For the past two decades or so, science communication activities have gained momentum in India. Efforts have been made from both governmental and non-governmental platforms to enhance the public understanding of science. The idea is 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.
The Historical Context
India has an impressive scientific heritage. Scientific research–in fields such as mathematics, astronomy, medicine and material science–has been carried out in the Indian sub-continent since ancient times. However, a remarkable gap has persisted between this scientific knowledge and the ‘common’ man and woman and, until recently, almost no effort has been made to bridge this gap.
Throughout history, there have been attempts to take science to the common people. For example, Vigyan (Science)–a monthly popular science magazine in Hindi–has been published by Vigyan Parishad (a learned society of scientists and academics) since 1915.
Following Independence in 1947, the first Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, introduced the concept of modern ‘scientific temper’–a phrase taken to mean an enquiring attitude and analytical approach that leads to rational thinking and the pursuit of truth without prejudice. Accordingly, the constitution of India has a special provision “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and spirit of enquiry”.
The Science Communication Movement in India
After Independence, a number of government agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) took their cue from the constitution and became involved in science popularisation. In this way, science communication was taken up at various levels, institutional as well as individual. Nehru was a major force behind this advancement of science in independent India. The National Institute of Science Communication (NISCOM)–previously the Publications and Information Directorate–began publishing of the Hindi popular science journal Vigyan Pragati (Progress in Science) in 1952. The Science Reporter (an English monthly) and Science Ki Dunia (an Urdu quarterly) followed soon after. Today, NISCOM also brings out 11 professional scientific journals and publishes various popular science books (often in Indian languages).
In 1980, science communication was given prominence in India’s sixth Five Year Plan, and two years later the National Council for Science and Technology Communication (NCSTC) was established. The Council has a mandate to integrate, coordinate, catalyse and support science communication and popularisation, at the micro as well as macro level. NCSTC’s programmes include training in science and technology communication, software development, research, field-based projects, and creating information networks and databases.
Other Indian government initiatives include Vigyan Prasar –an autonomous organisation of the Department of Science and Technology set up in 1989–which plays an important role in coordinating efforts among various scientific institutions, educational and academic bodies, laboratories, museums, industry and other organisations for the effective exchange and dissemination of scientific information.
Vigyan Prasar also develops and disseminates software materials and organises popular science events including workshops, debates and lectures.
The National Council of Science Museums, based in Calcutta, is the coordinating body of 26 science museums and science centres across the country. Several NGOs have also pursued science communication programmes. The Indian Science Writers’ Association (ISWA), for example, was founded in 1985 with a view to developing and nurturing the science writing profession in India. ISWA also works with government agencies and NGOs in promoting science communication activities.
Present Challenges and Visions for the Future
Although much has been achieved in India, there is still an urgent need to make science communication activities more effective, both in terms of quality and quantity. We have yet to make a dent in wiping out superstitions that have prevailed throughout the ages, particularly in tribal areas where literacy levels are low and superstition is a way of life. Also, the general public is still largely ignorant about common scientific principles, such as the fact that the Earth orbits the Sun.
Science is not succeeding in attracting mass media interest. It rarely appears as a lead story, as editors and reporters do not consider science to be ‘news’ in the normal sense. On average, science only accounts for around three per cent of coverage by India’s mass media. Additionally, readership of popular science magazines has declined–people no longer rely on print material as their only source of information.
For this reason, the I n d i a n S c i e n c e Writers’ Association aims to encourage the editors of newspapers and magazines to regularly feature a science column. It also hopes to increase the readership of p o p u l a r s c i e n c e m a g a z i n e s, f o r example by making them available through digital media. In addition, publications must cater to India’s many languages.
It is encouraging that radio, which is extremely popular in rural areas, has an increasing amount of scientific content. Television is following a similar pattern, with a few special channels on science and technology, and other channels featuring scientific discussions and interviews of scientists about their research. But it hasn’t yet reached a satisfactory level as far as science communication is concerned.
There is no doubt that scientific information is becoming an essential and integral part of people’s daily lives. Present and future science communication efforts have great potential in shaping the lives of the people and making their decisions more informative and rational.
However, illiteracy and ignorance are major challenges. While literacy levels are increasing (currently estimated at 40 per cent of the population), scientific literacy is still drastically low. Given India’s large population, limited resources and multitude of languages, mass science education faces particularly great challenges. There have been efforts to popularise science through our 18 regional languages, for example by producing some scientific publications in vernaculars and translating certain television and radio programmes. But without more attention on local languages, much of the population will miss out on science communication efforts.
Training Science Communicators
Science writing still tends to be dry and boring, making it unsurprising that few science articles interest newspapers and magazines. The number of capable science communicators and voluntary scientific organisations is alarmingly low and hardly sufficient to cater to the country’s large and diverse population.
That said, a number of science communicators are being trained through postgraduate degree and diploma courses in science communication, and short-term science writing and journalism workshops.
The way that scientific information is presented in the media needs to undergo a metamorphosis, with a new generation of the science writers and journalists presenting useful science in an interesting and innovative manner. For example, a science and technology news and features pool could be formed to allow writers and journalists to exchange information on scientific research and developments.
Most importantly, science communication activities must be conducted and governed in a systematically planned manner, under one umbrella organisation, and according to a properly defined national policy.
To an extent this issue is already being addressed. An All India People’s Science Network was created in the late 1980s, with 27 constituent voluntary organisations. The NCSTC Network started in 1991 with the objective of taking science popularisation activities to all the corners of the country. Presently it has around 100 members, including NGOs and government organisations. NCSTC has also started a countrywide project to compile information on science communication software, hardware, ‘humanware’ and agencies to facilitate further networking.
But the formation of networks of organisations alone is not sufficient. A suitable mechanism must be evolved to ensure we work together in a more cohesive manner.
I would also argue that we need a formal Science Media Network. In fact, moves have already been made towards a national database of science editors, writers, journalists, columnists, translators, ‘scientoonists’, illustrators, mediapersons, producers, and media organisations interested in science coverage.
Following the industrial revolution in western countries, the level of science communication activities increased dramatically. In some ways, India is presently passing through a similar stage. As technology advances, the need for scientific information will also increase. Accordingly, an industrial India should soon witness a similar increase in science communication and popularisation. Indeed, the success of the information technology industry is proof of a growing scientific awareness in India.
India has undertaken a large number of science communication initiatives, and has sometimes led the way in innovative approaches. However, we should also be open to new ideas, methodologies and programmes available in other parts of the world, and similarly share with others the successful strategies we have employed.
As far as science writing and journalism are concerned, there is ample scope for furthering such efforts in developing countries. India could take the initiative in mobilising likeminded people in South Asia to form Science Writers’ and Journalists’ Associations in each country, ideally with help from international organisations.
The science communication scenario of our dreams is not unobtainable. Rather, it is based on technologies available today, which can be better utilised to carry scientific messages to the people. I believe that science communication in India has a bright future.
Dr. Manoj Patairiya
(Writer is Director of National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources (NISCAIR), Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR), (Ministry of Science & Technology, Govt. of India), New Delhi)
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