them from playing their rightful part in social progress. Fear has often gripped them, as it has gripped so many others in the past, lest by any activity or thought of theirs they might anger the Government of the day and thus endanger their security and position. It is not under these conditions that science flourishes or scientists prosper. Science requires a free environment to grow. When applied to social purposes, it requires a social objective in keeping with its method and the spirit of the age.

That fear complexes which oppressed India has happily disappeared to a large extent owing to the activities and movements initiated by by our great organization, the National Congress, and even the poor hungry and miserable peasant has a franker look today and a straighter back. It is the time that the shadow of that fear and apprehension vanished from our academic halls also.

We have vast problems to face and to solve. They will not be solved by politicians alone, for they may not have the vision or expert knowledge; they will not be solved by the scientists alone, for they will not have the power to do so or the larger outlook which takes everything in to its ken. They can and will be solved by the cooperation of the two for a well-defined and social objective.

That objective is necessary, for without it our efforts are vain and trivial and lack co-ordination. We have seen in Soviet Russia how a consciously held objective, backed by coordinated effort, can change a backward country in to an advanced industrial State with an ever-rising standard of living. Some such methods we shall have to pursue if we are to make rapid progress.

The greatest of our problems is that of the land, but intimately connected with it is that of industry. And side by side with these go the social services. All of these will have to be tackled together and our plans co-ordinated. That is a vast undertaking, but it will have to be shouldered. Soon after the formation of the Congress Ministries, in August last, the Working Committee of the Congress passed a resolution which should interest scientists and experts. I should like, therefore, to draw your attention to it. It ran thus:

The Working Committee recommends to the Congress Ministries the appointment of a Committee of experts to consider urgent and vital problems the solution of which is necessary to any scheme of national reconstruction and social planning. Such solution will require extensive surveys and the collection of data, as well as a clearly defined social objective. Many of these problems cannot be dealt with effectively on a provincial basis and the interests of adjoining provinces are interlinked. Comprehensive river surveys are necessary for formulation of a policy to prevent disastrous floods, to utilize the water for purpose of irrigation, to consider the problem of soil erosion, to eradicate malaria, and for the development of hydroelectric and other schemes. For this purpose the whole river valley will have to be surveyed and investigated, and large scale State planning resorted to. The development and control of industries require also joint and co-ordinated action on the part of several provinces. The Working Committee advises therefore that, to begin with, an inter-provincial Committee of Experts be appointed to consider the general nature of problems to be faced, and to suggest how, and in what order, these should be tackled. The Expert Committee may suggest the formation of special committees or boards to consider such problems separately and to advise the provincial governments concerned as to the joint action to be undertaken.

The rest of the resolution dealt with the sugar industry. Something has been done in this latter respect, a Power Alcohol and other committees have been appointed, but I wish more had been done. I should like an aggressive and widespread tackling of our problems by experts. I should like museums and permanent exhibitions for the education of our masses, especially the peasantry, to grow up in every district. I remember the wonderful peasant museums I saw in the U.S.S.R. and compare them with the pitiful agricultural exhibitions that are organized here from time to time. I also remember vividly that splendid and astonishing museum at Munich and wonder rather wistfully when some such things will grow up in India!

It is for this Academy of Science to take a lead in all such matters and to advise the Government thereon. The Government should co-operate with them and help them and take full advantage of their expert knowledge. But the Academy must not just wait for the Government to give it push every time. We have got too much in to the habit of waiting for the government to take initiative in everything. It is the business of the Government to take the initiative, but it is also the business of the scientists to take the initiative themselves. We cannot wait for each other. We must get a move on.

And so, having taken up so much of your time, I commend you to your labours, and hope that you will have the privilege of serving India and helping in the progress and advancement of her people.

Jawaharlal Nehru

Jawaharlal Nehru

Jawaharlal Nehru was first Prime Minister of the Republic of India.