That the Modi government has been able to coopt National Science Day as well as it has speaks only to the occasion’s moral vacuity. India’s National Science Day is the day on which physicist C.V. Raman discovered the optical effect named for him, and the government zeroed in on this discovery, over numerous others, because it won Raman a Nobel Prize. (If another scientist wins another science Nobel Prize in future, will the day be changed?) The Day’s foundation in effect has nothing to say about the spiritual, moral and aspirational scaffolding of science’s practice in the country. It doesn’t encourage, for example, the ethical practice of science, or that science must as a duty inform politics and governance, or that the scientific publics must in all contexts strive to uphold the spirit of critical thinking.

National Science Day has no prescriptions attached to it; it simply commemorates one man’s one achievement at one time. (The theme ascribed to each science day is equally purposeless.) So its coattails can be easily hitched to any wagon, even to pseudoscience – as the BJP in power at the Centre has done, by celebrating National Science Week and having its ministers talk in the press about National Science Day while calling the inclusion of Ayurveda and homeopathy within the national healthcare system “integrated science” and talking about misinformation and disinformation as if everyone else but itself produces them. “Integrated Approach in S&T for Sustainable Future” is, incidentally, the theme for National Science Day 2022.

Much as I dislike the concept, I do believe we need a National Science Day – but not the one that exists. The latter is a container, a receptacle that is only too happy to hold anything poured inside, whether an elixir or sewage. Instead, we need a National Science Day to remember what we have lost as a result of the occasion’s current character. For one, we have lost an opportunity for an occasion that reaffirms a science-related thing to which we can all aspire.

For example, we can renew a vow every year on this day to keep considerations of caste, class and creed out of our universities and research facilities. (So that when one scientist does, others understand in a simple way why they have to stand up and speak up.) We can promise to keep science from contributing to any form of violence – physical, mental, economic, structural. (So that when the government develops “chilli grenades”, both scientists and the non-scientists at large have a simple justification for resistance.) We can attach scientific success to open knowledge and open access so that the fruits of scientists’ labour are available for everyone to enjoy. (So an administrator doesn’t withhold a scientist’s promotion because the latter didn’t publish peer-reviewed papers that would end up behind a paywall.) And so forth. There are many virtues to be had through the honest practice of science, and a national festival – such as it is – is a phenomenal opportunity to formalise them for science’s benefit.

We also need a National Science Day that skips over the obsession with the scientific temper, or at least combines scientific temper with social responsibility. But one goose step at a time.