Science Communication: A Discipline for Academic Study and Research

Science and Technology communication is gaining great recognition as an area of study, research and policy. This is evident in the large number of communication programmes proposed and delivered through various ministries engaged in related areas, with a special focus on citizen engagement. Commonly science communication is for the benefit of public, pertains to presenting science-related topics to non-experts, using different media. In the Indian context, science communication covers a wide range of activities to promote scientific temper. It is about, “bringing science close to people, a n d t o p r omo t e p u b l i c understanding of science”. Operationally world over S&T communication is no more an area of practice devoid of academic rigour. It is emerging as a specialized area with its own frameworks of academic inquiry as well.

Short term and long term courses are offered at various levels in many universities and related institution shelping the emergence of a class of professionals. T h e s e professionals are oriented to communication theories and practices in addition to related research methodologies. However, the debate about the status of science communication as an independent discipline or as an extension of media/communication studies is still on. It is also about this activity occupying a space left vacant by such other fields as social sciences as sociology, psychology, political science or policy analysis.

Science Communication

Science communication is an area of study, research, activity and policy. One of its manifestations is science popularization. This is about public communication presenting science-related topics to non-experts, using several media. Many attempts have been made by scholars to define and give an operational meaning to this term “Science Communication”. As per the UNESCO’s (1999) perspective, communicating science for the public means making complex ideas and concepts simpler, and creating tools to interest public without modifying scientific truth. In western literature, many terms, specially for research, have been used i.e. “public awareness of science” “public understanding of science (PUS)”, “public understanding of science and technology (PCST)”, “public engagement with science and technology (PEST)” or “public appreciation of science”.

According to Rober et al, Bholaetal (1989), “popularization” can be interpreted in two ways. It could mean the spread of knowledge in science and technology to citizens to bridge the growing gap between society at large and the world of science. It could also mean the acquisition of new science and technology for improving one’s social and economic life. Examples of the former are knowledge about clean water and environmental sanitation, or about astronauts and space ships usually provided in science museums. Example of the latter is the understanding of new fertilizers in the rural area or the ability to master a computer in an urban setting.

Indian Perspective of Science Communication

Indian history of S&T communication appears to have originated in the pre-independence period with roots in national movement. The conceptual framework of science communication, especially in the past 25 years, has been influenced by many historical, social, cultural and political considerations. This deliberation is reflected in India’s Constitution through the provision [Article 51A (h)] and S&T polices formulated periodically in India. This extends to the latest STI Policy 2013. The latter has set a robust premise for Science communication in India. The primary focus of S&T Communication is “to help science and scientific culture penetrate in India’s diverse society, and transform it into a nation of scientifically thinking” and attitudinally rational people. This article discusses the framework of S&T communication as a discipline with academic rigour. It also discusses the road map for consolidation based on the rudiments of such a framework evident from the spread of depth of initiatives in progress of India.

 Science Communication as an Academic Discipline

The evolution of Science Communication as a discipline was started in the United States and Europe as sociology of science. Bucchi in his book Science in Society: an introduction to Social Studies (2004) noted that “sociology discovered science as a specific object of inquiry, s ome w h a t b e l a t e d l y. Although the first studies were produced in the late 1940s it was only in 1978 that far instance, the Association of America Sociologists created a section devoted to the sociology of science. In 1976, the Journal “Science Studies” changed its name to “Social Studies of Science” and thus become the first specialized journal in this disciplinary area”. Since then the discipline is flourishing. Debates on “whether science communication has become an established field of enquiry or an independent academic discipline?” and the extent to which it differs from the academics of public understanding of science however continue.

Science communication, by many scholars, is considered to be merely a sub discipline of media studies, sociology of science and history of science as it has barrowed to a greater or lesser extent from sociology, psychology, political science, communication studies and policy analysis. Even those who presumed it not an independent academic discipline, cannot ignore the fact that it has produced a cluster of coherent and related research over the last 60 years, no doubt with strong roots from other disciplines. One may also characterize the area as bringing together relevant theoretical constructs from a variety of discipline in improving the understanding of contemporary problems.

Debates are on about the elements that must be present to constitute a legitimate disciplinary field. Among such elements are the presence of a community of scholars; a tradition of history of inquiry; that defines how data are collected and interpreted, as well as defining the requirement for what constitute new knowledge; and the existence of a communication of network. But the fact which cannot be ignored is that there are many dedicated research journals on the subject. Off late, the market of science communication books has become quite lively as remarked (Pedro Russo2010) by a reviewer that “More and more books on science communication are reaching to market”.

In parallel with structuring of the research field, formal training in science communication at university level began to take shape in the 1980s with career possibilities ranging from communication manager, public relation officer in research organizations, science writing, science journalism, employment in museums etc. At present science communication courses are offered in many countries including USA, UK, Spain, Korea, China, India, Italy, and Germany, at the undergraduate, postgraduate, and degree and diploma levels. Research is also b e i n g c o n d u c t e d o n communication models; and approaches and strategies are proposed and tested in the field of science communication. Though there is a great deal of diversity in the structure and c u r r i c u l a o f s c i e n c e communication programme and of course, this feature is benefitting this discipline of study and research.

At present, there is an international PCST-Network which was conceived in1989. This is a global community of researchers, practitioners, science journalists providing an opportunity to researchers to discuss their work with practitioners. Recently the 13th PCST 2014 Conference held in Brazil was attended by more than 800 delegates representing more than 44 countries which attracted 559 abstracts.

In view of above discussion, it is clear that science communication as an object of study and research is well understood and widespread throughout the world, though still borrowing heavily from other disciplines.

