In India, science has a craze among students and parents alike. It needs to be learned and understood if one wishes to score marks. But its significance has a larger perspective which extends beyond this image of a subject where one can score marks.
In all probability, the Constitution of India is the only Constitution in the world which reminds its citizens to develop and practise their ‘scientific temper’. Article 51 A(h) states, “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop the scientific temper, humanism and spirit of inquiry and reform.”
As an independent nation, India started out well by prioritising science. Jawaharlal Nehru coined the term ‘scientific temper’ which, in my opinion, will forever be a gift to the scientific community and the Indian masses. The Wikipedia entry on ‘scientific temper’ reads – “Scientific temper is a way of life – an individual and social process of thinking and acting which uses a scientific method which may include questioning, observing reality, testing, hypothesizing, analyzing and communicating (not necessarily in that order).” Nehru himself states that: “[…] It is the scientific approach, the adventurous and yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on pre-conceived theory, the hard discipline of the mind—all this is necessary, not merely for the application of science but for life itself and the solution of its many problems.” He went on to give this nation 32 educational and scientific institutions in a span of 15 years between 1948-1963.
This was a boost for science, India and its people. Furthermore, on March 4, 1958, the Scientific Policy Resolution (SPR) of Government of India came into force. It clearly stated, “The dominating feature of the contemporary world is the intense cultivation of science on a large scale, and its application to meet a country’s requirements.” The Technology Policy Statement (TPS) of 1983 emphasised the need to attain technological competence and self-reliance. The Science and Technology Policy (STP) of 2003 highlighted the significance of science and technology (S&T) together. It emphasized the need for investment into R&D to address national problems. The Science, Technology & Innovation Policy 2013 articulated the need for innovation and the creation of a national innovation ecosystem.
Science is a part and parcel of our curriculum. It is integrated in our education system – and is omnipresent in schools, colleges and universities. The teachers strive hard to make it accessible and comprehensible for the students. But today, this has become more of a static process where marks and degrees take an upper hand along with theoretical knowledge. There’s extremely less focus on the teaching/learning methods involved. So, a system for providing an education in science exists, but what about science literacy?
Science literacy stands on four pillars, namely:
1. Knowledge of the basic facts of science.
2. Understanding the methods of science by questioning, experimenting, observing, and drawing inferences.
3. Appreciation of the positive results after scientific experiments.
4. To reject unconquered beliefs.
In the words of Jon Miller, Director of the Public Opinion Laboratory at Northern Illinois University, “Scientific Literacy is one of those terms that is often used but seldom defined. The scientifically literate should understand the scientific method and vocabulary well enough to follow public debates about issues involving science and technology.”
Against the backdrop of this concept of science communication and literacy, India has been witnessing many such efforts, as is exemplified by the people’s science movement (PSM). The first prominent movement took place in the 1960s in the Kannur district of Kerala. It was organised by the Kerala Shashtra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), which was a forum of science writers. It devised a new way of involving the masses with science by taking out ‘Science Jathas’. The Jathas consisted of small groups of scientists, teachers, students and youths, travelling from village to village in a kind of procession, staging theatrical shows at every stop, accompanied by songs and the distribution of leaflets. A decade later, KSSP undertook a theme called ‘Science for Social Revolution’. This was termed as the best initiative focused on science literacy much more than science education. Its result was seen in the literacy movement in Kerala which made Ernakulum the nation’s first fully-literate district.
In 1981, the Nehru Centre in Bombay, released a document by P N Haksar, Dr Raja Ramanna and Dr PM Bhargava titled “A Statement on Scientific Temper”. In the introduction to the document, Dr Raja Ramanna says- “The nation owes a deep debt of gratitude to Jawaharlal Nehru, more than to any other, for the sustained growth and many-sided development of modern science and technology in India, as viable instruments of social transformation. The need of the time is the diffusion of science and technology into the societal fabric at all levels. This can only be achieved by promotion of what Jawaharlal Nehru chose to call the Scientific Temper – a rational attitude, the importance of which he emphasized time and again. Indeed, the Scientific Temper has to be fostered with care at the individual, institutional, social and political levels.” Presently, this template of science communication and popularisation is being carried out by the All India People’s Science Network (AIPSN) which is a network of over forty Peoples Science organisations, and the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS), which has units in 23 states and 350 districts with more than 300,000 volunteers (in more than 10,000 villages) working with an aim to bridge the knowledge, economic and social divides.
Successive ‘science policies’ of the past governments have put sufficient emphasis on the communication issue, but the on-ground results are still disappointing. In fact, science communication and literacy have taken a backseat in recent years, compared to the growth of science education. According to a Huffington Post article, “The Delhi-based Centre for the Study in Developing Societies (CSDS) and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS), a German foundation associated with a political party, conducted a sample survey on 6122 respondents in the age group of 15-34 years in 19 Indian states.” The survey was meant to collect the views of Indian youth on various issues. According to the survey, a majority of the respondents believed that religion (47%) should take precedence over science (33%). In another incident, the Indian Science Congress (2015) witnessed discussions about 40-engine planes and ancient surgery overshadow all other agendas. In response to this Dr Ram Prasad Gandhiraman, a scientist with the Nasa’s Ames Research Centre in California, filed an online petition asking for the session be cancelled, because it fused science with mythology.
Instead of popularising science, the Indian government is polarising the masses on issues which go against the spirit of scientific enquiry.
Today, we are in midst of a very fast era of media communication. Here, social media has created an important place for itself, in between electronic and print media. But, people are not seeing science as popular tool even today.
At present, there are a number of science magazines which are available to readers across the nation. Some of these are:
1. “Resonance” by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc)
2. “Science Reporter” by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)
4. “Science Festival”
5. “Current Science”
6. “Dream 2047” by Vigyan Prasar
7. “Safari Magazine”
But, the state of science communication in all three formats of media (print, electronic and social) is very gloomy and pathetic. The popularisation of science is vital to addressing the ill effects of the enormous number of superstitions in this country. On the other hand, a strong science communication system can lead to meaningful public debates where scientific values are grasped by the masses easily. This trend has a potential to make science open and accessible to public.
As a nation, we should have-
1. An Indian science channel, which will watch and spread awareness on the ongoing developments in the field of science.
2. An annual science festival which should have the backing of the government and different science organisations.
3. Science parks, museums and planetariums. In my opinion, these should become mandatory for every state in India, since they will act as bridges between the scientific community, the masses, the media and the government.
4. Educational career programmes on science communication. These must also be prioritised by the government.
After independence, India has seen some bright ‘science communicators’ such as Satyendranath Bose, Meghnad Saha, CV Raman, Jagjit Singh and JBS Haldane. In recent years, eminent scientists like Jayant V Narlikar, Yash Pal, PM Bhargava have been popularising science through their articles, lectures, science fiction books, etc. All these individuals and their efforts highlight the message that scientific temper has more to do with the method of science and the process of scientific enterprise.
Science is more than just a subject. Parallel to science education, science literacy has a significant dual role to play. One, it needs to percolate into the minds of our citizens – as a way to lead life based on questioning, experimenting, observing and drawing inferences. Secondly, it needs to make people realise that science has a significant role in shaping our society by offering solutions to various existing crises.