Daily Current Affairs – 2nd January 2017Devendra Vishwakarma
Communicating the science
- Science has brought forward remarkable changes in lives of human beings. This has been possible because the researches made in laboratories and on-field sites have been documented and communicated to the world.
- Science communication activities have gained momentum in India in past few years where efforts have been made from both governmental and non-governmental platforms to enhance the public understanding of science.
- The idea has been to help science and a scientific culture penetrate India’s socio-culturally diverse society, and to transform it into a nation of scientifically thinking and scientifically aware people.
- However, science communication needs to be more effective, both in terms of quality and quantity. There still exists illiteracy or ignorance about common scientific principles, such as the fact that the Earth orbits the Sun or that gravity keeps the man grounded.
What is science?
- Science is all about details, precision, accuracy, and it is indeed 99% perspiration.
- It has been known from the scientists that the beauty and joy in doing science lies in those rare moments when the pieces of a puzzle come together. That is why science is considered a highly individualistic, personal affair.
- They do communicate their work to non-specialists, especially in matters of obtaining funding or seeking promotions and awards.
- However, in universities and research institutes, their primary responsibility is to train the next generation of students through the practical of conducting high-calibre research. In this research, their goal is absolute quality, ideally without any concern for possible practical applications.
- The research findings in soft sciences like ecology, sociology and economics are easier to understand for a layman in contrast to hard sciences like physics, chemistry and biology.
- Many would claim to understand something about climate change, body language or inflation as opposed to say hadrons, the Mannich reaction or epigenetics. But it remains to be known if the person actually understands soft science which is easier to communicate?
Communicating the science
- The whole business of research outreach is fraught with problems.
- The standard sequence for scientific work should be patent, refereed publication, newspaper, with the first and third steps wholly optional in an academic institution.
- The danger in encouraging “communication” too much is that there would be a temptation to reverse the order and make it newspaper, mostly no publication (or controversial publication), and then no patent. This ofcourse is an extreme situation but still possible as it is already happening in some CSIR and DBT/DST laboratories, sadly even from some IITs.
- The main problem with a scientist trying to disseminate his or her work to the general public is that the detail that is lost in communicating with the public is not a superfluous extra.
- The detail is the whole work. Without this detail, there would be no point in the work. Details are hard to understand and appreciate. Many breakthrough discoveries are incredibly hard to envisage, carry out and understand.
This brings forward simple but intriguing questions
- Do scientists in publicly funded institutions need to communicate the gist of their work to the general taxpaying public? Are they morally bound to do it?
- Does an increased awareness of science among lay persons increase its acceptability, and eventually create a better sense of its requirement, thereby leading to increased funding?
- Or on other hand, is it easy to communicate high science to the public?
- Is there a difference in communicating the hard and soft sciences to non-specialists?
- In simplifying scientific matters for the sake of explaining it to lay people, does one lose the essential thread of the work?
These questions have no easy answers. But they can be answered by using various modes of communication to reach out to the masses.
What can be done?
- India is a critically lacking in large mass of science communication experts, who on the one hand can talk with scientists and on the other can disseminate essential aspects of the science to the public. The community of such science experts in India is non-coordinated and sub-critical.
- The print media has taken science to common man through Vigyan (Science) — a monthly popular science magazine in Hindi —published by Vigyan Parishad since 1915. This can be encouraged more as today, Indian science magazines such as Science Today and Bulletin of Sciences have been discontinued.
- Cue should be taken from National Institute of Science Communication (NISCOM) which has published Hindi popular science journal Vigyan Pragati (Progress in Science), Science Reporter (an English monthly) and Science Ki Dunia (an Urdu quarterly).
- Newspapers are doing their bit by including ‘science and technology’ coloumn which include scientific discoveries as well as advancements in existing technologies. But there can be a lot more of this in TV where people of all ages get knowledge in an appealing way.
- Folk media such as puppet shows, street plays, stage performances, folk songs and folk dances have the capability to reach segments of society where other forms of media have limitations. Such traditional means of communication are not only entertaining, but also offer two-way communication and are cost effective.
- Creation of science journalists who can present useful science in an interesting and innovative manner. Along with it, India can take initiative in mobilising like-minded people in South Asia to form Science Writers’ and Journalists’ Associations in each country, with help of international organisations.
The Constitution of India provides for a fundamental duty “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and spirit of enquiry”. Hence it is critical for India to create a cadre of scientists and science journalists who can fire an enquiring attitude and analytical approach that leads to rational thinking and the pursuit of truth without prejudice.
Connecting the dots:
- What is ‘science communication’? Discuss the challenges faced by it and opportunities available in this field.