Though, the work of science communication is being carried out word-wide, recorded research in scholarly journals isvery limited. In fact, the numbers of dedicated journals itself are also very limited. It has been observed that majority of studies were in the form of large scale surveys and conducted with a particular administrative agenda with a particular research protocol. Interestingly, academic discussions of public understanding of science are reviewed increasingly, across the world but seem to be influenced greatly by the American and the British experience of over the past 25+ years. In such studies, majority of research are of quantitative in nature, measuring people’s scientific literacy, attitude and appreciation for science by employing large scale surveys.

Science Communication in India

India has a long tradition and history of education and training in pure and applied sciences, dating back to over 2600 years, especially in the field of mathematics, astronomy, surgery and metallurgy. Initial efforts to communicate modern ideas of science originated in the west, were made an inroad during the latter half of the nineteen century.

A number of coalitions and some individuals in different parts of the country tried to popularize science through lectures and publication of books, magazines in vernaculars. Interestingly, Science communication in India has its origin in the scientific renaissance in the late nineteenth century in West Bengal and Punjab. West Bengal owed it to the efforts of Mahendra Lal Sarkar, Fr. Eugene LaFont, P.C. Ray, Ashutosh Mukherjee, and Jagdish Chandra Bose through the establishment of the Indian Association for cultivation of Science. Association put in efforts to take science to the people through public lectures and exhibitions. Around the same time in Punjab, Ruchiram Sahni initiated a movement to take science to the people in Punjab by organizing public lectures. The tradition of science communication started during this period has assumed a dimension of people science movement today.

The evolution of science communication, as finally emerged in India over the past 25 years, has been influenced by so many historical, social, cultural and political considerations. Its genesis can be traced at two levels. Firstly it was as an initiative to fight the colonial exploitation, and after independence, to cultivate scientific temper. The society, at that time was seen by elites educated in modern western science, as steeped in obscurantism, superstitions and native culture lacking rational thoughts. In the post-independence period, in view of adoption of scienticism as the dominant ideology for national reconstruction, science was idolized as the panacea of all ills of underdevelopment and people’s backwardness. Science communication is emerged as the invaluable vehicle for a rapid and complete scienticization of the people at large. Thus, to transform India socially and economically, the eradication of superstitions was seen as a paramount task, hence, the inculcation, nurturing and promoting scientific temper, the term coined by Nehru (Discovery of India), became the national ethos and the hallmark of nation building of modern India. The concern for the same was reflected in the constitutional provision (Article 51A (h) and the S&T policies formulated in India. Indian Constitution reads as, “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform” (One of the fundamental duties under Constitution of India).

The Indian Parliament passed the resolution on in 1958, which was to become the guiding force in shaping Indian Science and Technology. It laid a special emphasis on cultivation of scientific temper among the common people. During the mid 1990s and onwards, it was become very clear to our political leadership, policy makers and planners that “people cannot play the role of global citizen in the era of globalization and liberalization, if they are not scientifically literate and attitudinally rational”. These concerns were reflected prominently in S&T Policy (2003) and then in the latest Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (STI) 2013.

National campaign to built and maintains the bridge between science and the people are now more frequent and effective in science communication. A series of such examples are Bhart Jana Vigyan Jattha (1987) and Bharat Jana Gyan Vigyan Samiti, programmes built around the natural phenomena (Total Solar Eclipses, Transit of Venus 2004, 2012 etc), Year of Scientific Awareness-2004, Vigyan Rail/Science Express (Science Exhibition on Wheels), Year of Planet Earth (2008), International Year of Astronomy (2009), Year of Biodiversity (2010).

These largely participatory activities are built around celestial events (Eclipse, transit of Planets etc), low-cost/nocost models, teaching aids and toys, training modules for supplement formal science education, S&T for visually challenged, and networking of Govt./Non Govt. organizations for S&T communications. The National Children’s Science Congress, first of its kind and unparallel in the world of science, is being organized by the NCSTC, for the last eighteen years in the country. This unique programme has already caught the imagination of a few Western and West Asian countries. In this programme, some 6,00,000 children participate every year. The Vigyan Prasar Network (VIPNET) of Science Clubs – mostly in rural areas, with nearly 12,000 member clubs as of today, has laid the foundations of a national science club movement. The Ministry of Environment and Forests have also established a countrywide network of Eco-clubs established to spread awareness about conservation of environment, biodiversity and sustainable development. Besides that, many state level network and organization are playing a very important role by taking up local science issues.

Research Trends in Science Communication

In 1950s, first survey for measuring attitude towards science and scientists was conducted in the USA. Since 1970s, many countries have undertaken audits of adult scientific literacy like US, Canada, China, Brazil, India, Korea, Japan, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Singapore, Britain, Germany and France and many other EU countries. In 1991, in India first study on scientific literacy was taken up in Kumbh Mela in Allahabad (Bhattacharya 1983) by CSIR and NCSTC (Department of Science and Technology). This was followed by a series of studies during Ardha Kumbh and Kumbh in 1995, 2001 and 2007. The India Science Report 2005 (Dr. Rajesh Shukla) was another effort of its kind, to present the state of science and technology in quantitative terms. The report also gave an insight about public understanding of science or science communication. It draws very interesting inferences as regards public attitude towards S&T. As per this report, over three fourths of the public feel that S&T is important for education; and believe that S&T makes lives healthier and more comfortable.

As the concluding note we can say that the role of science communication is very significant in human society. For this point of view, the study and research in this discipline is essential for the socio-economic upliftment. Unless the existence of rational mindset among the citizens, no development can be achieved and science communication is that area of study which nurtures the attributes of scientific attitude and rational thinking.


Brinder Kumar Tyagi
(Writer is Scientist-E, Vigyan Prasar, Noida)

Vimla Bhatt
(Writer is Freelance Translator of Popular Science Content

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