Science and Society: Are We Developing Mutually?

Posted on January 17, 2010 in Sci- Tech, Society

Mohit Kumar Jolly:

Should India move towards atomic power or solar power? Should more funding be issued to stem cells or Chandrayaan 2012? Were the GM (genetically modified) crops launched after proper tests? These are questions the common man of India has little idea about. Why? Why are such policy decisions that have a profound interest on society at large not involve the opinion/involvement of the latter? It is beyond doubt that the experienced eminent scientists and science policy makers of the country have a better state of art knowledge about these contemporary issues, but is that all? Do the citizens of the largest democracy of the world have no right to information for investment of the research and development funds, a lion’s share of which has been paid off their pockets as tax? Or is there an abyss of disconnect between the fourth pillar of democracy- media and the scientific community? Can you name more than one national newspaper having a regular dedicated section on science/technology/environment issues?

“It is suicidal to create a society dependent upon science and technology in which hardly anybody knows anything related to science and technology”, Carl Sagan, the eminent astrophysicist and popular science writer once said. Is ours a suicidal society (according to this quote)? Probably yes. How can we prevent more suicides to happen then? How can a rural pregnant woman be convinced to see the solar eclipse, over riding the deeply rooted superstition that she would deliver a dead child if she sees the sun during the eclipse? Here comes science communication — an effort to bridge the gap between science and society.

What is science communication? Science communication aims at dissemination of scientific knowledge and information (gathered in laboratories and journals) to the masses in a format that they can appreciate and understand science. But why is it needed at all? Let scientists do the research. Did you ever dream that your favorite soft drinks that bollywood stars advertise would contain pesticides? Do you know that the PET water bottles you carry along with you should not be used more than once for carrying water, because the material of the bottle starts degrading and dissolving in water and it has been found to be a potential cause of many gastro-intestinal diseases including stomach cancer? It is because of these pervasive effects and repercussions on social structure and our daily life that knowledge of science and information gained from it becomes essential to be communicated to society. It is for informing and empowering the public, for developing scientific temper and establishing better linkages among different branches of science and the society that science communication is essential.

Next question that comes is, who shall communicate science? The scientists can’t put at stake their research work and go and educate people. What is their motivation or incentive at all? Why should they not invest time in publishing papers in international journals and climb a ladder of respect in their community? On the other hand, why should media cover science? Why to cover one page on science and not give that to an advertisement of toothpaste that could give them a couple of lakhs? How many editors/journalists are competent to report science news? Now this is an unending blame circle. Here comes the work of skilled science communicators – people who would bring scientific facts and information in the public domain and stimulate public debates over areas that have a direct effect on our world, people who decide on their target audience, the message they would like to convey and the mode and format of communication that would be the best fit in given conditions.

Science communication, as a movement, started around two decades ago in the west and now the National Science Foundation (USA) has made it mandatory for scientists to communicate their work to public with a separate provision for budget in research grants. India is also expected to follow the path soon. Various universities in India and abroad have started postgraduate courses/degrees in science communication.

When you talk of science communication, it’s not only the ability to understand science/technology, but also the concepts of communication, socio-psychology, mass media, culture etc. that come into play and hence there is a dire dearth of dedicated and skilled science communicators all around the globe. Is it a career option? Definitely – this virgin field of practice, study and research has a plethora of opportunities to offer. Research labs and institutions, science academies, NGOs, universities and corporate world all require science communicators for developing communication strategies and management. You can be a science writer, documentary maker, journalist, publication officer, science communication executive/ consultant, media skills trainer, science demonstrator in science museums, science toy maker and what not. Just choose your mode, format and audience and get going.

Remember, you need to dream first, then comes the vision! If you dream of a scientifically aware and awake India in 2020, just be the change you want to see. It’s the dawn of science communication. Be the first one to rise.

Mohit Kumar Jolly is a correspondent at Youth Ki Awaaz and also a final year undergraduate student at IIT Kanpur. He is interested in science journalism and communication.