How can science reach the masses

Narinder Singh Sumbria
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. The idea how 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 is a serious challenge in modern context. 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 as people no longer rely on print material as their only source of information. For this reason, myself aims to encourage the editors of newspapers and magazines to regularly feature a science column. It also hopes to increase the readership of popular science magazines, for example by making them available through digital media. In addition, publications must cater to India’s many languages.
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 74 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.
In an ideal world science communication activities would be widespread right down to the village level. In order to create awareness among illiterates or the newly literate — and to maintain the knowledge they acquire — folk forms must be used more frequently. In this way, superstitious beliefs could be wiped from society and a scientific environment created even at the grassroots level. 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.
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. 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. 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, media-persons, producers, and media organisations interested in science coverage. 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.
(The author is a JKAS officer posted as Treasury officer Banihal)