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Science wakes up to a stifling new world
‘Soft targets’ resigned to risk

New Delhi, Dec. 29: Despite enhanced vigilance, it will not be easy to protect India’s science establishments from terrorist strikes because of their culture of unfettered interaction and openness, scientists and policy-makers said today.

The attack in Bangalore, the first apparent terrorist strike at an Indian scientific institution, has prompted scientists to rethink security strategies. But science establishments will remain “soft targets”, they chorused.

“I’m deeply worried,” said Raghunath Mashelkar, the director-general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). With 40 laboratories involved in areas of economic and strategic importance, the CSIR is the country’s largest research agency.

“Scientists cannot build fortresses around themselves. Our science labs will remain vulnerable. The level of intelligence needs to be stepped up,” Mashelkar said.

India’s space, defence and atomic energy centres have relatively rigorous security systems in place. But academic institutions like the Indian Institute of Science, the IITs and autonomous science institutes have, as one scientist put it, “porous borders”.

Many science institutions allow and encourage unhindered interaction with people.

“In some places, we don’t even have minimum security today. It makes us soft targets. We’ll have to do something, but can’t overdo it,” said C.N.R. Rao, who heads the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Prime Minister (SAC-PM).

For terrorists eyeing India’s economic or strategic assets, scientists would be possible targets in both their workplaces and homes, analysts said. A leading scientist who is a senior adviser to the central government, for instance, goes out for morning walk at 4.45 when it is still dark and roads are deserted.

“And when the SAC-PM meets, you have 28 of the nation’s top scientists at one place, with virtually no security,” said a senior scientist.

“We’re trying to be extra vigilant, but we have a large 50-acre complex,” said Dr P.K. Kaw, the director of the Institute for Plasma Research in Ahmedabad, an institution under the department of atomic energy, pursuing nuclear fusion research.

An official said it would be impossible to provide a security umbrella to everyone all the time. “Open conferences are routine in science,” said science and technology secretary Valangiman Ramamurthy.

Scientists said the choice of last night’s target was not surprising. “Bangalore is India’s science city,” Rao said. “It was a science city long before it became a software city.”

With the IISc, the National Centre for Biological Sciences, the Raman Research Institute, the National Aerospace Laboratories and several space and defence laboratories, Bangalore has the nation’s highest population of scientists.

At the Centre for Advanced Research in Indore, an institution under the department of atomic energy involved in advanced laser technologies, officials met today to check entry into its campus. “It will cause some inconvenience to friends who might be visiting our township,” said its director Vinod Sahni. “But we live in times when they’ll have to get used to it.”

“The science community all over the world is an open community. Scientists interact with students and society. Science thrives only in that kind of environment,” said Mashelkar. “We’ll have to find a way to minimise risk without compromising on this culture.”

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